StandWithUs brings Charlotte Korchak to UB to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Contentious debate gives both sides a chance to explain


UB students and professors yelled, interrupted each other and politely – and impolitely – disagreed Tuesday during a contentious debate about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Charlotte Korchak, a representative from pro-Israel group StandWithUs, began the discussion by invoking the moving image of four young Palestinian cousins who died when Israeli rockets hit them as they played on a Gaza beach in July. Images of the dead cousins galvanized the world and became a symbol of how Israeli aerial attacks in Gaza were inevitably killing civilians.

Korchak said she identified with the Palestinians, particularly the children who lived in fear as Israeli rockets hit Palestinian targets during a 51-day conflict in July and August.

“My heart broke this summer as the death toll in Gaza rose,” Korchak said.

Korchak also spoke about Israeli children living under terror.

Daniel Tragerman, a 4-year-old Israeli boy, lived in a “reality of terror” each day. Every day as bombs were dropped on his community, he is said to have told his family and friends once they were in a bomb shelter, “It’s OK, we’re safe now and we’re in the shelter.”

Some attendees at the event disagreed with the way Korchak presented the Palestinian side of the conflict.

James Holstun, an English professor at UB, said in an email that Korchak ignored “the freshly-dead 2,200 Palestinians who fell to Israeli bombs and missiles and bullets. Ms. Korchak began her talk emoting about how deeply she was affected by the deaths of four Palestinian boys on a Gaza beach. After her talk, I asked her if she knew the names of any one of them, or of a single other Palestinian victim of the massacre. She did not, but said it didn’t make any difference.”

These strong and divided opinions characterized the event as pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli attendees discussed and debated after Korchak’s presentation.

“Korchak was excellent at persuading the audience that Palestinian and Israeli life are equal while it’s quite evident that it is not,” said Manar Kustiro, a sophomore intended nursing major and the president of Students for Justice in Palestine, which is in pursuit of being a Student Association club. “She stated that there are extremists on both sides of the Israeli and Palestinian side, which I agree with, but I question why the whole Palestinian race is being generalized as terrorists, being occupied and deprived of their basic human rights from the Israeli occupation. Why do the safety and freedom of Israelis have to come at the price of the Palestinians?”

Kustiro has family in Eastern Jerusalem.

Korchak is the diaspora education coordinator for StandWithUs, an international non-profit pro-Israel education and advocacy group. She spoke to a crowd of about 40 students, professors and members of the community gathered in Cooke 121. She spoke about her experiences growing up in Israel during the second intifada and about her hopes for the future of Palestine and Israel.

Korchak gave a presentation lasting approximately 45 minutes and then led a 45-minute question and answer session during which UB students and professors on both sides of the conflict offered strong opinions. Attendees were still discussing the conflict 45 minutes after the Q&A session ended. That was when the real debate began as attendees gathered in groups to discuss their opinions – often in heated, loud voices.

The United Nations General Assembly partitioned Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state on Nov. 29, 1947 – an act that the Arabs referred to as “al-Nakba,” or the catastrophe.

Since the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, controversy and violence have surrounded the country, which is just over 200 square miles larger than the state of New Jersey.

The country and its neighbors have had a tumultuous 67-year relationship with two intifadas – a Arabic word meaning “uprising” – and multiple wars. Disputes between the Israelis and Palestinians have for decades been the source of bombings, acts of terror and thousands of casualties on both sides of the conflict.

Korchak experienced the “reality of terror” that both Israelis and Palestinians faced during the second intifada on a daily basis.

She recalled when the bus she took to school every day was bombed in 2002 – that day she caught a bus 10 minutes before her usual schedule.

That same year, she said she lost three friends to a suicide bomber who detonated explosives in a pizza shop.

Korchak and her family moved from Los Angeles to the northern West Bank when she was 9 years old. A few years later, just before the second intifada, the family moved to Jerusalem.

Kevin Appiah-Kubi, a sophomore nursing major and the treasurer of Students for Justice in Palestine, said he attended the presentation to learn more about the Israeli side of the conflict. He said he felt she gave an honest account of her experiences.

Hadeal Attal, a junior early childhood education and psychology major and the coordinator of public outreach for Students for Justice in Palestine, said in an email that the talk was well-planned, but that “the point of the event was to talk about the history of Israel, yet it did not really focus on that a lot and was more of her experiences and personal life living in Israel.”

Korchak and pro-Israel attendees spoke about the education system in Palestine that they felt taught children to hate Jews from a young age.

Benjamin Balderman, a junior biological sciences major and president of UB Israel, said that “if [hate] was taught in Israel, we could not have peace with [the Palestinians]” and that “once the education system changes, then we will have peace.”

Kustiro disagrees.

“[Palestinian children] learn hate when they are subject to live under inhumane conditions, when they experience their homes being demolished, when they see their loved ones being tortured, detained, arrested, and killed in front of their eyes,” he said in an email.

After the presentation, Korchak opened the floor up to a question and answer session which Yoni Kaplan, the tri-state area coordinator for StandWithUs, said would not be a debate, but rather attendees could ask her one question at a time and she would respond.

Some attendees came to the event equipped with notes, books and cellphones they used to formulate their questions.

Among a multitude of questions about specific instances of Palestinian suffering and statements by members of the Israeli government, a group of students demanded that Korchak discuss the use of white phosphorus by the Israeli government, arguing that it was illegal under international law.

Korchak said that under certain uses, white phosphorus was legal but illegal in others.

During her response, multiple attendees said “It’s torture!” in unison.

Some held their heads in their hands and spoke amongst each other in hurried whispers.

Yousuf Zubairi, a sophomore political science major, felt that Korchak was “spewing the same propaganda as the Israeli government.”

In an email to The Spectrum, Korchak said she was expecting attendees to “tackle the tough issues” during the Q&A session, but she felt that the attendees challenging her “were coming from a narrow viewpoint.”

Holstun said that Korchak was “surprisingly ill-informed” and “rather than engage in actual debate, Ms. Korchak attempted to talk out the clock with endless, repetitive answers, while denying follow-up questions” during the Q&A session.

Attal felt similarly to Holstun and said that Korchak “denied and disregarded everything we were asking and tried to answer around our initial questions. I thought it was also very unfair due to the fact that I raised my hand multiple times and for long periods of time yet I was not called on once.”

Students like Rachel Marks, a senior theater design and technology major, said Korchak disputed “a lot of uninformed errors and factual inaccuracies” offered up by the pro-Palestinian students and attendees.

“It’s scary when people don’t know all the facts and base movements on it,” Marks said.

Despite the debates, after the question and answer session, Appiah-Kubi and Balderman sat next to each other in the orange chairs of the lecture hall and amicably discussed their opinions on the presentation and the conflict.

Balderman held out his bag of Fritos to Appiah-Kubi to share.

“[Appiah-Kubi and myself] have a lot of the same ideas, but the means to get there are different,” Balderman said.

Although the club is listed on the Student Association website as UB for Israel, Balderman said the club is actually UB Israel, in order to avoid claiming that all of UB is pro-Israeli.

Although the discussion flared, attendees still supported the on-campus discussion while others felt that only one side of the story was told.

“I absolutely think we should continue these events to educate people on what’s going on in Palestine and in other countries suffering around the world,” Attal said. “However, this was not a debate it was very one sided so I would love if we could have real debates in order for both sides to get a chance to speak about the issue.”

Holstun said universities, dating back to the Middle Ages, have always been about “debate, debate, debate.”

“Hats off to UB for Israel for bringing [Korchak] to campus. I look forward to more,” Holstun said.

Korchak agrees with Holstun.

“Our discussion was productive, where people were engaging with each other rather than shouting people down, like we’ve seen on many other campuses,” Korchak said. “If you can’t learn about these issues on campus, then where?”

*This article has been updated.