Most University of Oregon students never cross military checkpoints or narrowly miss suicide bombs, but for some, the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can’t be escaped — even when living 7,000 miles away.
Students gathered in the EMU Amphitheater on Tuesday to celebrate Israel’s 69th Independence Day at the Israel Block Party. People flowed in and out of the amphitheater throughout the day, tasting food from Caspian Mediterranean Cafe and olive oil while Israeli music blared from speakers.
Organizations such as Akiva, Ducks for Israel, Stand With Us and J Street U all hosted booths exploring different aspects of Israeli politics and society. Although the event was bustling with students sharing food and taking pictures, some did not embrace the festivities. Some found the event insensitive.
For many Palestinians, Israeli Independence Day is known as the Nakba, which is the Arabic word for “catastrophe.” A small group of student protesters stood in front of the Israel Block Party holding signs opposing occupation and supporting Palestinian rights.
Protesters carried signs that quoted Angela Davis and tweets from Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. One held up a sign that said: “From Standing Rock to Palestine: Occupation is a crime.”
Organizers of the Israel Block Party didn’t engage with demonstrators directly; however, some students from the event listened to what the protesters had to say.
“It is never going to be perfect, but it starts with a conversation,” Jewish student Joel Jacobs wrote about his interaction with the protesters.
As illustrated in a 2016 New York Times article, divisive confrontations between Palestinian and Jewish and Israeli community members are common on college campuses in the United States. UC Berkeley is a campus where the Israel-Palestine debate flares up.
In 2001, the first chapter of the student activist group Students for Justice in Palestine was created at Berkeley. In September 2016, the tension between SJP and Jewish groups received national attention when a course called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis” was suspended. The two communities debated whether the course was anti-semitic, but eventually the course was reinstated.
In the last three years, UO students have engaged in dialogue surrounding the international conflict — bringing the two sides together to hash out their differences and to see the humanity in the other, according to Mohammed Astal, a Palestinian student from the Gaza Strip.
The Arab Student Union, Muslim Student Association, Jewish Student Union and Oregon Hillel Foundation sponsor a community-building event series called Manzil Midrash. “Manzil” means house in Arabic and “midrash” means study in Hebrew. The conversation series covers topics such as the role of Jerusalem and socialist movements in the Middle East.
Astal, an undeclared freshman, said he feels the need to have dialogues like these. He takes every chance he can to engage with the conflict in a constructive manner while talking to others about his life growing up in the city of Khan Younis.
Astal’s father, Kamal Al Astal, is originally from Khan Younis, while his mother, Sameera Al Hamidah, is considered a refugee because her family is from a city north of Jerusalem called ar-Ramleh. Her parents fled to Gaza, west of Jerusalem, in 1948.
Due to his mother’s refugee status, Astal is also considered a refugee and attended a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency while growing up. The organization provides aid to Palestinian refugees. According to Astal, the organization has also expanded its mission to Iraqi and Syrian refugees in recent years.
While living in Gaza, Astal earned a scholarship from the U.S. State Department to be an exchange student. He spent his junior year of high school in Portland, but his arrival in Oregon was delayed by two months because of military conflict taking place in the Gaza Strip and Israel during the summer of 2014. Astal lost his cousin in the violence.
After returning to Gaza, Astal applied to UO. He now turns his traumatic experiences into dialogue. He gives presentations at different churches and synagogues and speaks frequently about his story as a Palestinian. Astal worries about the danger of only telling one narrative.
“You just have to be interculturally competent, to know the other side,” Astal said. “I don’t care about the past. I know it’s really significant but I just talk about my experiences as a human being living in Gaza and losing friends and losing family.”
UO senior Barkeley Saltzman, although not Israeli, is taking a leadership role in the dialogue on campus. Saltzman, who will attend a graduate program in conflict resolution and mediation at Tel Aviv University next year, helps run Manzil Midrash.
He was in Israel during the Second Intifada (Arabic for “shake off”), a Palestinian uprising. He was visiting his family and shortly after they left a pizza place, a suicide bomb exploded there.
He has attended Manzil Midrash the last 3 years and now leads the program. Saltzman believes that these conversations are positive contributions to UO’s campus climate and that each person should speak for themselves and not his or her group as a whole.
“This is exactly what we need,” Saltzman said of the bridge between Jewish, Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students that Manzil Midrash creates.
On April 25, about 20 students came together as part of the series to talk about Arab and Jewish nationalist movements and their role in Israel and Palestine.
After the presentations, the group split into two smaller discussions and talked about how these movements manifest today. After about half an hour, the group came back together to discuss in a larger setting.
People’s contributions ranged from talking about Israel on social media to how pride ties into perceptions of culture.
Although tense moments arose, most came from disagreement between two members of the same community rather than those with opposite viewpoints.
Collective laughter rang through the room as one student accidentally called the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLC instead of the correct acronym, PLO. Comedic moments like these provided common ground for the discussion to go deeper, and although some disagreed, the discussion was mediated to keep the conversation on topic.
When Manzil Midrash started four years ago, MSA member Drew Williams and his partners in the Jewish Student Union created guidelines to structure these discussions. For Williams, what makes Manzil Midrash different than interfaith discussions on other campuses is UO’s culture.
“Other ones have gotten less amicable than ours and more heated and political. Ours is kind of unique,” Williams said.
Though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much bigger than the campus community, Williams said that the conversations happening at UO provide a valuable space for all students involved, if only for a moment. Saltzman, Williams and Astal said they believe that seeing the humanity in the other side is something worth striving for.
“They want to build relationships; they want to learn,” Williams said about the members of the two communities. “They want to be a part of something that may lead to something bigger and better.”
Follow Sararosa on Twitter: @srosiedosie
Correction: This article originally referred to the Oregon Hillel Foundation as UO Hillel. The article has been changed to reflect the correct name.