Op-Ed: Changing our campuses from polarized to pro-peace

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Last spring, a pro-Palestinian club at American University in this city built a big tent on the main quad. Inside were posters demanding an immediate end to occupation. Outside the tent, some pro-Israel students protested, distributing pamphlets encouraging more U.S. support for Israel to protect against the Palestinian terrorist threat. It ended in bitter feelings and confusion among the onlookers. Did either side win? 

In an effort to foster a much-needed middle ground, a few friends and I started a new student organization. We hosted speakers and organized events sharing both the Palestinian and Israeli narratives and creating a space for critical discussion on politics in the region. Building coalitions through involvement in events like Holocaust Remembrance Week and Palestine Awareness Week, we were able to bring both sides together to co-sponsor a film screening and discussion of the parody film “West Bank Story.” With both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine voices represented, not everyone in the room shared the same opinions. However, they sat together, laughed over the musical plight of Israeli and Palestinian star-crossed lovers, and then reflected on the role of comedy and entertainment media in the debate.

We certainly haven’t solved the conflict at American University, but we have begun an important conversation.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most American college campuses are at a mutually destructive stalemate: One side claims to fight for Israel, rivals on the other claim to represent the Palestinian cause. Each side uses inflammatory language to persuade students to empathize with their message while discrediting the other. The result is that no one is effective in advancing what everyone says they want — peace and security.

Competing events, heated demonstrations and visual displays of self-serving facts and flags are common occurrences. But the club at American University is part of a growing movement of students on campuses across the country that stands against this angry and divisive talk that defines our university environments.

Collectively, we are J Street U, founded on the principle that it is high time to plot a new path.

In dealing with the charged campus environment, we find the most effective and meaningful approach is to advocate a stance that is at once pro-Israel and pro-Palestine in that it advances the ambitions of both peoples to live in peace and security. Advocating for a viable two-state solution challenges the zero-sum equation that has traditionally defined this issue and perpetuated the conflict.

Many students, if not most, fall in between the two extremes and have no forum to discuss, act or advocate. This polarized discourse stands to alienate a whole generation of activists who understand the answer to resolving the conflict lies in redefining this unproductive “us versus them” paradigm.

Our communities and our leaders have lost sight of the fact that our best ideas have always sprung from lively discussion and debate. They are so wrapped up in their own rhetoric that they hurl accusations at one another instead of taking it upon themselves to demonstrate the constructive engagement and building of common ground they wish to see in the world. Immediate action is needed to overcome the naysayers who would rather perpetuate mistrust of the other side than make a real effort toward a two-state solution.

As we learned from the impressive campaign that helped elect Barack Obama, the engagement and mobilization of students can make all the difference, and we need to integrate them into the conversation. College campuses are filled with young, creative minds, and if constructive conversation cannot ensue in the prestigious houses of academia, then how can we expect politicians to reach a negotiated settlement?

We students must give support to our leaders by turning our polarization into cooperation. Through education and action, let’s expand the discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and provide a forum for productive discussion about U.S. policy and the future of peace negotiations. Agreement on all questions is not the objective — fair representation of the issues, sincere attempts to listen to and understand each other, and shared solidarity in support of a two-state solution are.

We need to show that we, the future leaders of America, support the difficult road to peace and are dedicated to resolving it so both Israelis and Palestinians can look forward to a better future. Let’s end the hateful stalemate on college campuses and start a movement that will influence and challenge our leaders to replicate our model. Together strong, we can be the trailblazers for a new path toward two sustainable states and the ultimate goal of peace.

(Lauren Barr is a junior at American University and the national secretary of J Street U’s board.)

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