On Wednesday, about 45 UC Santa Cruz students, staff and community members convened on campus for a wide-ranging discussion on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. The “Israel/Palestine Learn-In” was presented by the Center for Jewish Studies. The center’s director, Nathaniel Deutsch, and professor of history and Jewish studies Alma Heckman led the discussion.

The talk took place at the Humanities 1 building, within sight of several recently hung posters that featured photos of Palestinians, many of them children, under a headline dripping in red that read “Murdered by Israel.” Indeed, the event happened against the backdrop of campus protests on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though no counter-protesters were present to disrupt the discussion.

Deutsch and Heckman sought to, above all, answer any questions from students on any aspect of the ongoing war in Gaza in what Deutsch referred to as the traditional Hebrew chavruta way of intimate small-group study. Opening with a moment of silence for the slain and suffering on both sides, the discussion focused largely on whether what Hamas did on Oct. 7 or what the Israeli military has done since then constitutes genocide or ethnic cleansing.

As for the tone of the discussion, Shakespeare might have called it “a plague on both your houses.” Indeed, Heckman said that both the Hamas massacre on Oct. 7 and the Israeli government’s reaction to that atrocity amount to “war crimes.”

The professors and their students debated the precise characteristics of genocide, from statements of genocidal intent to dehumanizing language. Deutsch stated that he did not think what the Israelis have done technically consistutes genocide, adding the word “yet” to suggest that the situation is still fluid and Israeli actions in Gaza could devolve to genocide.

Other topics included a debate on the differences between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and of the rising dangers of speaking out on such a hot-button issue on campuses. “I can’t remember in my time here anything like this happening before,” said Deutsch. “It’s a new world, in a lot of ways. It’s scary.”

After the 90-minute discussion, one student — a Jewish student named Max who declined to give his last name — said he appreciated that the event was not a lecture and more of a rounded debate. But he was not happy with Deutsch’s response on the question of genocide. “I think it’s unfortunate to see someone in a powerful position like this being represented by the Center for Jewish Studies,” said Max, “with a room of 30 or 40 people who are looking to him for answers to have such an academically dishonest answer, and saying in recognizing that, ‘Yeah, sure. This meets all the definitions of genocide, but technically it’s not genocide.’”

Both professors were critical of Israeli actions in Gaza, and Deutsch took care to distinguish between political uses of the term “genocide” and strictly legal meanings of the term.

“As far as the legal dimension,” he said, “when it comes to this, it could become very, very important in terms of not only genocide but war crimes more generally.”

During the discussion, Deutsch cited a recent New York Times op-ed from Brown University scholar Omer Bartov, a specialist in Holocaust and genocide studies. In the piece, Bartov said of the Israeli actions in Gaza since Oct. 7 that “there is genocidal intent, which can easily tip into genocidal action.”

Despite the highly emotional and deeply personal issues at hand, Wednesday’s event was characterized by respect for disagreement, nuance and personal experience. While most students were interested in talking about the moral dimensions of Israeli actions, at least one student, who did not identify himself, asked “Does Israel not deserve the right to defend itself? I don’t believe that Israel is on that same level of corruption as Hamas.”

Throughout it all, the moderators were attempting to come back to a position of empathy for all who have suffered.

“Something that I try to do,” said Deutsch, “is to try to imagine if I were in another person’s position. If Israelis put themselves in Palestinians’ position and vice versa, would they still hold the views that they, in many cases, very zealously now hold? Or is it because they happen to have been born into the positions that they are? So much of what people are saying is contingent on an accident of birth, rather than evaluating what it would really be like to experience these things from the other position.”

After the talk, which was attended by a contingent from Temple Beth El in Aptos, staffers from The Humanities Institute, campus provost and executive vice chancellor Lori Kletzer, among others, Nathaniel Deutsch said the event met his expectations.

“I was very happy with it,” he said. “I was happy to see students asking questions. There were clearly very different viewpoints and maybe in some cases, people went away disagreeing with each other more, but I just wanted to create a platform [to air the discussion].”

“We reached out to different faculty to participate,” he added. “They didn’t want to participate, the people we reached out to.”


FOR THE RECORD: This story was updated to add more details of the discussion that took place, including additional context provided during the event by Nathaniel Deutsch on the subject of genocide.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...