*Editor’s Note: The following story contains an edited quote attributed to Jillian Goson regarding the University’s response. A sentence has been removed from the quote published via print per the request of the attributed student.
Approximately 100 Point Loma Nazarene University students, faculty and staff gathered for a conversation titled “A Conversation Regarding Gaza” amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Israel and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank.
On Nov. 28, the PLNU community was invited to listen and interact with a panel of three professors including anatomy professor Joy Balta, theology professor Michael Lodahl and history professor Bill Wood. The panel was moderated by Rebecca Laird, the interim dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry. The panel discussion was followed by a time for a Q&A.
“The idea of hosting a panel of faculty that could speak to various aspects of this conversation emerged in response to students’ desire to learn and understand what is happening,” Jake Gilbertson, dean of students, said via email.
The discussion was planned by the co-curricular education committee which included Maya Walker, director of multicultural and international student services, and Walter Augustine, vice president of diversity and belonging, in collaboration with the Middle Eastern Association (MEA). MEA originally hosted a current events discussion as part of MOSAIC (Multicultural Opportunities for Students Actively Involved in Community) programming on Oct. 17. This is the first event planned by faculty and staff to address the war.
Fourth-year psychology major and MEA intern Jillian Goson said that Walker asked her if she thought there needed to be more of a response from the university level, and Goson said she told Walker yes; this event was planned shortly after that conversation.
The event was planned to focus specifically on Gaza; however, the war is affecting all areas of Israel, east Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. According to Dec. 2 reports from the Associated Press, “The overall death toll in Gaza since the Oct. 7 start of the Israel-Hamas war surpassed 15,200, a sharp jump from the previous count of more than 13,300 on Nov. 20. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants, but it said 70% of the dead were women and children. It also said more than 40,000 people had been wounded since the war began.”
To open the discussion, it was prefaced that the time would not be fully comprehensive but the goal was to provide a space for learning and understanding the context and current reality of the war.
The panelists answered questions specific to their expertise and lived experiences in these areas of the world.
“Each of them brought a perspective that felt helpful and important in framing up the conversation,” Gilbertson said via email. “There are so many important perspectives and areas of expertise to include that we knew this conversation would in no way be exhaustive or cover everything.”
Wood offered an overview of the timeline and historic land conflict in this region while Lodahl answered questions related to how students should respond as Christians.
Balta, who was born and raised in Lebanon, shared perspectives related to the lived experiences of people who are navigating the war. Balta said that within Israel and Palestinian territories, the sentiments and opinions are more nuanced in contrast to the way people in the U.S. may be viewing the war.
“It’s important to remember [the] diversity of opinions,” Balta said during the panel discussion. “We can’t point everyone in the same direction.”
Lodahl’s discussion centered on the encouragement to “start with Jesus” in understanding what PLNU’s response should be.
“A lot of American Christians, especially Evangelicals, there’s a great deal of uncritical sympathy and support for Israel and this land ‘God gave these people,’” Lodahl said during the panel discussion. “What I say to all [is] ‘Let’s start with Jesus.’”
Goson said she would like PLNU to organize a vigil in recognition of the violence that has been occurring.
“There’s been 40 or 50 days of genocide in Palestine and this is the first response [we’ve had] from faculty. I just want people to be aware of what’s going on,” Goson said.
Goson said that she would like other people on campus to start these kinds of conversations, as she said she feels she has been the one to initiate most of the events.
“As the MEA intern, I’ve had to educate people while I’m also mourning the losses, so it’s like I have to separate my feelings from the educational pieces,” Goson said.
Two PLNU students, fourth-year environmental science major Maiah Rivas and second-year art education major Makenna Givens, attended the event and said they had critiques of how conversations were navigated.
“I did feel like there was a big focus on painting Israel as victims and Hamas as this scapegoat for everything that is happening,” Givens said. “I think a lot of terms that should’ve been used were not [used], like the fact that this is a genocide and it’s collective punishment and that everything that’s happening are war crimes.”
Givens said that she felt like the event emphasized theology, rather than taking action by calling for a ceasefire.
“Just hearing ‘both’ sides constantly was interesting because Palestine does not have a military,” Givens said. “It’s not equal sides. And for them to portray it like that is just wrong because Palestinians don’t stand a chance against the Israeli occupation forces.”
Rivas also said that she felt the discussion centered more on prayer than taking action.
“It’s a passive approach when there’s genocide happening and ethnic cleansing taking place,” Rivas said. “It’s very easy for us to turn to prayer and give it up to God and say like, ‘God will take care of it.’ But, we have the ability to do something.’ We can protest. We can boycott. We can demand for a ceasefire.”
Gilbertson said the hope moving forward is to have additional conversations as a campus community.
“I think the best thing our co-curricular education committee can do is listen well to what students are needing and look for ways to build opportunities that still need to be addressed,” Gilbertson said. “I don’t have specifics right now, but it was obvious last night that we need to continue these conversations.”
On Wednesday, Nov. 29, PLNU’s Chapel held their first advent service in which they created a space for prayer over Israel, Palestine and other areas of the world facing war like Ukraine, Armenia and Sudan. As of Dec. 2, there are currently no additional events planned.
To learn more about resources or opportunities for education visit @plnumea on Instagram.