Promoting dialogue among divided Jewish students in Israel

Eliza Veta, a recent graduate of New York University, was excited to go on a group trip to Israel in the middle of her second year in 2020. The trip was sponsored by Birthright, a program that takes Jewish students and young professionals for free to visit Israel with the goal of promoting and strengthening their Jewish identity and their relationship with Israel.

But things started out rocky – students became embroiled in a heated debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Throughout the trip it was this looming thing,” Veta said. “And everyone backs up to their acquaintances and agrees with them. The Zionists are whispering to you in one corner, the Zionists are whispering in the other corner.

Veta and a friend also decided on the trip that they should do something. Both had previously worked as interns at an organization called Resetting the Table, which sends delegates to Hillel, the center of Jewish life on college campuses, to work with Jewish students who face conflict for political or religious differences, or to stop potential tensions. Veta and her friend decided to do a “dual narrative” workshop for their peers. The organization designed the workshop to teach politically diverse Jewish students dialogue and empathy strategies with multiple parties to the conflict. Veta said that as a result, the tone of the trip has changed.

“Everyone felt like this huge weight was lifted from their shoulders and from their chests,” he said. “The fact that we’ve all been able to sit through this program, understand where everyone is coming from and are on the same page… no doubt, towards the end of it all, everyone became more sympathetic to those with whom they disagreed. “

As tensions between Zionist and Palestinian student groups heat up in colleges across the country and rival protests spread across campus, Jewish students and staff involved in the Hillel program say there are deep rifts among Jewish students about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They feel isolated and largely hinder fruitful conversations on campus.

Resetting the table, which was set up to deal with these problems, is helping Jewish college students navigate these rocky terrain. Launched in 2014, the organization also teaches conversational skills in religious congregations and other settings. Workshops exploring various Israeli and Palestinian narratives are particularly popular.

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, the organization’s co-founding executive director, noted that Jewish students from a variety of on-campus clubs focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from Israeli advocacy groups to Palestinian rights groups, have feelings and opinions but are afraid to get involved. Don’t.

The goal is not to bridge the “deep gap” between students, but to show that “people are closing in on each other”, including people who can “reach and employ the right situation with the right tools,” said Weintrab, who is also the former founding director of Encounter. , An organization that aims to expose Jewish leaders to different perspectives on the conflict. “We’re living in a cultural moment where many of us are drawing our red lines too close to ourselves … It’s easy to get past other people’s pale and it’s not worth talking to them before we really try.”

The organization works with a complete spectrum of students. It has politically diverse funding, including the Jim Joseph Foundation, which finances Jewish education activities; The Jacob and Hilda Blastein Foundation focuses on issues of social justice and builds a more “pluralistic” Israeli society; And the Maccabee Task Force, an Israeli advocacy organization supported by the late conservative philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.

Kenneth Stern, who directs the Bird University Center for the Study of Hate, said Jewish students and American Jews in general are divided. Some see Israel as a historically safe haven for Jewish refugees and an important part of their cultural or religious identity, while others see the government’s treatment of Palestinians as contrary to their Jewish values. Wrote a book called Stern Conflict over conflict (New Jewish Press, 2020), which explores why the campus debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so controversial.

“When your identity is linked to issues of perceived social justice or injustice, it becomes very, very strong,” he said. “You try to rule out complications. You try to reject the idea that there is no justice on the other side. You certainly wouldn’t want the mental capacity to imagine if you were born in a different situation you would have felt differently. You are right and ready to get the moral assurance to jump into the fight. “

Training of trainers

According to Weintraub, students are not the only ones coaching through these thorny issues. Table Reset has always worked with Hillel House and Hillel International, their affiliates, but it recently expanded its partnership with Hillel to include a new “Trainers Training” program.

Within six months, a dozen Hillel staff members have learned to conduct dialogue workshops on their campus. Early next fall, Weintraub plans to run a shorter program or “boot camp” for Hillel staff members, followed by a longer program.

“Every campus professional needs to be able to navigate the political department and build some tools and skills,” he said.

Matthew Vogel, executive director of the University of Vermont Hill, said he had previously wrestled with students over their meaningful involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem seemed too complicated for him, especially on a campus where “most students are really engaged in social justice,” which might alert some Jewish students involved in campus activism to discuss Israel for fear of alienating their peers. He has completely avoided the complexity of the matter.

“I really felt like I sometimes struggled with the correct language of how to talk about Israel on campus and with every single Jewish student who wants to walk in the door or get involved with Hillel or get involved with their Jewish identity,” he said. “So, in some ways, I didn’t say much, and I kept a lot of our programs at a higher level.”

Vogel, who now conducts table resetting programs with both students and staff, praised the workshops for “presenting multiple narratives and allowing students to compare their own perspectives and form their own minds and their own relationships on a huge complex issue.”

Naomi Finchtain, an assistant director at the American University of Hillel, who attended the new training program for Hillel staff, said she was drawn to the opportunity at a time when religious and political divisions in general felt particularly acute on her campus and across the country.

“We live in an incredibly polarizing time, and college campuses are at the forefront of that polarization,” he said.

The inter-communal controversy that Hillel’s staff is facing is hardly new. For example, in 2013, a Jewish student movement called Open Hillel emerged to protest the restrictions that outlined which speakers and groups would be partners in conducting Hillel International events. These restrictions include not partnering with groups that support the Israeli boycott of business; That “denies Israel the right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders”; That “to legitimize, demonize, or enforce a dual standard for Israel”; Or that “displays a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or creates an atmosphere of rudeness.” Open Hillel activists argued that these values ​​were too limited to represent the full diversity of Jewish student perspectives on conflict.

Adina Danzig Appelman, vice president of Hillel International’s Engagement and Impact, noted that Hillel’s partnership values ​​include “a commitment to facilitate civic discourse about Israel in a safe and conducive college environment that is conducive to dialogue and learning.” To establish their own guidelines.

“Hillel has always been and continues to be committed to welcoming all students first, regardless of perspective, and ensuring that they feel included and integrated, and Hillel is a place where they can fully express themselves,” he said.

He sees Hillel’s collaboration with resetting the table as a separate issue.

“Our Hillel professionals have repeatedly said that this is the training they need to work in today’s world.” “It gives them the skills and confidence to help students communicate in a way that is respectful and builds relationships, which is increasingly important, because we live in a time when the political climate on campus drives students with different worldviews. Separate and sometimes war enclaves. “

‘Peace Building’ on and off campus

The alternative to fruitful conversations is when students hear dissenting opinions about Israel in the classroom or during the Shabbat dinner, which turns into heated political debate instead of engaging in challenging but potentially meaningful conversations, says Jenna Citron Schwab, director of Queen’s College Healy.

When that happens, “what they can’t do is talk about their own relationship with Israel as a Jew,” he said. After launching regular conversation training for Jewish student leaders nearly a decade ago, he noticed that more students had the tools to “be able to hear difficult things and then share their own stories without feeling like they had to be defensive or stand up.” “

He wants students to feel more comfortable discussing Israel with each other and with non-Jewish peers, especially on campuses like Queens College, whose student organizations are ethnically, racially and religiously diverse. He does not want students to miss out on the educational benefits of being involved in pluralism.

“We have a lot of differences on campus,” he said. But “diversity does not mean that you will ever be involved in diversity. It just means it’s diverse. Do they feel comfortable and have the tools to engage with them meaningfully when they are surrounded by peers who look or speak or eat or pray differently than they do? “

Weintraub believes that his organization’s workshops are more a step towards a broader “peacebuilding” than a solution to tensions within the Jewish campus community.

“Without creating a different kind of argument and creating opportunities for people to push and challenge each other across their silos and echo chambers, we will not gather the intelligence and wisdom and creativity needed to solve problems.”

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