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Death of an Unheralded Heroine: Stephanie Plotkin

We tend to hear about the high profile heroes of the world, but many times there are heroes living among us, and you may not even know it.

One such hero – or heroine in this case – was Stephanie Plotkin, who bravely exposed anti-Israel indoctrination at Grand Valley State University in Michigan in 2015. Here is what she wrote for Truth Revolt at the time:

My eyes followed my professor up and down the aisles as he passed out the flyers, flashes of sunlight reflecting off them. I almost held my breath as he weaved his way toward me. I could feel my heart race in my throat.

“You are required to attend this lecture. You do not have to agree with what Ms. Barrows-Friedman is saying, but you need to write a paper and include a summary of the content of the lecture. Then please include what you knew about the conflict before you attended, and then how you feel once you have heard what she has to say.”

I couldn’t believe what Professor Alvarez was saying. We had to attend? Attendance was mandatory? Finally the flyer reached me. I skimmed the contents, trying to hide my disdain from the other students. “In Our Power,” the title read. “U.S. Students Organize For Justice In Palestine.” The flyer depicted a woman wearing a hijab, with one fist in the air and her other holding a microphone. Two students were facing her, one wearing a tiny pin with the initials BDS imprinted on it. Underneath the drawing, there was a photo of Nora Barrows-Friedman, with a bio, and then to the left was a column that ran the length of the flyer titled, “HCC, Healing Children of Conflict.” Something inside me made me take a picture. I had no idea why, but I wanted to show my mother what I was “required” to attend. I didn’t feel good about this at all, even though I didn’t understand what The Electronic Intifada was, or what this all really meant.

After class, I caught up to Professor Alvarez and tried to speak to him about this.

“Professor, I feel uncomfortable about having to attend this lecture.”

“How knowledgeable do you feel you are on the subject?” he asked.

“Pretty knowledgeable, I think. I watch the news, and I know Palestinians want Israelis gone. Is that what this is about? Because I believe Israel has every right to be there.”

I was nervous about the last part of my statement, and I didn’t know why. I knew what I believed in: Israel was a country containing a large population of Jews. They had been living there, and Palestinians wanted them gone. They attacked Jews in vicious ways. He couldn’t be SIDING with them, could he?

“Stephanie, when I was young, I felt the same way as you. I told you I came from Gibraltar, a British colony. I am a product of colonialism. I remember attending college and a Palestinian introduced himself to me, and I couldn’t get away fast enough. But after I met other people, and began getting more information on the subject, I began to understand the problem from a whole different perspective. Now it is a passion of mine. Just try to be open-minded, okay? That’s all I ask. You don’t necessarily have to agree, and it broadens the mind to learn as much as you can on a subject.”

I reluctantly agreed. It is important to know everything you can. I planned on going, though I still didn’t feel right about it. But it was mandatory, and though I complained to other students, they shook their heads at my trepidation.

The day of the lecture came, and I grudgingly went to the room number stated on the flyer with several of my classmates. When we arrived, we were told it was being held in the room next door because of the size of the audience. There were too many people to fit in the small room previously designated. This also concerned me. I found a place in the back where I could escape if needed. However, Professor Alvarez made us move closer to the front. Everyone had their notebooks in their laps, ready to take notes. We did have to write a paper, after all.

As I sat there, uncomfortable, at the end of an aisle, I once again got the nagging feeling I should be documenting this. I pulled out my phone and wondered, Am I allowed to record this? I looked around and there were others with cameras, and at least one with a camcorder. Ok, I thought, I am going to record this. I may not need it, but maybe it will help with the paper I have to write. I also had a burning desire to play it for my mom when I got home: when she saw the flyer, she wasn’t too happy either. I knew she wanted to attend but couldn’t miss work. I would record it for her as well.

A woman I didn’t recognize approached the podium first, and spoke about the group Healing Children of Conflict. I was more focused on getting into a comfortable position to hold my iPhone, knowing I was going to be holding it for at least 50 minutes, the length of our class time. Then Professor Alvarez was introduced, and he also droned on about the importance of this group and the honor of Nora Barrows-Friedman coming to speak to us. He addressed our class, and then introduced Ms. Barrows-Friedman, a small woman, as she got up to the oversized podium.

I tried to calm the butterflies in my stomach and looked around the room. It appeared another class was also required to attend, but there were also people in the audience that did not look like students. In the back of the room, a large table was set up with books and flyers. I would definitely see the table before I fled the lecture.

Ms. Barrows-Friedman started off saying that she was three months pregnant. I smiled at that. Despite any differences we might have, children are a blessing. However, then she continued by saying that she knew there were people in the audience that did not approve of her being there, and because of her fragile state, anyone who decided to “be a bully” would be immediately removed from the lecture.

I focused on that for awhile. Does that mean there can’t be dissenting opinions? Are we not allowed to ask questions that countered her beliefs? I was appalled. What did being pregnant have to do with people asking questions about the content of her lecture? What if she was wrong? We weren’t allowed to speak up during the Q and A? What WAS this??

The lecture went quickly because most of us agreed afterward that she spoke quickly. She did not go into any background about what was going on between Palestinians and Israelis. She started with and focused on one thing: BDS. Boycott, Divestment, Sanction. We needed to boycott products like HP because they funded Israeli soldiers. We needed to make sure companies would not support anything made by Israel. We needed to sanction Israel for putting up an “illegal” wall. We needed to help the people who were displaced from “Occupied Palestine.”

Occupied Palestine? I had never heard the term before. I realized quickly she was talking about Israel. “But it’s a country!” I thought. “It’s not ‘Occupied’ anything…they have their own flag, their own population, their own land!” I had taken the time before the lecture to look up non-biased information on the history of Israel. I saw that it had been formed in 1948 as a place for displaced Jews to go. They had just been the target of Nazi genocide, and they needed a place to call home. They kept going to the people in the area with Britain’s help, but the people there never agreed to any of the proposals offered. They did not want Israel to be formed, but it was, because it was a promise that had been made: a promise that they would have a safe place to call home.

I may not have been fully aware of the history before the lecture, but I wanted to make sure I was informed going in. Though not as young of a student as my fellow classmates, I wanted to go in with prior knowledge in case facts got skewed. It was a good thing I did. All Ms. Barrows-Friedman talked about was the deaths of Palestinians, these “innocent” people trying to go back to their homeland. The cruel Israeli soldiers that went out of their way to make their lives hell. To hurt women and children. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I was inflamed by the end of the lecture.

I went home and wrote my paper. I knew my teacher wanted me to be neutral, so I was. At first. I saw other students’ papers and saw, fortunately, how many of them did not get the point of the lecture. Most were confused without having prior knowledge. A few admitted to be ashamed of the United States for allowing these “horrible” things to happen to the poor Palestinians. One or two students admitted that they felt another side to the story wasn’t being told: I was particularly proud of those students for seeing through the indoctrination to which we had just been exposed.

After reading what other students had to say, I felt my paper needed to hold a little more truth than our lecture had. I started neutrally, explaining what Nora Barrows-Friedman discussed. Then I explained my knowledge on the subject. Finally, I shared my own opinion.

Now in class we are studying A Tempest. It is a post-colonial adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which we just finished studying. After this play, we will be reading a book called, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, which returns to the same vein of argument that our lecture contained. We will be studying a whole unit on the Israel-Palestinian crisis, and read works from Palestinian authors, denouncing the colonization of their homeland. I have already skimmed over many of these poems and texts. Colonialism is a major theme in our class.

I should mention the name of the class I am taking. Most would think it was a Political Science class. Would you believe this class is an English class? Would it make sense to you that this class is required for me as a future English-Secondary Education major? I am going to be a future teacher of high school students. I will be molding young minds, along with many others in my class. Do you find this as troubling as I do?

It has come to my attention that Stephanie passed away a few days ago, apparently from a pulmonary embolism. Most of you never heard of her, but I wanted to make sure her name and legacy goes out far and wide, and she is remembered as the brave heroine that she truly was.

May her memory be a blessing and her family be comforted among the mourners of Zion.

About the author

Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
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