Members of Students for Justice in Palestine (far left) protest the Seawolves for Israel celebration of Israel’s independence (center). GARY GHAYRAT/THE STATESMAN

The Seawolves for Israel’s celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary was met with protests from members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a chapter of National Students for Justice in Palestine that advocates for Palestinian rights and freedom.

The Seawolves for Israel, a student club supported by Stony Brook Hillel, set up a table in the Student Activities Center just after 11 a.m. on Thursday, April 19, where they handed out free snacks and commemorative T-shirts, while SJP members chanted and held up signs saying “Zionism is Terrorism.”

Hillel members who were at the SAC doubted SJP’s protests were productive.

“People here are, unfortunately, they’re not protesting for the Palestinian people,” Neil Dasgupta, a sophomore applied mathematics and philosophy  double major and Israel intern at Hillel, said. “They’re protesting against Israel, which is extremely divisive, and it’s not helping anyone.”

The conflict between Israel and Palestine has its roots in the Zionism movement that encouraged Jews to move back to what they consider their ancestral homeland in modern-day Israel. When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, the United Nations designated land for both Jewish and Palestinian states, but Israel came to occupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip after a series of wars started by its Arab neighbors over the coming decades. 

Shehran Uddin, a senior political science major and founder and president of Students for Justice in Palestine, said the club is trying to make the campus aware of Israel’s “true heinous nature” through protesting.

“We’re not saying anything about Jewish people,” Uddin said. “We’re talking about Zionists, people that believe in the state of Israel, not Jews. Because Jews themselves denounce the state. If our people are dying and we’re saying you’re a terrorist for coming into their homes, and killing them, and killing children. That’s what it is.”

Joseph Wolkin, Hillel president, senior journalism major and member of the Jewish Student Association, did not see the point in protesting the state of Israel by demonstrating at the event.

“It’s one thing to protest the government, it’s another thing to protest other students,” Wolkin said. “We’re not doing anything to cause them to really protest us, yet they feel they have the need to.”

Rabbi Joseph Topek, Director and Jewish Chaplain of Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life, said it was misguided and wrong to equate Zionism with terrorism.

“I’m a Jew, and I’m a Zionist,” Topek, who supports a two-state solution, said. “Zionism only means the liberation of the Jewish people from our exile and the reunification of the Jewish people to our ancestral homeland. It doesn’t mean the denial of the rights of other people.”

Rakia Syed, a senior biology and linguistics double major and member of SJP, said she has given up on changing Zionists’ minds. 

“I think we’re past that point of conversation where it’s been 70 years under the occupation of Israel,” Syed said. “Palestinians have been suffering, and regardless of any peace talks, peace cannot truly be achieved until Israel is out of the region and out of Palestine.”

“We want Zionism off this campus, so we want Hillel off this campus,” Syed said. “What we want is a proper Jewish organization that allows Jews to express their faith, have sabbath – everything like that, that are not Zionists, that doesn’t support Israel.”

Richard Gatteau, interim vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said he encountered the event and the protest on his way to his office and chose to stay until the end. He later engaged with both clubs. Multiple officers from the University Police Department were also present to oversee the situation.

“For me as a dean of students of Stony Brook, it’s very important that we ensure safety, that we ensure people have the right to free speech,” Gatteau said. “I do encourage students to be active in sharing their voice and their concerns and their views on topics just as we do in the classroom.”