Celebrating Israel – a learning platform

The discussion was about to start, but the student organizers kept looking nervously out the window. One explained her distracted glances by saying that she really hoped that the people outside would come in and participate in the discussion. She continued her audible stream of consciousness, noting that they were, in fact, the reason why the organizers had decided to facilitate the discussion in the first place. They wanted to bring together the various opinions and people so that they could hear each other out.

There were actually two groups of people outside. One group was sitting on blankets on the shiny green lawn in front of the Hillel building under a huge arch of blue and white balloons and surrounded by loud Israeli music that was blasting from huge speakers standing on the porch. They had come to celebrate the Israeli Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and were munching away free Israeli food and happily chattering through the loud music.

On the pavement was another, smaller group of students standing shoulder by shoulder with black tape over their mouths. They were holding signs that called attention to the importance of the date for them, referring to the Palestinian catastrophe, the Nakba, that followed as a consequence of the establishment of the Israeli state. While the students on the lawn chattered away, this group remained completely quiet throughout their protest, though, of course, their presence and signs spoke volumes.

The organizers hoped that both groups would join them inside for a discussion. More than that, they hoped that members of each group might be able to talk to one another.

Each year, as student groups mark Israeli Independence Day/The Nakba, students mark the day differently, and encounters between the two groups are often characterized by tension, protest, and occasionally, outright antagonism by one side toward the other. It is never a calm day, as students on all sides approach it with some measure of caution for what might transpire.

But that afternoon, the annual showdown between “Palestinian and/or leftist antisemitism” and “Israeli chauvinism” that has materialized outside the Hillel house, took a surprising turn. The protesters decided to join the discussion. They left their signs and black tape outside and were now sitting down to listen to the organizers’ agenda.

The discussion was organized by a group of JStreet students who were frustrated by last year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration. They intended to facilitate a discussion session about the meanings and narratives of 1948 – the year of Israel’s establishment and the culmination of the Palestinian refugee crisis. As the discussion was about to begin, there were no representatives of the protesters and only a handful of the Israeli celebrators in the room. Around 15 people, among whom the Hillel staff employees, were gathered. One of the organizers began to explain the purpose of creating this kind of discussion forum and asked people to be respectful and cognizant about the sensitivity that this day and its memories evoke in people and to show awareness of the power dynamics encompassed in the specific space in which the discussion was taking place, i.e. the Hillel building. Then the protesters came to join the conversation.

The atmosphere in the room changed somewhat. The organizers were visibly excited that the protesters had come. The audience looked rather curious and perhaps even a bit puzzled about what was about to happen. After presenting the agenda and the considerations needed from all parts, a student gave a 5-10 minute “teach-in” on the historical background of the establishment of the State of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba. After that the floor was open for discussion, which one of the undergrads was facilitating and prompting by various means.

Unlike at least my own expectations and experiences in other contexts, the discussion remained rather timid and much more civil than I had anticipated. A few people shared cautiously their experiences of celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut. There were large silences between each utterance. The voices that were heard (first mostly from Jewish perspectives) expressed doubt and ambiguity about the meaning and importance of the day. One described how she in her childhood had celebrated Yom Haatzmaut in her Reform Synagogue every year, though it hadn’t really meant anything to her. One student spoke about his conflicted feelings of the day, given the experience of his Iraqi-Jewish father who was always so thankful to Israel because it had saved his family when they became refugees. At the same time he himself had realized how much harm the state was causing the Palestinians and he now felt compelled to support the latter community, though he also saw the day from his dad’s perspective.

One girl, who presented herself as Palestinian from the West Bank, was more explicit about the pain that this day caused her and her family and how she experienced the Hillel celebration as inconsiderate because of the ongoing harm of the Israeli occupation. The Palestinian girl, who had been part of the protest outside and was wearing an Student for Justice in Palestine-t-shirt, spoke in an emotional but calm voice. People heard her out, and no one opposed what she said. One Hillel staffer asked her whether her views have changed since she arrived to the US and had gained access to more narratives. The Palestinian woman shook her head and explained how the ongoing occupation still influenced her family and her people. In other words, more narratives were not in and of themselves helpful for her. The organizers concluded the discussion on that ambiguous note.

The event as a whole strikes me on several points. First of all, as a new immigrant to the US in general and the American college life in particular, I realize that my Israeli and/or European lens through which I still understand the world is not apt for this situation of American campus and student identity politics. I had expected a different confrontational dynamics where the parts would more explicitly denounce each other, both outside and in the discussion session. That did not happen. Instead, I witnessed a rather respectful staging and later exchange of narratives. In neither situation did anyone have to give up their position.

This brings me to my second point of surprise. How a little event such as organizing a discussion managed to forge an entirely different learning space in what seemed like a rather seamless action. Outside, neither group had any opportunity to inquire about or engage the other’s opinions. They held their spaces as representations of their views. The discussion almost immediately created a different space of inquiry. There was a tangible responsiveness and curiosity in the room. It struck me that most of the people who had decided to participate were really interested in hearing each other out – not necessarily or at all to change anyone’s opinion but really out of curiosity of listening to people who are most often talked about but rarely engaged in conversation around this issue.

The meeting was short and tentative, yet I left the room full of hope. If Palestinian and Israeli student groups could organize such events, they would surely develop a richer language to understand themselves, their heavy and complex national and ethno-religious attachments, and perhaps even those of their “opponents.” Rather than aiming for ‘peaceful dialogue’ which so often has resounded as the only desirable mantra, one might learn to create respectful discussion forums of opposition, anger, doubt, and confusion. A space, perhaps, for dissonance rather than consonance and one that allows for conflicting emotions and opinions.

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