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Thursday, February 29, 2024 — Houston, TX

‘Israel at 75’ conference hosts former prime ministers, incites protest

Courtesy Baker Insitute

By Nayeli Shad     5/11/23 11:51am

The “Israel at 75” conference hosted by the Baker Institute on April 27 explored the 75 years since Israel’s founding, including the relationship between Israel and the U.S. and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The speakers included former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority Salam Fayyad, former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak and multiple current and former U.S. State Department officials.

Rice Students for Justice in Palestine held a protest on the lawn across from the Baker Institute during the conference. SJP had called for the event’s cancellation.

SJP organizing member Alizay Azeem said the protest was staged next to the Baker Institute so the attendees would have to see and hear them.

“When people are attending a conference that platforms war criminals, men who have committed heinous crimes, they cannot just go there comfortably,” Azeem, a Wiess College senior, said.

Kelton Keck / Thresher

Approximately 40 Rice students and Houston community members participated in the protest. Around 10 protesters interrupted the conference to give a speech and perform chants and were escorted out of the building by security. 

The protesters who entered the building declined to speak on the record to the Thresher due to concerns about revealing their identity.

Several people gave speeches during the protest. Malak Khalil, an organizing member of SJP at University of Houston, said it was important to condemn the invitation of Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Barak, who she alleges are war criminals.

“As students and members of the Houston community, let us be clear: There can be no dialogue with war criminals,” Khalil said. “On our campuses or in our cities, there can be no normalization of a settler-colonial state that has and continues to violently dispossess our people from their land.”

Anna Rajagopal, another organizing member of SJP, said they also reject the conference.

“Our campuses are not a playground of war criminals. They are places for us to learn. There are Palestinian students, faculty, staff, community members in this city, on this campus who deserve to live in freedom without the fear of the men who have murdered their families on our campus,” Rajagopal, a Jones College senior, said.

Nick Cooper (Wiess ’91) also participated in the protest. His activism began with protesting South African apartheid when he was an undergraduate student. Cooper said protests for international issues were much smaller than for issues directly affecting Rice students, so he appreciates SJP’s work and protest of the conference.

“It’s great that Rice can take accountability for the racism of William Marsh Rice 100 years ago, but to really catch up with the present day, our partnership through Rice with the military industrial complex, with Israel, with the petroleum industries is racist and it’s causing damage right now … those institutional partnerships really have to be called into question,” Cooper said.

Grace Stewart, a Jewish Studies minor, attended the conference through the Jewish Studies department and said she disagreed with some of the sentiments put forth by the protest. Stewart said that SJP’s petition to cancel the conference would have removed the opportunity to ask questions and voice concerns directly to leaders.

“I think [the push to cancel the event is] counterintuitive to what we’re supposed to be doing here as students, which is having conversations about hard things and things that matter,” Stewart, a Hanszen College senior, said.

Kenny Weiss, the rabbi for Houston Hillel, said the organization served as a community partner for the conference in an effort to expose students to both sides of the issue and to invite them to think critically about it.

“I believe that too often we surround ourselves with people who share our same thoughts and feelings. Learning and growth [come] through confrontation with people and ideas that make us uncomfortable,” Weiss wrote in an email to the Thresher. “The relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people should provoke passion on both sides. Anything less would be disappointing.”

Stewart said that she was surprised by the level of nuance and criticism presented and said that it did not feel like a celebration of the Israeli state.

“All the speakers that I heard I feel like did a really great job of representing both sides of the conflict,” Stewart said. “I didn’t get a sense at all that this was a group of people who have blind support for Israel and support everything that it does.” 

A statement from the Baker Institute said that the intention of the conference was to facilitate discourse among experts with a range of perspectives.

“Central to the Baker Institute’s mission is bringing together policymakers and leaders from around the world for civil discourse on timely issues,” Shannon Moriarty, director of communications, wrote in an email to the Thresher. “The Israel [at] 75 conference was an opportunity to convene diplomats, experts, policymakers, and stakeholders here in Houston to reflect on the binational relationship between the US and Israel. The program included people with a range of perspectives engaged in thoughtful, substantive discourse.”

The Baker Institute declined to comment on the protests both outside and inside of the building.

While Stewart acknowledged the validity of concerns about the speakers, she said attendees should not receive backlash for going to the conference.

“We all were there to engage in an academic conversation. None of us were there to advocate for oppression and none of us were there to delegitimize the Palestinian perspective at all,” Stewart said. “Everyone who went from a place of just wanting to learn more and just from an academic curiosity, and I don’t think that’s something people should be shamed for.”

Editor’s Note: Anna Rajagopal is the Thresher’s former social media manager.

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