Last week, on Wednesday, Oct. 1, J Street U Brandeis hosted its third event of the semester, “Non-Violence Amid Violent Conflict: A Conversation with Ali Abu Awwad.” Awwad is a leading nonviolent Palestinian activist and member of the Parents Circle Families Forum, an organization that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members to the violence of the conflict. While spending time in prison during the First Intifada, Awwad participated in a 17-day-long hunger strike that helped him recognize and understand the power of nonviolent resistance.
Awwad’s talk is but one example of the many conversations being held on campus that encourage students to engage in thinking critically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his talk, Awwad carefully articulated the inherent difficulties in encountering another truth and explained that opposing truths are both authentic. Awwad also emphasized that a lasting solution to the conflict will include the truths of both Israelis and Palestinians.
It took me a long time to believe that diverse and pluralistic conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like this one even existed. It took me longer to believe that those conversations were happening in spaces that I already inhabited. And it took me an even longer time to participate. I was afraid of these conversations simply because I did not know what the other truth looked like, and I was doubtful that I could allow that other truth into my own narrative.
Growing up in a modern Orthodox community that is perhaps more right of center than most, it was almost impossible for me to participate in an Israel conversation that included a diversity of truths. My Jewish identity and my pro-Israel identity were virtually one and the same. I learned early on that being a member of my community, and especially an active and vocal member, meant subscribing to an overarching and general form of pro-Israel advocacy that promoted “pro-Israel marketing” above all else.
In high school, my classmates and I were carefully taught how to combat the term “occupation,” told that a nation cannot possibly be an occupier in its own land and that the security fence was crucial for ensuring the safety of Israeli citizens and had been successful in thwarting several potential terror attacks since its construction.
However, unless we chose to take an elective Israeli history course, my classmates and I were not provided with the historical context that would have given us a deeper understanding of the term “occupation.” In fact, most of us did not understand why the word was used at all. “Occupation” became a malicious word, used only by the radical left. It was a word that we were, for all intents and purposes, banned from invoking or even asking about.
When I came to Brandeis as a midyear, I was immediately drawn into the pro-Israel community and was hoping to find a conversation that would both make me comfortable and strengthen my love for the Jewish state. But as the years went on and my involvement with particular groups grew stronger, I began to feel that the campus conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was wrapped up in partisan politics, was uncomfortable and was deeply entrenched in agenda pushing that ultimately alienated more people than it included.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to spend time at Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva on the Upper West Side of New York. I regularly had conversations with students that challenged the status quo I was taught to support on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I learned about our Palestinian neighbor and was encouraged to ask tough questions about the conflict and the region. The bubble that I grew up in and was taught to think within had been opened.
I came back to Brandeis that fall with questions that I hadn’t thought I would ever have about the conflict and found a campus largely apathetic to the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. The conversation that I had known, facts that I had once believed in and status quo that I was convinced was tenable for both peoples suddenly seemed flawed, dangerous and unsustainable.
Taking a stand that formally acknowledges Palestinian human rights or the people’s right to self-determination is immediately perceived as anti-Israel and perhaps anti-Semitic. These extreme binary representations of the conflict are not accurate depictions of the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor do they typify the conversations taking place on the Brandeis campus.
For my first three years of college, I was not being honest about the conversation I wanted to have on Israel and Palestine. I was actively criticizing the nature of the conversation yet intentionally avoiding discourse that would have encouraged me to think critically or beyond my comfort zone. I was under the false impression that our campus conversation was dead, simply because I rejected the notion of engaging with students with whom I may have disagreed.
We all find comfort in our own echo chambers. Encountering and engaging new, challenging narratives is a difficult process that requires patience and an open mind. Hearing somebody else’s story and exposing oneself to his or her truth can be disorienting and quite painful.
But it is an ultimately necessary process to challenge oneself and best understand any issue, especially one as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Awwad put it last week, “Conflict resolution is a place where both truths come together…not to love each other but to understand each other.”
J Street U Brandeis is the largest pro-Israel group on campus to date. Since its inception, J Street U has been actively promoting and creating spaces for critical engagement on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
Although we stand for a two-state solution and develop programming around that goal, we encourage and welcome debates that will challenge us, make us ask tough questions and ultimately strengthen our commitment to self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
—Shani Abramowitz ’15 is the media coordinator for Brandeis J Street U.
Originally published in the Justice, the independent student newspaper of Brandeis University
Follow Shani on Twitter @shani_abramow