Lecture on Palestinian Diaspora Draws Attention to Student Calls for University Engagement

Dr. Karam Dana presents research for his upcoming book at "Palestine Beyond Borders" lecture. Credit: Nainoa Ohata // ASUPS Photo Services

By Erin Hurley and Tate DeCarlo

On Monday, Jan. 22, University of Puget Sound students flooded Schneebeck Auditorium to attend a lecture by Dr. Karam Dana titled “Palestine Beyond Borders: Transnational Resistance and the Evolution of Solidarity in the U.S.” Dana is the Alyson McGregor Distinguished Professor of Excellence & Transformative Research at the University of Washington-Bothell, and his research on the public perception of Islam in the U.S. is transformative in the field. Dana’s presentation focused on the noticeable shift of U.S. public sympathy for Palestinians in the wake of the conflict’s most recent events, drawing on both his professional research for his upcoming book and childhood anecdotes growing up in the West Bank.

  Dana’s lecture was a pertinent event given mounting student frustrations regarding the University’s dissatisfactory engagement with the war in Gaza. Chloe Montoya (‘24), a member of the Coalition for Multiracial and Biracial Students (COMBS), says that the institution’s failure to facilitate dialogue and create space and resources for students left many disheartened last semester. “I think what was making everybody the most upset is that there were a lot of just people on campus who were really hurting and really upset, and everyone just felt kind of very unsupported by the University,” Montoya said. 

  Until this lecture, nearly all on-campus engagement with the conflict had been spearheaded by the Middle Eastern and North African student association (MENA) with additional support from COMBS, aside from a few smaller talks. On November 29, 2023, a Vigil for Palestine was held in the commencement circle, at which MENA members spoke and honored Palestinian martyrs alongside Sam Kigar, a professor in the Religion, Spirituality, & Society department. Students gathered to listen to speeches, light candles and memorialize the many Palestinians killed. 

 Dana began the lecture by recounting the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, emphasizing European influence and partition plans at its root. Dana then discussed transnational Palestinian identity – given that nearly 66% of Palestinians have been displaced from their home country – and the diaspora’s sense of linked fate. Despite the divisiveness of this conflict and Western stereotyping of Arab countries, Palestinians continue to share personal narratives and use nonviolent practices like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement – which advocates for the Palestinian cause by targeting select companies that are supporters of Israel – to bring global awareness to the conflict. “The tools of activism and the democratization of media are changing,” Dana said. “Palestinians in exile have agency.”

  However, many in the campus community remain frustrated by the limited turnout to activist events and avoidance of discussion. This frustration is evident in multiple recent posts to the @upsmissedconnections Instagram account – a forum intended to facilitate anonymous student discourse – disparaging students and campus members who remain silent. One post read, “Why are we ignoring this genocide? Why aren’t we protesting?” Another post, which received over 400 likes and 23 comments, read, “To the extremely white student body: I better see Schneebeck packed with y’all on Monday at 5.” The anonymous submission continued: “Mondays [sic] your opportunity to learn. Slide or hide. & if you hide? Complicit.” A comment to that post took issue with relying on the talk, saying “if you are passionate about a problem you should do more than just go to seminars… [sic] you should be in the streets using your first amendment rights and posting on social media doesn’t count for that.”

   Nani Tafilele (‘25) is not hesitant to call out those ignoring the Israel-Palestine conflict. “I think that there is a huge absence, a deafening silence from the white community,” she said. She credits the enabling of this disengagement with behavior modeled by the University’s faculty and commends those like Professor Sam Kigar who have spoken out. “I remember at the vigil seeing Sam amongst like very few other professors, literally those professors were from the AFAM department, and so seeing this absence in institutional outrage is obviously going to trickle down to the student body. If the faculty don’t care, we’re not going to care either,” said Tafilele.

  Kigar co-organized the event alongside Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Gareth Barkin. In an email to The Trail, Kigar cautions against assumptions that hosting an event like Dana’s lecture at the University indicates sponsorship from the institution. “This was the work of two professors. We were fortunate to have support of the Provost’s Office and many other units and departments around campus; but that does not mean that it was a University sponsored event or represents the views of the University (or even the views of the organizers, for that matter),” he said. 

  Barkin sheds light on the difficult and thorough preparatory work required to host this lecture on our campus. “We spent time speaking and corresponding with every department, program, or university office we thought had a connection to the talk’s content, and I’m pleased to say that every department or office we asked agreed to co-sponsor the event, so we wound up with really widespread support. That made it clear that it wasn’t just the two of us — there was broad support for bringing Dr. Dana to campus. And because of how controversial discussions of Palestine and Palestinian people can be, I wanted to work with senior administration to ensure we had a safe and civil event,” he said. Additionally, Barkin felt “really moved” by the joint letter published by MENA and JSU in The Trail, and he “knew there was interest among our students in centering this conflict.”

  Montoya feels that Dana’s lecture was a step in the right direction, one that hopefully inspires more faculty to bring this conflict to the forefront of their discussions with students. They particularly appreciated that the University had chosen to spotlight a Palestinian voice and Dana’s firsthand knowledge. “I guess I think what the University had kind of been lacking was someone who was willing to step up and talk about their own experiences, and I feel like that is a really key way to have a better understanding. It feels more ‘okay, like there’s real people attached to this,’ not just numbers,” Montoya said.

  Dana emphasized the importance of personal narratives from Palestinians, citing them as one of the factors responsible for the drastic increase in Western attention toward Palestine since the most recent violence erupted in October. Dana explained that this shift also results from increased Jewish American and Israeli organizations in support of Palestine, solidarity between American Black and Indigenous activist movements and Palestinians, a decline in churchgoing and religious involvement in the U.S., and increased police mobilization and surveillance in post-9/11 America. 

  The lecture ended with a Q&A in which Dana fielded student questions from the audience. In his thorough answers to concerns about the future, Dana expressed his belief that open dialogue and collaboration are required to find resolution, explaining the separation of Palestinian and Israeli people enables a division of cultures resulting in unfamiliarity and hate. “How do we think about the difficult conversations, how do we learn from them, and move forward centering the question of justice?” Dana said. “I want to highlight the significance of finding our common humanity.”

  Lisa Nunn, a professor of Economics and International Political Economy, believes that this presentation has helped promote critical and empathic understanding in and outside the classroom. “It promotes the discourse as rational, compassionate, and open,” she said. The opportunity to engage in scholarship and gain a Palestinian-American perspective is invaluable, and in order for this conversation to flourish, Nunn adds, “I think it would probably be useful to have an ongoing series of talks with various scholars, and I think this is a good first step.” 

  University Chaplain Dave Wright articulated his hope for Dana’s presentation to allow students to speak about the conflict on campus more confidently and informatively in an email to The Trail. “I hope that opportunities like some of the faculty programs offered in October and November, and lectures like Dr. Dana’s help build a greater breadth of literacy about Palestine and better equip a broader range of campus members to engage the current (and historic) violence more deeply,” he said.

  Kigar highlights that, though this lecture brought perspective valuable to understanding the conflict’s global ramifications, Dana’s emphasis on his own research may leave other questions about the conflict unanswered, warranting further lectures. “Dr. Dana focused on his fascinating and important book project. He intentionally did not focus on the events of the last three months. It will take a different sort of deep analysis to understand what has been/is being destroyed over these months. I hope people continue to come out and engage with a range of activities and conversations,” he said.

  While some may have hoped to hear more about Dana’s experiences growing up in the West Bank, Barkin reminds attendees of the topicality of Dana’s work. “I don’t know if that’s what everyone was looking for, but I do think it’s extremely valuable to hear, for example, about his public opinion research and what it portends for the possibility of peace in the region,” he explains.   

  Tafilele, who is glad that the lecture has opened further dialogue, was nonetheless disappointed by the composition of the audience. “I do wish there were more, pleased to see the building so filled that there were not enough seats for the attendees, still discouraged and saddened that the white population was not consuming that room as it should have,” she said. “If this institution is predominantly white, then Schneebeck Hall should have been predominantly white. And what I saw with my own eyes was half and half – granted I was sitting in the front, maybe I didn’t look back enough – but everybody around us was pretty much a person of color, except for the woman who sat next to me.”

  Tafilele echoes Dana’s pro-dialogue sentiment in her call to ameliorate the divide in student activism. “I think the biggest disconnect or misunderstanding with communities on campus, especially the white community, not understanding how this is about race or how they have anything to do with this is just a misunderstanding,” she said. “I do think that as a campus, we can take care of each other, we just have to choose collectively to do so.”

  Montoya urges white students to take more initiative with their participation in activism for Palestinians. “The hard part is like, it is one of those things where you can’t just wait for somebody to come to you for you to do something, you know? It has to be like, you have to want to do something,” they said. Montoya emphasizes that facilitating dialogue between campus groups is challenging without accountability and equal effort from all sides. They said, “It is frustrating too because you know, you don’t want it to just be the POC who are caring and who are also carrying everything that’s happening because it’s hard enough but sometimes, it feels like you’re yelling at a brick wall.”

  Building on Dana’s discussion of transnationality and activism in the face of geographic distance, Montoya reminds students of the tangible impact of their efforts. “It’s not something that’s just over there, something that’s foreign,” they said. “Your voices are important and, not that we’re gonna solve this overnight, but we can help is the thing I think that people forget, and we are stronger in numbers like always.”

  Montoya reminds the University that, though this lecture provided for education and attention, engagement with the war in Gaza is not simply a box to be checked. They explain that the next steps look like “hopefully keeping this sort of momentum going and not letting it just be like ‘we did this thing and now it’s over,’ like pat on the back. I would love the University to be more vocal.” Besides the Provost’s email regarding the event, the University has made no public comment on the conflict since their Nov. 17 statement, published on The Trail’s website

  Kigar emphasizes that his work to create spaces for dialogue will continue. “To me, this was one of several events I have participated in and will participate in. It was a powerful addition to an ongoing conversation that I want to be a part of and to foster; but it was not the first or last such event,” he said. 

  As the war in Gaza continues and conversations regarding its implications increase on campus, Tafilele shares her mantra to students continuing to avoid acknowledgment of their implication, whether they recognize it or not. “I’ll always remind myself how my comfort is contingent on the discomfort of someone else across the world,” she said.