March 15, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 12

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    Jewish and Arab students form a new discussion group, plan Middle East visit

    Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    Last October, Alison Boden, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, witnessed a rally for peace in the Middle East turn into an “ugly scene” of voices shouting across the 15 feet that separated two groups––Jewish students and Arab students––on the Main Quadrangle. This was not the pause for peace that Boden imagined when the chapel decided to co-sponsor a rally with the Hillel Foundation. And then, an unexpected twist––confrontation turned to conversation.

    “A few of the Jewish and Arab students started talking with one another, and I began facilitating a conversation right there on the quads,” said Boden.

    After further discussions following the Pause for Peace rally, several students who were frustrated with the tensions both on campus and in the Middle East decided to form a dialogue group. They brought together students from Hillel, the Arab Student Union and asked Boden to meet with them, as well. Five Jewish students and five Arab students now meet weekly.

    Jennifer Goldstein, a third-year in the College with an International Studies concentration, is one of the Jewish students who began to listen to the Arab students that day on the quad.

    “It was incredibly disheartening to think that educated, intelligent people, thousands of miles away from Israel/Palestine couldn’t sit down to work out their differences and frustrations with each other. So in response to the problems and our frustrations, we began to discuss the possibility of forming a group like this,” said Goldstein.

    She hopes the Jewish and Arab students will eventually educate the campus together and possibly serve as a mediation resource.

    “Right now, the point is to continue getting to know one another, to continue to learn and hopefully understand connections to the land of Israel/Palestine that are different from my own. And to accept these conceptions of Israel/Palestine and the problems there as different from my own, but not necessarily invalid because of that,” she said.

    Goldstein said the discussions overwhelm her at times. “The most unexpected thing is that no matter how hard I try to intellectually tell myself not to be upset by views I don’t share, I find myself getting passionate and upset with people I consider friends just because we disagree. It is hard to check my emotions at the door.”

    Boden noted that the conversations are intensely personal, and students have focused on learning how to listen and attempt to understand what she calls “hopes and dreams that may be diametrically opposed to your own.”

    “The point here is not to build a consensus, but a community. And I want to emphasize that there is nothing cheap or easy about this,” said Boden. “These are bright, articulate students who will be leaders in whatever they choose. This is an opportunity on campus for them to listen and be heard. And perhaps that is a foundation for a way forward.”

    Menna Eltaki, a third-year student in the College concentrating in Economics, also attends the group discussions, which she said are intended to help relieve some of the tensions students have been experiencing ever since the new intifadah began earlier this year.

    Eltaki said the only expectation she had going into the discussions was that everyone involved would keep an open mind. “So far, that expectation has been fulfilled,” she said. Participating in the discussions also has taught her that the complexities of the issues cannot be explained in black-and-white terms. “I’ve learned that you cannot lump everybody under one ideology. Just because someone is of a certain ethnicity or religion, that does not mean that person’s beliefs equal what the media says that certain group believes in.”

    Already the students have formed a Jewish/Arab delegation that will travel to the Middle East at the end of this academic year. The cost of the two-week trip has been offset by the Office of the Provost, the Human Rights Program and Rockefeller Chapel. Boden and the students plan to meet with representatives from the Israeli and Arab governments, visit a Jewish/Arab collective farm, known as a kibbutz, and meet with grassroots organizations in Palestine and Israel.

    “‘What can you accomplish from talk?’ I’ve heard that a lot, but I would argue that it is a vital step toward keeping the tone of Arab-Jewish relations civil and substantive, to focus on addressing issues, not simply angry rhetoric,” said Ben Korenstein, a second-year. “It is the only way we have to establish a base of some sort of communication. And that is essential.”