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Students at Palestine event: We need more historical insight and facts

Middle East — About 75 people had made their way to CSS campus on Monday to hear associate professor emeritus Jørgen Bæk Simonsen lecture on Palestinian history. »Don't ask Google, ask me,« he said at the event that was organized by Students against the Occupation.

How do you summarize the world’s most complicated conflict. How do you recapitulate the global threads of its history, religion, and ethnicity — threads that are yet again relevant after the 7 October terrorist attack on Israel?

Associate professor emeritus Jørgen Bæk Simonsen did just that in front of about 75 people at the research collective at CSS campus. Most people had turned up to learn more about the conflict that is unfolding before everyone’s eyes in the Middle East right now. It resulted in two and a half hours of speed talking, with an eager audience getting answers to all of the questions that, so far, have just been left hanging:

»Who is the indigenous Palestinian people?« »Who has the legitimate right to the area?«

»All of these delicate issues are lined up,« said Jørgen Bæk Simonsen at the beginning.

»But don’t ask Google, ask me,« he said. He is a history emeritus associate professor at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies and has been researching Arab and Islamic history for decades.

The programme was scheduled to last a couple of hours, but Jørgen Bæk Simonsen had to admit that time was running short. Some had to get up and leave earlier. Others lingered on, listening attentively to the slide presentation that, bit by bit, explained everything from the father of Zionism to the first and second Intifada. While the historical context was rolled out in reverse chronology, he looked ahead, and forward, past the present political situation.

Needs more balanced information

The University Post contacted the organisers to find out why they had organized the event.

»We are holding the event because we see that many students and staff are showing an interest in what is happening in Palestine and Israel right now. We know that many find the conversation polarized, at the same time many people feel that they do not know enough to be able to take an active part in it,« says Olivia Zeboun from Student Against the Occupation.

Students against the Occupation want to contribute to a conversation about Palestine and Israel based on facts and history, she says. Ideally, students and staff should have the best possible starting point for taking part in a conversation, and for taking on the responsibility that the association believes students have.

Many people have experienced how the current dispute is not brought up in the teaching at university

Olivia Zeboun

»Many people have experienced that the current conflict is not brought up in the teaching at university, even though the curricula deal with many of the subjects at stake, including international law, human rights, colonialism and so on,« says Olivia Zeboun, who studies sociology.

READ ALSO: Students with Palestinian roots experience a »deafening silence« at university

Students Against the Occupation say that many people are frustrated by the war and that more are therefore seeking a community. They have generally seen an increasing interest in events and activities as well as ideas and initiatives from students outside their own movement.

»We sense that this is because students and staff are frustrated and angry about what we see unfolding in Palestine right now. But also about the silence and lack of action we see from the university. They feel that the university is not able to take on its responsibility or create a space for sharing information and context,« says Olivia Zeboun.

Why is the event important?

»We believe that it is our responsibility as students and staff at Danish universities to use the resources available at the university. For example, to listen to researchers who know a lot about these things and can enlighten us, while at the same time being critical of the interpretations of the situation we encounter in the mainstream media, which are often flawed or simplified,« says Zeboun.

No stupid questions

What do you hope to get out of Jørgen Bæk Simonsen’s talk?

»We hope that the event will give students answers to the questions that have arisen. We know that there is some fundamental historical knowledge that the students do not have, or cannot keep track of, if they have not studied the history of the Middle East,« says Olivia Zeboun.

Students against the Occupation have invited everyone, both those who know very little about Palestine and those who know a bit more about the history of the complicated conflict, and that perhaps have some more specific questions.

It’s easy to be emotionally affected personally, because the war has evolved to being so gruesome.

Yasmin Touzani

»The idea is that Jørgen’s presentation starts a conversation, and that there is the space for all kinds of questions. We hope that it can contribute to a healthy conversation both inside and outside the university’s framework, which is grounded in facts and history,” the organizer Olivia Zeboun concludes.

The break is skipped. The talk is going into overtime, and the dialogue is coming to an end. We ask a couple of participants what they will take home from the talk.

Yasmin Touzani, master’s degree student in anthropology

Why have you come today?

»I saw the post from Student Against the Occupation and thought that it was something for me. I also believe that it is just necessary to understand the historical context. That’s why it was important for me to come today.«

Why are you interested in this conflict?

»I am because it affects a huge number of people. We can’t just look on without taking action. I think the war is hugely unfair. That is why I try to do what I can to learn more. It is important that I understand the background to the arguments, because the debate becomes polarised very quickly. It’s easy to be emotionally affected personally, because the war has evolved to being so gruesome. I feel like this is something everyone should inform themselves about. And I feel that this type of event helps draw people’s attention to the war. This can mobilize more young people to actively speak out and boycott the occupying power.«

Sarah Hannah, master’s thesis student in political science and Middle Eastern studies

Why have you come here today?

»I came because I have not heard Jørgen Bæk Simonsen on the Middle East studies programme yet. And I’ve heard a lot of good things about his communication. I also often feel that I need more background to be able to discuss what is going on right now in Israel and Palestine. Particularly in the field of history. I am completely up to date with the current political situation, but I sometimes need a good overview, and the organizers said that we would get it. So it was clear to me that I needed to turn up.«

Why are you interested in this conflict?

»I live in Jordan, where a large proportion of the population identifies as Palestinian, so it takes up a lot of space in my daily life. It also takes up a lot of space among some of the people that are close to me, which is why I am very interested in it.«

Farah Kribii, master’s degree student of modern culture

Why are you here?

»Because I want to become more aware of what is going on in the world in the wake of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I came to the event because I would like to know how to deal with the situation: Is a two-state solution the way forward? I myself have a number of questions that are not answered in the media. We in the West are exposed to Western propaganda, where there are a lot of economic interests at play.

How has the presentation made you wiser?

»I’ve got a lot of historical perspective. Right now, it is primarily the political and ideological context that has been presented to me on a daily basis. But history is incredibly important. And I’m also very interested to hear from other participants, for example people with Palestinian roots, who are affected in a completely different way than me.«