Many Palestinian students on campus are tired of being viewed only in political terms. To change this perception, students have come together this semester to create a new cultural organization, the Palestinian Student Association.
The group, which is still in the process of organizing, will focus on educating the University community about often overlooked aspects of Palestinian culture and uniting Palestinian students, its founders said.
“When you say Palestine, it’s not just politics,” said PSA member and LSA sophomore Fouad Hassan. “There’s cultures, society, people there. – Palestinians are kind of dehumanized almost, mostly because people don’t know much about the culture or, honestly, the politics.”
PSA plans to host a variety of programs to demonstrate the strong Palestinian presence on campus and give a human face to the often mischaracterized community, organizers said. Events will include film showings, dance and cultural shows and educational dialogues.
Organizers said they hope the emphasis on culture rather than politics will help correct the skewed representation of Palestinians presented on campus and in U.S. media.
By highlighting the cultural aspects of Palestinian life, as well as facilitating dialogues about the history and culture of the people, PSA hopes to discredit what its members consider biased anti-Palestinian rhetoric that is sometimes perpetuated by the strong pro-Israel lobby on campus, said LSA sophomore and PSA member Cherine Foty.
If people were more aware of Palestinian culture, she added, “I think that the ideas that those groups are based on would lose credibility.”
Leaders of two Israeli groups on campus dispute this characterization. LSA junior Alana Kuhn, political chair of American Movement for Israel, said her group supports peace in Israel and is not biased against Palestinians.
Or Shotan, an LSA sophomore and chair of the Israeli Students Organization, said members of his group do not present biased information because they are from Israel and have seen the situation there. But he said he welcomes the creation of a Palestinian campus group made up of students from that area to present their views on the conflict.
Although PSA shares many members with the political pro-Palestine group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, and the two may cooperate on certain events – such as last October’s Palestine Day – the groups will remain separate and have fundamentally different focuses, said LSA junior Rama Salhi, the president of SAFE and a PSA member.
Politics are an unavoidable part of all aspects of Palestinian culture, organizers said, but PSA will focus on educating the University community about the effects of politics on culture and daily life, as opposed to the political activism of SAFE.
“There’s very much a defining line between the two organizations,” Salhi said. “I’m sure that we will respect that.”
PSA’s first solo event will be a showing of “Paradise Now,” a film about two young Palestinians recruited as suicide bombers, at the Michigan Theater on Dec. 16. The group will offer discounted tickets to the movie and host a discussion afterward, Foty said.
“(The film) is just an excellent portrayal of the types of dilemmas Palestinians go through daily,” she said. “Hopefully it promotes a lot of dialogue among people who are open-minded, even within the Jewish community or the American mainstream community.”
Another example of the deep-seated link between Palestinian culture and politics can be seen in traditional dances, which often have themes revolving around the importance of land, Foty added. Palestinians do not currently have their own country, but they have claimed the right to land that became part of Israel when the country was founded in 1948.
Without a state of their own, it is sometimes difficult for Palestinians to maintain their cultural heritage, Salhi said.
“A lot of it is trying to preserve our culture throughout one occupation to the next,” she added.
For Palestinian students, PSA will provide a place to meet others on campus with the same cultural heritage and a chance to participate in activities such as the dance troupe Atfal Filisteen Dabka and community service in low-income Palestinian neighborhoods in the Detroit area, Foty said.
Exposure to Palestinian cultural events will also help to differentiate this community from other Arab groups, Salhi said.
“In the majority of people’s minds, ‘Arab’ is kind of an all-encompassing word,” she said. “(But) we are not by any means a monolithic people.”