The Middle East may seem far away to some, but the Israel-Palestine conflict, which has shaken the region for more than 60 years, has also persisted as a heated topic of activity and discourse on campus here in Ann Arbor.

Both Israeli and Arab groups on campus have held demonstrations, sponsored controversial speakers and advocated for their respective causes in past decades. According to various University professors familiar with the topic and student leaders of Arab and Israeli groups on campus, there are many factors that contribute to why there is such an active dialogue surrounding the conflict on campus.

One typically cited reason for this dynamic discourse is the large Jewish and Arab student populations on campus and in nearby parts of Michigan.

Sociology Prof. Silvia Pedraza, said the demographic of both the student body at the University and the larger Southeast Michigan area is the main reason students are so actively engaged in the issue on campus.

“We have a very large proportion of students who are Jewish and an increasing number, still a minority, but an increasing population of students who are of Muslim background, and perhaps that’s why it’s such a big conflict here,” she said.

According to officials at the University of Michigan Hillel, there are 6,000 Jewish students on campus.

Kamelya Youssef, president of the Arab Student Association, said she is unsure of how many Arab or Arab American students attend the University, because Arab or Arab American is not considered an ethnic or racial group on the University’s admissions application.

But according to the Arab American Institute’s website, “Michigan is home to the highest concentration of Arab Americans in any state,” with 490,000 Arab Americans calling the state home.

Another factor contributing to the on-campus debate may be religion.

Sociology Prof. Fatma Muge Gocek said in addition to demographics, the religious diversity on campus greatly influences the dialogue among students.

“A lot has to do with Islam as well; Islam vs. Judaism and the civilization of the two,” Gocek said. “I think you do have various intersections of culture, ideology, security, and war, (and) those things all come together in various imports in significant ways. And we have so many student organizations on campus that they are already — because of their particular age group — are immediately mobilized regardless, whatever the group may be.”

A third factor may be students’ political ideologies.

History Prof. and Middle Eastern Studies expert Juan Cole said that the discourse does not extend from purely racial or ethnic demographics of the student body, but rather a difference in ideology between liberal and conservative students on campus.

“So I think in some ways it’s a human rights thing from the point of view of the campus left,” Cole said. “On campus, the statelessness and the victimhood, (and) the way they’re being blockaded is perceived as an outrage.”

Rachel Goldstein, chair of the American Movement for Israel, the largest pro-Israel group on campus also said the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stems from historical trends of active debates surrounding the issue at the University. She points to a series of demonstrations and events that took place on campus in the fall of 2000 at the start of the Second Intifada as an example of those trends.

“I think Michigan has a reputation of having a lot of dialogue and a lot of discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going on, on campus,” Goldstein said. “(The activism during the Second Intifada) gave the University a bit of a reputation for being a hot bed of pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian activism. Because both sides were very active at that point and it rendered national attention.”

Ben Kaminsky, chair of Israel Initiating Dialogue, Education and Advocacy, another pro-Israel student group, said the opposing sides of the conflict within the Ann Arbor community and their vocal opinions at various University organization-sponsored events is also a contributing factor to the debate on campus.

Andrew Dalack, co-chair of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, a pro-Palestinian group on campus, said the main reason for dialogue surrounding the issue is because students are concerned about the situation in the Middle East, and are focused on raising awareness for the Palestinian cause.

Kamelya Youssef, chair of the Arab Student Association, said that while the large Jewish, Arab and Muslim student populations do greatly impact the discourse on campus, she does not consider the conflict to be a religious matter, but rather a political issue.

Youssef said the interest in the conflict has inspired the University’s Program on Intergroup Relations to develop a dialogue course on the Arab-Israeli conflict for the upcoming fall semester.

Youssef, along with two other Arab student organization leaders and two Jewish students, and officials from the Program on Intergroup Relations, are creating this dialogue course in order to create better understanding between the two diverse groups on campus.

“This will be something to talk about the Arab-Jewish dynamic on campus as well as talking about their national issues,” Youssef said. “We’re taking a big problem on our shoulders and saying how are we going to make the campus environment better, how are we going to make people better understand each other, how are we going to just start a dialogue between them.”

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