By Chris Bulfinch ’18
Students trickled into the LSC in knots on Tuesday night, some chatting among friends, others conversing with the many faculty, staff, and Hartford community members who were also streaming into the lecture hall on the first floor of the Brutalist building. Standing near the lecturer’s podium was Sut Jhally, whose film “Occupation of the American Mind” was the focal point for the event. Speaking with Jhally was Mohammed Amaren, ’16, founder and President of Students for Justice in Palestine, a new organization whose first event was the screening of Jhally’s film.
Professor Jhally, commenced his lecture by speaking of his work as a Professor of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he found his inspiration for producing “Occupation of the American Mind,” a film that discusses the American media’s portrayal of the creation and ongoing conflict surrounding the State of Israel. Professor Jhally explained that in a class on media and propaganda that he had taught over a number of years, he asked a question of all of his students to identify which of four countries was occupying another country’s territory in the Middle East; Israel and Palestine were on the list, alongside two countries unrelated to the conflict. Between 58% and 63% of students in Jhally’s classes over the years believed that Palestine was occupying another nation’s territory. This trend convinced Professor Jhally that Israel was waging “the most successful PR campaign ever,” a campaign that necessitated the creation of a film to offer a counter-narrative to challenge that of the United States’ media. This desire resulted in “Occupation of the American Mind,” which argues that the narrative surrounding Israel in the United States is overwhelmingly positive because of the influence of a powerful Israeli lobby that has worked assiduously to cast Israel as a lone underdog democracy and its action as noble self-defense.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a club that is new to Trinity this year, having been granted club status by Trinity’s Student Government Association (SGA) in the fall of 2015. There is a nationwide SJP organization that supports boycotts and divestment from companies that do business with Israel. Advised by International Studies Professor Vijay Prashad The purpose of Trinity’s SJP is, in the words of Amaren, “start a discussion about life under the Israeli occupation,” and to “educate people about the matter, about the occupation and the violation of human rights that occur in the west bank and Gaza, as well as Palestinians who live in Israel.” A Palestinian himself, Amaren stated that the larger aim of the organization is to have people “acknowledge the humanity of other people irrespective of ethnicity, nationality, or religion,” The current state of affairs, contends Amaren, is that under the current circumstances of the Israeli occupation, “animals have more rights than I do.”
The film, “Occupation of the American Mind” made the argument that American public opinion is biased strongly towards Israel because the American media is influenced strongly by a public relations arm of the Israeli government that is tantamount to a propaganda mill. The film, which includes commentary from eminent journalists, political actors, and political scientists, ranging from Noam Chomsky to Mark Crispin Miller, and Professor Jhally himself pushes for a more robust and varied dialogue about Israel and Palestine, and expresses hope that the American media will present different narratives in regards to Israel and Palestine, arguing that American public opinion has great bearing on the interaction between the two parties.
A question and answer session followed the film, where Jhally took questions from Trinity students, faculty, and members of the Hartford community. A number of interesting talking points were raised; Jhally noted that the film, among many other factors had started to “humanize Palestinians in mainstream political discourse.” When a question arose as to how to avoid having a discussion questioning Zionism conflated with anti-Semitism, an audience member, who claimed to be Jewish, spoke up, arguing that Jewish values would embrace an alternative narrative about the tensions between Israel and Palestine and their portrayal in US media; Professor Jhally echoed these sentiments. The Tripod reached out to Professor Jhally for additional comment about the event and received no response.
When asked about pushback from students or others on campus, Amaren responded that he had received positive feedback, that “no one was personally attacked,” and that “people left in a good state of mind.” Susan Garvey, an IDP student and a passionate member of SJP, spoke on how allegations had been made that SJP was constitutive of a hate group, allegation that she took issue with; “you shouldn’t to be afraid that because you’re in a student club, that people will call you a hate group,” said Garvey. Garvey further expounded her willingness and desire to question her nation’s Amaren himself noted that no one at the event had appeared to be upset, and that no one had spoken to him about being significantly hurt by the film or discussion. One older gentleman in the audience at the event went to far as to say that it felt as though Jhally and SJP were “preaching to the converted.”
Lisa Kassow, Director of Trinity’s Zachs Hillel House, has asserted that two Jewish students went to Hillel after attending the film screening in considerable distress as a result of the messages of the film and discussion. Jacqueline Kromash, ’19, a student who is “pretty active” in Jewish life on Trinity’s campus, states that she felt “nervous and… uneasy,” at the event, as though “there was a neon sign above my [her] head.” Kromash did acknowledge that “a lot of what was said was valid and true,” saying that “the American media is undoubtedly biased,” but simultaneously said “this film was also incredibly biased, towards a different side.” Additionally, a number of Jewish students who did not attend the film privately expressed displeasure about the film screening.
SJP introduced what will surely be a fascinating discussion to Trinity’s campus with their first event. Whatever the viewer’s opinion on the veracity of the arguments in “Occupation of the American Mind,” it is a challenging film that questions many facets of the American perception of the tensions between Israel and Palestine. SJP’s stated goal of “[making] people aware that there’s a different narrative about the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” was certainly accomplished.
Moving forward, Amaren says that the group hopes to have more movies and discussions, in addition to more speakers, though he mentions that additional programming is still very much a work in progress. With Tuesday’s film screening, Trinity joined the ranks of the myriad other colleges to have SJP groups, and Trinity’s chapter seems poised to introduce a robust, if contentious, contribution to the wide-ranging discourse on tensions in Israel and Palestine.