A most promising development in the area of campus dialogue on the Mideast took place at Brandeis University this week. More than 250 college students from the New England region came together to discuss how best to defuse the volatile topic and make it more civil, engaging and open, focusing on the future rather than the past. Best of all, the program, known as bVIEW (Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World), was created for and by college students themselves.
Banners for J Streethttp://jstreet.org/ and more hawkish pro-Israel groups were on display, underscoring the cooperation among a variety of sponsoring and participating campus organizations with the common goal of shifting “the discourse from polarizing to productive,” according to the student-produced program book.
The day-long initiative included keynote addresses from Aaron David Miller, a Mideast scholar and former Mideast adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state; Israeli journalist Bambi Sheleg, whose work focuses on spiritual, social and cultural developments in Israel and among diaspora Jews; and Yousef Bashir, a Palestinian student from Gaza who was shot by Israeli soldiers when he was 15. In addition, three student competition winners offered their visions for Israel in 2020.
The in-depth program included facilitated roundtable discussions geared for students both steeped in and new to Mideast politics. More important, though, was the welcoming atmosphere and commitment to promote educated and open dialogue. Some participants would have preferred more talk about the specifics of the Mideast conflict, but the organizers felt it important to concentrate on conversation itself — how to express sharply held views without animosity and create a safe space for exploration and debate.
We hope other campuses will explore this Brandeis model and look to sponsor similar programs. Further, our Jewish communities would do well to consider such an approach as an antidote to the current condition of each ideological or political group preaching to the converted, reinforcing long-held positions.
One exercise at the bVIEW conference was to assign participants to speak on behalf of Mideast views they personally differ with, not only taking them out of their comfort zones but challenging them to better understand the other side’s position.
Meaningful dialogue and progress can only come about when each side acknowledges the other’s story, and pain. Programs like this could transform college campuses from centers of activist denunciation to those of informed discourse.