WALTHAM, Mass. – In a lecture hall of red brick, college students gather in a circle to listen to a fellow student, a Palestinian named Yusuf Bashir who became a peace advocate after being shot by an Israeli soldier and then healed by an Israeli hospital. Down the hall, other students dissect the vagaries of the American-Israeli relationship.
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The students, some 250 of them from at least 15 colleges and universities, are mostly Jewish. They have gathered this weekend on a hillside of Brandeis University to do something rather unusual in the world of Israel discourse, be it on campus or anywhere else: They are here to talk and connect with each other across political divides. They come from both corners of the spectrum, from AIPAC-affiliated campus groups to Students for Justice in Palestine.
“It’s a way to discuss Israel in a way that’s not polarizing, where different points of view can be expressed not particular to one side,” said Sarah Geller, a 22-year-old senior at Brandeis who is a cofounder of bVIEW, the group that organized the conference. The acronym stands for Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World.
Geller said that it is often the larger mainstream pro-Israel organizations that try to frame the Israel debates on campus, in part by promoting talking points.
But she and the four other founding members of bVIEW were seeking a different kind of dialogue, one that could break through the bitterness of campus debates that they say sours so many of their counterparts on engaging with the subject. Instead, they were looking for dialogue based on conversation and context, said Geller, a former president of BIPAC, the Brandeis campus affiliate of AIPAC who spent a semester last year studying in Beirut.
Group founders and its members see their message as echoing beyond Brandeis, the only university founded in the United States as a Jewish-sponsored, non-sectarian university, because, they said, Brandeis – with its Jewish diversity – is a microcosm of the today’s American Jewish community.
“When I came to campus I felt something was missing,” said Chen Arad, 25, an Israeli who is a sophomore at Brandeis and another founder of the group. “So many people care about Israel, Palestine and the peoples of the Middle East but they keep to their own groups there is this preaching to the converted and no real dialogue between the organizations.”
In roundtable talks and workshops, students discussed alternatives to the current paradigm of discord and contention on campus.
“Today was the first time I had a productive talk with someone from SJP,” said Kochava Ayoun, 20, a Brandeis student referring to a student from Students for Justice in Palestine.
A fellow Brandeis student named Brian added, “It’s a great way to step back from emotions; it’s a [new] drawing board for everyone.”
Others spoke about how the discourse, which can feel toxic at times, turns off their friends on campus, both Jewish and non-Jewish, from going anywhere near the issue of Israel and the Middle East.
In the airy ballroom space where they met to talk, two large banners hung on the wall that are rarely, if ever, seen hanging side by side: one for BIPAC, the Brandeis AIPAC chapter, and another for J Street’s student organization.
Melanie Fineman, a junior at Brown University who is interested in politics and spent last summer interning for the Democratic National Committee and reaching out to young Jewish professionals as part of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, said she was delighted to hear that a group like bView existed and was having a national student conference.
She said she’s keen to learn more about the role young American Jews might play in the American relationship with Israel, and said she wants to know more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“For me it’s hard to find anything neutral, anything objective when even years, boundaries and maps are complicated. It’s something I struggle with, this lack of objectivity,” said Fineman.
Theodore Sasson, a sociologist at Brandeis and expert in Israel-Diaspora relations, led two of the workshops at the conference. One was about social, political and cultural gaps between Israelis and American Jews and another was entitled, “It’s Complicated: Understanding the American-Israeli Relationship.”
Watching conference-goers interact, he said, “tells me American Jewish students are deeply interested in Israel and eager to understand the various vantage points, commonalities and areas to disagree. They seem to have a better grasp of the nature of Israel advocacy than the older generation that expects uniformity and consensus.”
As the day of talking and strategizing for future involvement came to a close, two students presented their future visions for Israel. A student named Eli Philip spoke of the need to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians if the Jewish state, he said, was to live up to its goals as a “just society.” He also spoke of the urgency of a two-state solution.
Afterward, Eva Gurevich, a graduate student at Brandeis, shared her thoughts about a future confederated system of government for Israel and the Palestinians.
Shai Bazak, consul general of Israel to New England, listened to their presentations but appeared unimpressed by the argument that Israel’s future was bound with that of the Palestinians.
“That’s nice,” he said, “but that’s not one percent of what our future is about.”
He then dove into a stump speech about Israel’s tiny size and outsized influence on the world as a technological powerhouse. Israel’s “successful economy,” he charged, “That’s what you should be talking about.”
Meanwhile, Arad, one of the founders of bVIEW, spoke of moving forward and bringing its model to other campuses. “Our basic goal is to create a better discussion about Israel; a more productive one,” Arad said.