Sixty years ago, modern Israel was established by the United Nations, creating an ethnically Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world.Temple’s Students for Justice in Palestine marked the 60th anniversary by hosting a week of events to promote awareness of the ongoing humanitarian crisis that has plagued the region.
In response to the anniversary, the group hosted “Palestine Week,” a series of presentations and discussions intended to educate students about the millions of Palestinian refugees that have been displaced since the creation of Israel in 1948.
“Our main goal is to educate and mobilize the Temple community to be supportive of the Palestinian people in their pursuit of peace and justice,” said Jacob Winterstein, a leader of SJP.
Tensions usually run high when conversation turns to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Members of SJP said they hope that the week’s events will help improve understanding of the issue while moving past the cultural and political divisions that have made progress elusive.
Hannah Mermelstein spoke to students as part of Palestine Week. She is the co-founder and director of Birthright Unplugged, an organization that facilitates trips to Israel for North Americans primarily of Jewish backgrounds.
The organization usually takes about 40 students every year, making two trips in the summer and two in winter, Mermelstein said.
The organization also runs the Replugged program, which takes Palestinian children living in refugee camps into Palestine to visit the sites of their grandparents’ former villages, a trip they will not be permitted to make after they turn 16.
Adult Palestinians living outside the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are not allowed to enter without special permits. This keeps millions of people from visiting lands that their ancestors had occupied for hundreds of years, Mermelstein said.
Palestinian children aren’t issued identification cards until they are 16, and until then are permitted to pass through Israeli checkpoints with the Mermelstein and the Replugged organizers.
“We, as foreigners, are able to chaperone them, to facilitate this trip that their parents and grandparents should be able to do but aren’t allowed,” Mermelstein said.
Each child is given a digital camera to document the trip, allowing them to share photos of the experience with relatives back in refugee camps who are legally barred from visiting the area.
Mermelstein said this restriction is a violation of international law, which grants all displaced refugees the right of return to their homeland.
“It’s not just Palestinian refugees. All refugees in the world have this right guaranteed by international law to be able to go back to where they are from,” she said.
The United Nations estimates the number of Palestinian refugees at more than 4 million. They live in camps spread across the region, primarily in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Many have also fled to the neighboring nations of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.
Two-thirds of the Palestinian population is classified as refugees. The camps were originally thought to be a temporary situation, but, 60 years later, remain the permanent home to three generations of displaced Palestinians.
Michael Price can be reached at email@example.com.