WALTHAM — When the leaders of a new Brandeis student group created to foster a more productive dialogue about Israel began planning their first conference, they did not know that Israel would hold elections just days before. Nor could they know that gains by centrists would lend fresh energy to discussions around the world about Israel’s future.
The unforeseen Israeli political developments helped animate the conversation at Sunday’s gathering hosted by Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World, despite what many regard as dim prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal anytime soon. More than 250 students from Brandeis and colleges and universities around the region met to discuss how they could make campus dialogue more civil, and more focused on the future.
“Thoughts change reality — that’s what happened in Israel over the last two years,” said Gil Zamir, an Israeli sophomore at Brandeis and one of five students who founded the group last fall. “Definitely you can feel that here.”
In addition to the state of campus dialogue on Israel, the conference focused on Israeli politics, culture and national security. Speakers included Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to a number of US secretaries of state; Yousef Bashir, a Palestinian student from the Gaza Strip who at age 15 was shot by Israeli soldiers; and Bambi Sheleg, a prominent Israeli journalist.
In one session, students were asked to represent the different Israeli political parties and try to form a coalition government. Viktoria Bedo, a conference leader and president of J Street U., an advocacy group that supports Israel but is often critical of its government, tried to challenge participants by assigning them to represent views different from their own.
“It was a microcosm of what I think coalition-building looks like,” she said afterward. “It was especially fascinating for American students who live in a totally different political reality.”
More than three dozen students trained in fostering civil dialogue ran small group discussions that let students practice the art of conversation throughout the day.
“By being an organization that’s about the conversation itself, we are able to foster collaboration, build community, and create a safe space for conversation,” said Erica Shaps, a senior.
Not that the conversations were easy.
“I think it’s raising even more questions,” said Ilana Pomerantz, a senior who was one of the discussion leaders. “Is it really possible to not have a heated debate? . . . if somebody says, for instance, they’re completely against the state of Israel even existing, and that feels very threatening to somebody, how do you not have a hostile debate?”
And one student said he would have rather have kept the focus on substance, not the conversation itself. Rida Abu Rass, who said he is the only undergraduate on campus who is Palestinian, said few American students are well-informed about important political developments, such as the possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
“We need to prioritize discussing the real issues, instead of discussing what we’re discussing,” he said.
But many students said they took heart at the sight of the banners for two groups on campus that are often at odds in their views on Israel — J Street U and the more conservative Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is generally supportive of the Israeli government — hanging next to each other on the wall.
Zamir and his two roommates, Natan Odenheimer and Chen Arad, were soldiers in the Israeli army before they came to Brandeis. When they arrived as freshmen in the fall of 2011, they were surprised at the hostility among the different Israel-focused groups on campus – and disappointed that students rarely attended the events of organizations with whom they disagreed. So they invited the campus to an event they called “Meet your Israeli soldier classmates.” Scores turned out to listen, and the three roommates answered questions freely.
Zahava Horowitz, a junior at Brandeis, said that the new group has already helped shift the tone. Israel was a toxic subject when she arrived at Brandeis as a freshman.
“When I say screaming matches, literally people didn’t want to be at these events,” she said.
Clarification: This story described the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee as “more conservative” than another Israel-related organization on campus and as “generally supportive of the Israeli government.” Alex Thomson, president of the committee, says the organization is bipartisan group that promotes the US-Israel relationship and focuses on “consensus” issues such as support for sanctions against Iran, maintaining US foreign aid, and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.