Course Saves Debate for the Chat Room

Course Saves Debate for the Chat Room

Sami Chetrit (Photo by Christine Larson)

Although the international crowd in Dr. Sami Chetrit's "Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Film" shares opinions in class, the students open up more in the password-protected space of an online chat board.

THE PASSIONS aroused by Dr. Sami Chetrit's summer course on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Film rarely manifest themselves in the classroom. More than half of the 45 students happen to be from Egypt, but from their blue jeans and T-shirts, they could be from almost anywhere, studying in nearly any urban university.

Instead, the drama of the conflict plays out rhetorically in the password-protected space of an online discussion board.

Speaking of Palestinians, one student writes: the mothers were willing to sacrifice their children for the cause was kind of shocking to me. Mothers are supposed to be so delicate and scared that anything would harm their children, but not here in Palestine where they are willing to give up anything just to end the occupation.

Another, in contrast, writes,

While there are Palestinians out there who sacrifice their lives to prevent Israelis from being there, these settlers would do the same and even more to kick Palestinians out of the land.

The syllabus includes roughly a dozen short documentaries which Chetrit contextualizes with lectures about the history of the conflict. He deliberately chose the medium of film for his class because, he says, "the documentaries cover a lot more territory than books" and time is short in Summer Sessions.

A Moroccan Jew and recognized poet who now teaches Hebrew and Israeli culture at Queens College in New York City, Chetrit doesn't take sides in class. He says he presents facts about the conflict and lets students draw conclusions. The majority of the films he's chosen are critical of the Israeli government position but also made by Israelis, so the standard polarization of pro-Israeli versus pro-Palestinian is undermined from the outset.

Dr. Scott Bartchy, Director of the UCLA Center of the Study of Religion, recruited Chetrit for the class because he gives students the "straight scoop," which necessarily includes "information and points of view that they've never heard before."

Seemingly, this fresh perspective would satisfy the curiosity of many of the dozens of Egyptian students enrolled in Religion 100. To get their visas, they're required to take at least two classes at UCLA, and two students said they chose the film class to hear what an American, possibly Zionist, professor would say. Instead, they got Chetrit, who is interested in looking at the conflict both historically and through the eyes of the filmmakers who present nontraditional views.

The Egyptian students are only part of a very diverse student group which includes Latinos, African Americans, Armenian Americans, and people from all fields of study. One UCLA physiological science major, Shannon Aulakh, said she chose the class as an alternative source of information: "I see this issue in the paper every day and I wanted to learn more about it."

The diverse group of students nonetheless shares a common denominator of emotional sensitivity. Many were moved to tears by the film "Arna's Children," the story of an Israeli Jewish woman who fought in the 1948 war and later created an alternative education center for Palestinian children in the Jenin refugee camp. Because most also share a middle-class background, several students were shocked by the poverty and suffering of Palestinian children working in a garbage dump in a film called "The Cage."

Again, they look to chat boards to express themselves openly on sensitive topics.

"The video about the kids at a garbage dump was very astounding to me," began one student's comment.

The fact that it's their day-to-day situation, waking up in the morning and walking to a garbage dump, is beyond me. The unfortunate situation that it is, it does make me appreciate the education that I am very blessed to have. It's even more depressing to know that even if these kids were to get an education, as was the case for many Arab children in the 1950s, though highly educated, the opportunity to be and do great things simply isn't there.

Published: Thursday, July 31, 2008