Israel on Campus: Creating Dialogue
SB: UVA was pretty lovey-dovey. After a while everyone who worked on the issue knew each other, just before I graduated they co-sponsored a talk with the heads of the groups about who they are and why they are involved in the issue, it was well-attended. But it's not like everyone was happy with each other. For example when HFI brought Amos Gilad (fomer IDF General and senior advisor to Israel's Minister of Defense) to speak, it was the sort of paradigmatic situation where the SPJP kids would show up and just ask lots of antagonistic questions for sure...There was still a lot of tension between the groups. And similar things happened in reverse, when SPJP brought Adam Shapiro (one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian group of internationals who do direct action in the territories) and the HFI kids came and passed out confusing flyers at the event. Itís not like people were sitting in circles singing kum-ba-ya. Some individuals did not protest our events because they did not know about them. We changed our publicity tactics to make sure that only the "right" people came.
DF: I guess thatís always the way Ė people get their information from experts but experts already have their opinions. The point is to get the different sets of experts into dialogue. Sam, how did the groups evolve at UVA?
SB: There was a real need eventually for people to get past the "let's just attend each other's events and try to show them up" dynamic, so things got more interesting. A lot of the members of the two groups joined a separate group, Sustained Dialogue, which had been running for a while at UVA primarily as a white/black dialogue group, but which started a Jewish/Arab one too and the group members got to know each other more personally through that separate medium.
ZG: We had a similar group called NOPORK arise as well for dialogue purposes that had mixed results.
DF: Is that an acronym?
ZG: Nope ... it's the cute name they came up with since Muslims and Jews don't eat pork...so it became NOPORK
DF: Ha. Good idea -- what were the mixed results?
ZG: It was great for cultural exchanges...people loved getting together to do things like compare Kabbalah and Sufism, and learn about holidays... Politically it was challenging, because some of the Muslim students who convened the body had a difficult time accepting Israel's right to exist and some Jewish students really had a problem with a Palestinian state... Once things calmed down this year, it became a little bit easier to talk politics because of the prospect of peace, and hopefully that continues.
SB: That's interesting... we also had a group called the Children of Abraham which did things relating to Muslim and Jewish scripture study, the Sustained Dialogue group dealt with just people talking about their personal stuff the group became more open minded throughout this year, which was nice to see. Most of the Muslim kids who came to CoA were South Asian, though, so the Middle East wasnít really an issue.
DF: In both cases you were building up understanding of cultures and personalities before venturing onto the awkward ground of politics.
SB: HFI focused really heavily on Israeli cultural promotion around UVA. They did things like have Israeli Block Parties and such, with camels and hookahs and tables with information, but Sustained Dialogue and CofA did those other things that actually caused some problems. Some SPJP people thought the camel thing was offensive, for example, as if camels and hookahs were invented by the Jews. But you get the gist of it, a lot of positive "look how great our side is" stuff came to supplant the more "look how oppressive and horrible the other side is" stuff, though that was still there too.
ZG: At NOPORK, when I graduated, while people went, a lot of people (on both sides) suspected the other side had ulterior motives for participating/going to events that they would not have gone to previously. But it also got these people talking constructively in a safe place face to face and not duking it out in print or behind each other's backs.
DF: What ulterior motives? Free chicken?
ZG: lol...nope...I think a lot of the more skeptical Muslims in the group may have thought that the increase in Jewish participation was fishy in general and Jews surely thought that it Muslims coming to Hillel was fishy too.
DF: Just general suspicion, like "what are you doing here?"
ZG: Just weirdness in getting used to the new realities. It was a really new thing for a lot of Jews to come to NOPORK and a really new thing for a lot of Muslim students to be coming to Hillel regularly, so people were not sure what was going on.
SB: At my school there would be a once a year thing where the Hillel and the muslim students association would go to each other's services from Friday afternoon through Kabbalat Shabbat dinner and services.
ZG: I guess this dialogue is hopeful but when I graduated, they were still feeling each other out.
DF: Did anything concrete come out of that increased dialogue?
ZG: At minimum a better awareness of the others and where they are coming from.
SB: It seems your Hillel was more directly involved in politics than at my school, so this situation would have been more tense potentially. The variety of groups at my school really helped people decide how they identified and what angle they were coming from - the fact that Hillel was for Jewish religious stuff, and HFI for Israel advocacy, and the Muslim Studentsí Association (MSA) for Muslim religious stuff, and SPJP for political advocacy on Palestine created more comfortable spaces so people didn't end up places they felt they did not belong.
DF: Gives people a sense of borders, of boundaries.
SB: I agree...it made Hillel safe space for people that viewed it as hostile.
DF: What sort of events in the Middle East really change the mood on campus? Like a suicide bombing? What threatens this really hopeful rapprochement?
SB: Arafat's death changed the mood for sure. The mood had been very skeptical throughout the Intifada, and bombings contributed specifically to that, making both sides more skeptical about the other. The same thing goes for Israeli incursions into west bank towns. Everyone just goes into a tizzy of justifying whatever has happened or condemning it.
ZG: I agree...at CU, people who had been constantly talking about the bombings started talking peace and opportunity and making everyone's lives better after Arafat died.
DF: So Arafat's death, at least post-funeral, was a time of hope for both sides?
ZG: A lot of people underestimate how much Palestinians didn't actually like him either.
SB: He was a pretty terrible leader and since no one thought of him as the only thing preventing complete Israeli takeover of the west bank or something like that, there was more of a mood of "let's see what comes next" on the SPJP side, while on the HFI side people were just like "good riddance" mostly, but I don't want to generalize too much.
ZG: I think people on both sides at CU thought Arafat's death was an opportunity for a better life and had the potential for a much better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. There was some bickering in the newspaper editorial pages about his legacy, and then that was that.
Jacob J. Staub
Israel on Campus
A Conversation with Sam Brody and Zach Gelman
Samaria for Rent
Does Mysticism Prove the Existence of God?
Patrolling the Boundaries
The Wheel World
Our 700 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Summer 2005 issue now on sale
Limited Time Offer