Palestinian and Zionist Student Groups Improve Dialogue to Reach Common Goal

Published: Fourteenth Street Magazine online, March 13 2016

Politicized language expresses a deep tension surrounding Israel and Palestine, as the two nations continue to feel threatened by each other. However the fear and hatred expressed conceals the desire to peacefully settle a centuries-old conflict.

A common goal between both nations has been hidden by hostility: peace and freedom for all people. Mainstream media is often consumed by the violence, rather than diplomacy, between the two polarized nations, depicting U.S.-backed Israel as a struggling state defending against Hamas terrorists. But there are many sides to the story – the Israeli government has made violent attacks on Palestinians unassociated with terrorism.

The conflict can be translated to Temple’s campus, where in the past Hillel and the Students for Justice in Palestine, among other Jewish and Palestinian groups in Philadelphia have protested and rejected each other for a once non-negotiable barrier between their two cultures.

Since beginning a closer relationship with the University’s diversity office, Hillel and SJP have made an effort to have respectful discussions. Hillel President Max Buchdahl said many American Jews feel cultural ties to Israel, though others are able to separate it from the Jewish faith. This can change the impact of SJP’s anti-Israel dialogue.

“A lot of American Jews grow up and we get a very positive image of Jewish faith in terms of religious teachings, moral values and things like that,” Buchdahl said. “They attach the state of Israel directly to the Jewish religion. Obviously there’s a connection, but I think they’re two separate entities.”

SJP holds ties with Middle Eastern, African American and minority students on college campuses. They have collaborated with socialist and anti-Islamophobic groups, Queer People of Color, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Asian and Black student unions, working to universalize the Palestinian struggle and connect it to social justice issues that have or are occurring in the U.S. Freshman SJP member Dinsio Walo-Wright praised SJP for its inclusiveness.

“I’m a black person. I’m not Palestinian,” she said. “We pride ourselves on intersectionality. The struggle of the Palestinian people is the same struggle that my people are going through.”

Freshman SJP member Natalie Abulhawa planned SJP’s Free Food and Fun Friday last month, celebrating Palestinian culture with ethnic food, dancing and art.

Freedom Dabke, a Palestinian dance group from New York performs at SJP's Free Food and Fun Friday in February.
Freedom Dabke, a Palestinian dance group from New York performs at SJP’s Free Food and Fun Friday in February. (Click to view the full photo gallery).

“Our stereotype can be the same stereotype that Muslims and Arabs get,” said Abulhawa, whose mother is from Palestine. “[Such as] militant, kind of ignorant things that people don’t understand … We represent the love we have and the fight that we’ve given and the strength that Palestinians have.”

Political stigma surrounding SJP has caused meeting cancellations and kickback from the University, according to President and sophomore Iman Sultan. She said their strong political views can often distract from the culture they want to represent and the accessibility of SJP.

However, SJP’s reputation is often overshadowed by an incident at 2014 Templefest, where Jewish student Daniel Vessel was allegedly attacked with anti-Semitic slurs and punched by a student standing by the SJP table. Vessel, a junior at the time, approached the table first and “verbally harassed them repeatedly,” according to Abulhawa and SJP member Yafa Dias. Vessel was also a member of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a group Abulhawa and Dias said specifically targets SJP groups in the U.S.

“What happened in 2014 was not our fault, it was more the fault of circumstance,” Sultan said. “When it comes to Templefest, every table is public. Anyone can visit it. Our table happened to draw commotion because of our political views and orientation.”

Though Hillel now has a closer relationship with the Institutional Diversity, Equity, Advocacy and Leadership (IDEAL) office at Temple, senior Hillel member Emily Simons said the 2014 incident was not handled as well as it could have been. She said Hillel had requested the University provide security by their table for Templefest, but it did not.

“I was upset with the University because now everything that they’re doing is reactionary when it should be proactionary,” Simons said. “Now we’re working really hard with the IDEAL office and teaching them about diversity in the Jewish culture and we had [President] Theobald here. But it took four years to get Theobald to come to Shabbat dinner.”

Because of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath on Fridays, Hillel is unable to host Free Food and Fun Fridays, limiting the University’s involvement with their group. Simons said this was something both Hillel and the University are beginning to address.

Temple alumnus Hanna Khoury, music director for the Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture group in Philadelphia, plays traditional Palestinian music on violin accompanied by students and Al-Bustan master percussionist Hafez Kotain on drums.
Temple alumnus Hanna Khoury, music director for the Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture group in Philadelphia, plays traditional Palestinian music on violin accompanied by students and Al-Bustan master percussionist Hafez Kotain on drums.

She also said the 2014 incident was a reflection of the Hillel student board at the time. The group now has a full-functioning board that can actively interact with University officials. Iman said SJP’s student board at the time also failed to make their group accessible.

It is important to students in SJP and Hillel that the University provide a space for them to discuss and debate issues, and reduce demonization of either group. But there is a very fine line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. SJP members claim the latter; they do not support the establishment of the state of Israel. They often boycott products produced in Israel and push legislation that cuts the U.S. and Temple’s relationship with the nation, behaviors they define as anti-Zionist.

But for students raised in Jewish families and communities, anti-Israel speech of any kind can trigger emotion. Jews with strong ties to their culture consider the denial of a Jewish state as a rejection of their culture and therefore language can be interpreted as anti-Semitic.

“For a lot of Jewish students, they can’t see the difference,” Buchdahl said. “Any comment which resembles an anti-Israel sentiment is ‘you hate all Jews.’ … It conjures up a lot of emotion.”

On the other hand, Sultan said there is a distinct difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and that language is sometimes called anti-Semitic as a silencing tactic for anti-Zionist sentiments. This denies SJP the right to share their opinions on the state of Israel.

“A very serious issue of religious and ethnic discrimination against Jews is being exploited by people who have their own political agenda,” she said.

But Simons also believes anti-Zionist language can be easily interpreted as anti-Semitic whether it is intentional or not.

“[It’s] the way that someone feels they’re being attacked because of their religion and their culture,” Simons said. “That’s up to them to decide, not someone else, the same way someone might feel being attacked for their race.”

Sultan and Abdulhawa said they were not anti-Semitic and that SJP advocates for the liberation of all people, including both Palestinians and Jews suffering acts of war along the Gaza strip.

“Judaism is a religion. It’s peaceful, it’s beautiful,” Abdulhawa said. “When I say I’m anti-Israel, I boycott them; I don’t buy products from them. People think that’s anti-Semitic but it’s not. It’s a misunderstanding.”

Misunderstanding is starting to be addressed between IDEAL and each group, but dialogue between Hillel and SJP is still limited. Carmen Phelps, director of student engagement at IDEAL, said she has seen progress between the two groups. Both had representatives at the social justice summit in January and both appeared willing to discuss their interests.

Phelps also said she would understand why in the past Hillel and SJP were not open to these discussions. She said the University did not have personnel dedicated to learning the concerns of both groups, but her position now attempts to bridge the gap and encourage conversation that could potentially change the global perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The challenges all groups face, on this campus and in the world in general, are global,” Phelps said. “We can’t really expect these issues to be reconciled and resolved when we’re looking at global issues … Hopefully what we can do … is encourage a new paradigm for achieving those goals in the world, perhaps starting with an SJP and a Hillel at Temple.”

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