The debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus and in Ann Arbor has been anything but civil this semester.
Three anti-Israel protesters were arrested at a lecture last week in the Michigan League. On Monday, a pro-Israel group hosted a speaker so controversial that the Department of Public Safety checked the auditorium for explosives before she took the stage. That same night, one of the protesters who had been collared at last week’s lecture was arrested again at a City Council meeting after he showed up with a sign that said “Fuck Israel.”
It’s that sort of climate that members of a new student group, Bridge the Gap, say they hope to change.
Started earlier this semester, Bridge the Gap aims to find a mutual understanding between Arab and Jewish students on campus through moderate dialogue and events. Members of the group’s executive board, which is made up of half Arab and half Jewish students, said they hope students will eventually be able to debate the conflict and remain friends.
“One of the major goals of the group is to bridge the social chasm,” said LSA junior Mitchel Kay, the group’s social chair. “We need to confront people before we confront the issue.”
More than 45 students quickly filled a small classroom where the group held a meeting Wednesday. More chairs had to be brought in from surrounding rooms.
When the meeting began, the group seemed little different than any other.
“Welcome” was written on the chalkboard – albeit in Hebrew and Arabic as well as English.
During an icebreaker, students talked about their favorite meals, road trips and summer experiences. The gravity of the issue the group faces, though, soon became apparent.
One student said her best summer experience was a trip to Israel. Another said her favorite was a trip to Palestine. After that, there was a slight tension in the room.
The members of the executive board said they were thrilled with the large turnout, but LSA junior Jennifer Netburn, the group’s philanthropy chair, said she wished more groups were equally represented.
There were many more Jewish students than Arab students at the meeting.
Business School junior Fouad Hassan, one of Bridge the Gap’s co-presidents, said the group’s goal is to have equal numbers from both sides, but because there are so many more Jewish students at the University than students of Arab descent, that will be hard to achieve.
Most of the group’s executive board members, as well as many of the students who attended the meeting, already belong to Israeli or Palestinian organizations on campus. But the board members said they hope that Bridge the Gap will provide the middle ground the other student groups lack.
Hassan was the co-founder and a former president of the Palestinian Student Association. Bridge the Gap members include Fatima Makhzoum, president of the Arab Student Association; Josh Berman, outgoing chair of the American Movement for Israel; and Miriam Liebman, president of the Union of Progressive Zionists.
Not all students involved in the debate share the group’s goals. Cherine Foty, president of the Palestinian Student Association, said she wouldn’t work with Bridge the Gap.
“I find it ironic that a group wants to talk about all these things when in the meantime Gaza is being bombed on a daily basis,” she said.
Foty said dialogue is effective when it occurs between two equal sides, but does not work in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict because there is a distinct power imbalance.
“One side has billions and billions of dollars, of weapons, of international aid and various companies sending money and support,” she said. “The other side really has none of that.”
LSA junior Meagan Mirtenbaum, Bridge the Gap’s other co-president, said she expected some negative responses but wants to look past them.
“We’re trying to keep in mind that there are going to be people against it and try to stay away from that and stay positive,” she said.