Nuance and Dialogue: Israel on Campus

AWB Campus Engagement Fellow Eli Cohen writes about the delicate journey engaging fellow students in dialogue with Israel, which led to the creation of the ‘A Wider Bridge: Coffee and Storytelling’ event. 

Eli Cohen MC’ing A Wider Bridge: Coffee and Storytelling

Since starting my internship as A Wider Bridge’s Campus Engagement Fellow in January, much of my time has been spent sitting down one-on-one with stakeholders in the Israel conversation. Be these members of Wildcats for Israel, Northwestern’s AIPAC-aligned Pro-Israel group, members of Northwestern’s chapter of JStreet U, members of the Hillel Executive Board, AEPi, or Rainbow Alliance, the message from everyone was clear: talking about Israel on campus isn’t an activity that anyone would describe as ‘fun’ or ‘rewarding’.

For context, three years ago the Northwestern Associated Student Government adopted a BDS resolution in regard to interaction with Israel. Ultimately, the school itself refused the resolution, and Israel-related groups are still given the same funding, but it was a large blow to Pro-Israel activists, and many Jewish students on campus. Since the resolution, dialogue on Israel has been sparse and tenuous. Last year, Students for Justice in Palestine brought Rasmea Odeh to speak on campus as part of their ‘Israel Apartheid Week’. In response, Jewish activists on campus organized a vigil to take place outside the event in memory of Leon Kanner and Eddie Joffe. While both groups were civil around the event, meaningful dialogue still did not take place about why so many students were uncomfortable with the speaker.

This past fall, when the United States announced it would be moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the Political Union, along with some of the Jewish groups on campus, hosted a discussion surrounding this decision. Many people I spoke with who attended the event described it as the first meaningful Israel-related dialogue on campus. The issue was not being discussed with fervor, but with a level head, both sides being able to lead discourse over why the decision was in the best interest of the United States, Israel, and other members of the global political community.

Of the people I spoke to, members of the graduating class were always most hesitant to talk about Israel. They were Freshmen when the BDS resolution passed, and ultimately felt that the topic was too dangerous a subject to address again. From all these conversations, a common theme emerged: the need for more spaces where nuanced dialogue was allowed. This lead to the creation of my event with A Wider Bridge: Coffee and Storytelling.

Performers at A Wider Bridge: Coffee and Storytelling

We rented out a locally owned cafe called Kafein for two hours on Sunday, April 8th, and invited students to come enjoy free drinks, and stories from their peers, and from more seasoned activists. Our student speakers were Emma Blau, President of JStreet U, and a 3rd year student in the Bienen School of Music and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Leo Scheck, the Student Government Senator for the Student Theatre Coalition, and a 2nd year student in the School of Communication, and Charlie Valdes, former president of Wildcats for Israel, and a 3rd year student in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. All three of these students spoke about their experiences related to the intersection of their Jewish and LGBTQ identities.

A Wider Bridge also helped bring in three speakers. Eitan Schechtman, an Israeli who had worked with Jerusalem Open House and on the Jerusalem Pride Parade, Julio Rodriguez, co-founder of ALMA who had attended the A Wider Bridge trip to Israel, and Laurie Grauer, the Midwest manager for A Wider Bridge. These speakers talked about their experiences with Israel, and how their identities, all LGBTQ, but not all Jewish, impacted their relationship with the issue.

The response to the event has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve received feedback from many people about their friend going on about the event and hoping that more events will happen in the future. Those who attended the event have given overwhelmingly positive feedback, appreciating both the space that was created, and the incredible stories they were able to hear that evening. For me, I can certainly describe the experience as ‘fun’ and ‘rewarding’.

Moving forward, I hope that students on campus will be less afraid to interface with Israel. Regardless of their position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, there are still people living in the country whom they can support and learn from. Activism does not stop at the borders of campus, or Evanston, or the United States. Being Jewish, and/or being LGBTQ gives us a global community of shared experience, and people we can support, and who are eager to support us. Conversation can be hard, but hard conversations are oftentimes a step in the right direction.

Eli Cohen is a student at Northwestern University and an AWB Campus Fellow.