Keene State College senior Hersch Rothmel is spearheading the effort to begin a chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace on campus. Jewish Voice for Peace is a national grassroots organization that seeks to raise awareness about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It advocates for human rights and amended U.S. policy in the region. The new student group held its first event last Tuesday, Oct. 14. The teach-in, focusing on Israel and Palestine, featured a number of speakers and was an impassioned and informative narrative. 

Aisha Mershani has a Ph.D in Peace, Development and Conflict Studies. Her talk focused on the Palestinian Civil Resistance against the Israeli apartheid wall and occupation of the West Bank, where she has worked as a photographer and solidarity activist since 2003.

Her photographs are expository, documenting popular resistance to the wall, daily life, interactions and landscapes in the region.

She started off the teach-in by explaining that American media does not show what is truly going on in Israel/Palestine and that as Americans we are brainwashed on this matter.

“The first misconception,” she explained, “Is that it’s not a conflict — it’s an occupation. Israel is occupying Palestinian lands.”

Focusing on the West Bank, Mershani’s presentation centered on what she considers the three most dangerous parts of the integrated system that Israel has been implementing in order to “control Palestinian movement and steal land.” These parts are the checkpoints, the tunnel roads and the apartheid wall.

“Inside the West Bank, a checkpoint is a station where Israeli soldiers check IDs of Palestinians before they are allowed to cross to other areas,” Mershani explained.

She explained how the checkpoints aren’t just how we would think of border checkpoints between nations, but checkpoints between villages.

A single village may become enclosed and isolated. A resident’s ability to leave is completely in the hands of Israeli soldiers.

Mershani explained, “What could be a five minute drive, turns into a four hour drive waiting in lines to be allowed to move from one village to the next even within the West Bank. This is a way for Israel to control and track Palestinian movement.”

Mershani also explained that flying checkpoints are often randomly put up along roadways.

All traffic becomes subject to inspection and often must wait hours in deadlock. College students trying to get to class are often forced to miss the classes they’re paying for.

She went on to explain the tunnel road system. The tunnel road system is an apartheid system of control, where a previously Palestinian road that runs from one village to the next has become illegal for Palestinians to travel on. These roads have been taken by the Israeli settlers and Palestinians must instead use separate underground tunnel roads that are constructed with the aid of the United States.

Speaking about the wall, Mershani explained that “the wall is one of the most strategic aspects of the current occupation.”

The wall is 439 miles long, twice as long as the armistice line. The wall stands taller than the Berlin Wall did, separating villages and sometimes even dividing individual towns.

Mershani displayed a photo of a little boy receiving money through a hole in the wall from a relative on the other side. Mershani said, “The child cannot be with this person, cannot touch this person, see this person. This person could very well be his grandmother. An entire family can be separated by the wall.”

In urban areas, the concrete wall rises 26 feet high. Mershani said, “To put this in context for here in Keene, imagine there was a twenty-six-foot high concrete wall enclosing this town and anytime you wanted to go to Brattleboro or Northampton, you just can’t, because this wall prohibits you from moving and if you do want to go you have to have a permit issued to go through a checkpoint.”

In rural areas, the wall consists of electric fences, ditches and razor wire. If you go too close, you are in danger of being shot. Signs at the fences in these rural areas read, “Mortal danger. Military zone. Any person who passes or damages the fence, endangers their life.”

Angela Scionti / Equinox Staff

Angela Scionti / Equinox Staff

Mershani displayed a photograph in a rural area, where the Israeli side of the wall is lush green with agriculture and the Palestinian side is a desert. She explained that this is because the Palestinians are not allowed to use their own water wells. The Israelis take the water from the Palestinian land and then sell it back to them at prices that make it nearly impossible to maintain farms.

Mohamad Barham is a Palestinian American who spoke on behalf of Students for Justice in Palestine, a new club at the University of Massachusetts. He lived in Palestine for ten years. He explained that the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely concentrated areas in the world. Before 2005 there was military occupation and Israel withdrew from Gaza, but they still have control over what goes in and out. Therefore, it is still technically under occupation.

After the Israeli military pulled out of Gaza, Hamas was democratically elected. Barham explained that in response to this there was an “Israeli siege against the Gaza Strip. People couldn’t come in and out. It was very difficult. Goods could not come in.” They were essentially cut off. He also explained that the Israeli government rations the amount of food that is shipped into Gaza.

Barham discussed the most recent 15 day conflict in Israel/Palestine that happened over the summer, starting on July 8. More than 2,000 Palestinians died in this conflict, 500 of which were children. Israel bombed U.N. schools and intentionally-targeted civilians. On the Israeli side, 73 were killed, 66 of which were soldiers.

Barham explained that, “Israel uses Palestinians to test their weapons, including the tear gas used in Ferguson.” Israel has used white phosphorous on Palestinian civilians, which is made of tiny metallic shards that burn hotter than regular bombs the way Napalm did in Vietnam. Barham said, “There is nobody to keep Israel in-check and they just keep attacking, but whenever Hamas attacks Israel, Israel can defend itself.”

Amanda Lundquist and Becca Abrams, both Hampshire College graduates, represented the Western Massachusetts chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. Lundquist is from a Jewish reform background, while Abrams did her final thesis on young American Jewish opinions on Zionism. She has lived in Israel twice and was raised Zionist.

Lundquist and Abrams explained how after WWII, Zionists encouraged massive immigration to Palestine, at that time a British colony. The U.N. offered the Jewish people the state of Israel.

They shared a video from their organization that explained, “Israel destroyed over four-hundred Palestinian villages and towns. At the end of the fighting Israel controlled seventy-eight percent of what was Palestine. When three quarters of a million [people] tried to return to their homes where the new state now stood, they were permanently barred from doing so.”

After two decades of U.S. backed peace talks, the situation between Israel and Palestine has actually gotten worse because these peace talks were more for show. Israel is the biggest recipient of U.S. aid in the world.

Lundquist and Abrams discussed how important education, divestment and boycotting are to the success of this movement. They explained that Hampshire College along with others have removed their investment funds from corporations that support the occupation.

An example they used to show this was the corporation Catepillar, whose bulldozers are used to demolish Palestinian homes and uproot Palestinian trees that are thousands of years old.

Lundquist, Abrams and Rothmel talked about the struggle that Jewish youth in the U.S. face by becoming anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli-occupation. Because the politics in most American synagogues is very pro-Israeli, people equate Zionism with being a “good Jew.” However, they also believe in the power that their voices hold. They talked about how they can see that using their Jewish identity can help Palestine. Abrams said of Israel, “It claims itself as a Jewish state, so for people who don’t know anything about this they would think Israel represents all Jews. It’s up to us then to say no it’s not true; not in our name. Israel is not my place, not my state and I do not condone the actions by the Israeli military or the government.”

Rothmel explained how there is a lot of propaganda within the general Jewish-American community. He said there is “much more institutional, systemic, racism and prejudice that has developed, from a lot of trauma, a lot of collective trauma. It’s really upsetting to see and it really affects the way we navigate this process because there is this assumption that there are these two equal sides, which couldn’t be farther from the truth and I think the dialogue really stops what we should actually be talking about because it assumes that there’s not a power relationship involved in this. It assumes that there’s not a more deeply-rooted systemic issue at play. Those need to be addressed and I think more Jewish youth will come to the process of really questioning what Zionism means and what it means to them.”

One community member at the teach-in said that she and her husband had attended the event because, “We are always continuing to expand our knowledge. We’re very fortunate to have a college in our community and we hope to see more community members along with the college students.”

Another community member questioned, “How we as citizens decide to get involved, decide to make the choice to think by ourselves? The excuses here in the U.S. are, ‘Oh I don’t understand,’ ‘Oh it’s so complicated,’ ‘Oh they are fighting since I don’t know when.’ And everything that looks white in this planet and clean and safe usually has economical support to excess, right? Like everything that sounds a little brown or not Christian is like lesser. What is new about colonization? There is no humanization about how people cross borders and how we build walls. It’s an old problem. We need now to be excited to take action.” When asked what she found most striking about the teach-in, a student responded, “I had some background knowledge, but didn’t realize the extent. I almost cried throughout this entire presentation. I’m not in an emotionally good place right now. It’s just a lot.” Tears clouded her eyes as she got up to leave.

Mershani ended by saying, “Once you know, you can’t un-know this.”

Jewish Voice for Peace, will be holding future events on campus, which are to be announced. One does not have to be Jewish to be a part of the movement.


Rose Lovett can be contacted at

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