Columnist and author Mark Patinkin delivering a talk at a Hillel event at Bryant University
Columnist and author Mark Patinkin spoke at the third annual Bryant Hillel Speaker Series and discussed his reporting on the Israel/Hamas conflict.
At Hillel talk, journalist offers first-hand account of Israel, Gaza conflict
Apr 11, 2024, by Stephen Kostrzewa
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It is the job of the journalist, columnist and author Mark Patinkin noted to the crowd assembled on April 10 in the Ronald K. and Kati C. Machtley Interfaith Center for the Bryant Hillel Speaker Series, to bring the story home. To ask the questions the reader wishes they could ask, to share the experiences the reader cannot be a part of, and to tell the facts about what is really going on, even when they are painful.

This is no less true in times of horror and tragedy, stated Patinkin, even in the face of atrocities of the October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel and the resulting war — the topic of the evening’s discussion. In fact, he argued, it is even more important now, amidst a sea of conflicting and often contradictory reports, that we understand what he called the “most disruptive and important thing that's going on in the world at the moment.”

“What I'd like to do tonight is to do what journalists do, and that's to take people where they're not able to go,” said Patinkin.

Celebrating its 76th year, Bryant’s chapter of Hillel organizes Jewish-related religious, social, and educational activities and provides an inclusive and welcoming space for Jewish people on campus. The speaker series, held in memory of David M. Gold ’71, said Rabbi Steven Jablow, Bryant’s Jewish chaplain, director of the university’s chapter of Hillel, and adjunct professor of English and Cultural Studies, offers a forum for timely discussions about issues that affect not just Bryant’s Jewish population but the larger Bryant community as well.

“Mark's columns are, and I'm sorry if I'm embarrassing you, but they are courageous,” he noted in his introduction of Patinkin. “They are what journalism is supposed to be, not analyzing ‘who is my audience and what do they want to hear,’ but ‘here is the truth that I will share with my readers.’ ”

Patinkin, a columnist for the Providence Journal for more than four decades, the winner of three New England Emmys, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for international correspondence, has written about African famine, the collapse of European communism, and war in the Middle East. In the wake of the October 7 terrorist attacks, he first spoke to the many Rhode Islanders with connections to Israel before deciding he needed to travel there himself to tell the story first-hand.

Throughout his trip, first with a solidarity visit organized by Adam Greenman, president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, then on his own, Patinkin filed daily dispatches about the places he visited and the many people he met — stories he now shared with the Bryant audience.

In his remarks, Patinkin took his listeners from Kibbutz Be'eri, a community where 100 out of a population of 1,000 people were killed and many others taken hostage; to “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv, where the community works to keep alive the memory of those taken prisoner with daily gatherings; to the tunnels beneath Gaza used by Hamas terrorists; to a Gazan refugee camp in the West Bank, where he found acceptance and community among a people that had so little.

“In the end, for all of history's massacres, there's only one thing you can do for the dead and that's to bear witness.”

He also shared the stories of the survivors he met, just a few of the many who had lost loved ones or been grievously injured themselves. At one point during his time in Be'eri, Patinkin asked his guide why she had agreed to lead him through a place of such personal tragedy for her. Her answer was simple, he noted: “In the end, for all of history's massacres, there's only one thing you can do for the dead and that's to bear witness.”

Yet amidst the aftermath of the October 7 attacks, said Patinkin, there were still signs of life, and of a people attempting to reclaim their lives after tragedy. “The way that people keep living — that is what Israel is about," he reflected. “Despite tragedy and upheaval in Gaza and the heartbreak of hostages and the heartbreak of so many people lost, when you go there and you see this country in their seats still going along with sidewalk restaurants and the liveliness they display. Even though almost everyone has a story, you realize that this is how they've survived and will survive.”

After sharing stories from his trip, Patinkin sat for a moderated discussion with Rob Goldberg ’94MBA, chief executive officer of the Buffalo Jewish Foundation and chair of Bryant’s Council on Jewish Life and Culture. During the talk, Patinkin reflected on the current political state of Israel, how his trip impacted his own identity as a Jewish man, and the feedback he’s received.

The discussion concluded with a question about what the audience, especially students, could do to learn more. “We’re in such a mosaic right now, with so much information coming at you from so many directions,” noted Patinkin. The answer, he suggested, was to try to find as many first-hand accounts as you can — and, if possible, to see for themselves.

“If you have an opportunity, go to Israel and go to the West Bank if you can,” he said. “And just experience it for yourself. There's nothing more powerful than seeing how the people that are in the midst of this particularly important story — but any story, really — are living day to day, and what they're saying day to day, and what they're experiencing day to day.

“That's how to get the truest information,” Patinkin concluded.

In a conflict that is often presented as a clash of ideologies, politics, and the pull of history, it was invaluable to be reminded of the humans caught in the violence, said Talia Slavin ’25, a member of Hillel. She notes that she has seen the reports on the news, but “to have an eyewitness account like this, and to hear the personal stories of the people who have been affected by this conflict, is really powerful.”

Such discussions are also the beginning of understanding, she suggested: to hear new voices and perspectives, even from those unable to share their stories directly.

“The beauty of a speaker series like this is that it is ongoing,” Jablow noted at the end of the event. “So, I encourage you to read, to think, to ask, to talk, and to continue the Bryant tradition of caring for your neighbor and learning what it's like in the shoes of your fellow classmates and schoolmates. And to carry on.” 

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