University alum Arik Cheshin served in the Israeli army from 1995 to 1998 and saw his commander killed in action, a friend maimed by a land mine and two men in his unit severely burned by Molotov cocktails, a type of handmade bomb.

Beth Dykstra
Jen Rothstein, Alexis Frankel, Kirk Lazell, Kris Claphan, and Kate Geitner play dreidel at Hillel during the annual Flaming Menorah Party on the first day of Hanukkah yesterday. (Mike Hulsebus/Daily)

Born in a Syrian refugee camp for Palestinians, LSA senior Carmel Salhi said he and his family can never return to their ancestral homeland because of the Israeli occupation.

From soldier to refugee, the victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cut across both sides of a decades-old clash that extends even to the lives of students at the University.

While the casualties of the conflict resonate on the campus, the same Israeli-Palestinian division does as well.

Whether it be guest speakers lecturing on the bias of media coverage of the Middle East or University discussions on divesting from Israel, the campus has been its own battleground for the conflict.

Spearheading these efforts are the various Israeli and Palestinian advocacy groups on campus, led by students like Salhi and Cheshin, who aim to educate the campus about their viewpoints on the conflict. The contrasting positions often mirror the tension in the Middle East.

Yet in the past week, a renewed search to find common ground among the groups has begun. Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups met Thursday to listen to one another’s perspectives in hopes of fostering cooperation with one another. Despite their differing viewpoints, they agree that cooperation is the only solution that can achieve both sides’ most vital goal — peace.

Their desire for peace becomes most clear when the groups hold vigils. The frustration over the incessant violence and the necessity to preserve human life drives the groups to light candles on the Diag or fast for the victims, group leaders said.

“Any time you recognize the human cost of conflict, you highlight the true driving force behind peace,” said Salhi, president of the pro-Palestinian organization Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.

“We’re saying that terrorism is wrong, and the killing of innocent people is not the right way to go. And the vigils are there to commemorate that. We are calling for an end to violence,” said Cheshin, advisor to the Israeli Students Organization and coordinator of the Israeli Community Ann Arbor.

On Oct. 7, when an explosion in a Hilton hotel in Egypt near Israel’s border claimed the lives of 35 people, around 40 members from the different Jewish groups on campus lit candles on the Diag. Out of coincidence, a SAFE vigil near the explosion, SAFE expanded the focus of their vigil to also remember the deaths from the hotel bombing. Members from both sides trickled across from one vigil to the other, in a rare moment of solidarity, Cheshin said.

But the moment was a fleeting one. Although seeking an end to the violence prompted the groups to hold the vigils, the vigils were still separate. Salhi said the need for the separate vigils stem from the different views on which deaths to commemorate and which to ignore. In some cases, the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups clashed over the vigils last year, when a group of students sang the Israeli national anthem in protest of a SAFE vigil, Salhi said.

Moreover, arguments over issues related to the conflict are often traded in the The Michigan Daily’s letter to the editor section, sometimes angering the different group members. For the most part, the organizations have remained separated from one another, left alone to carry out their own actions.

This continual strife between the groups needs to stop, said Or Shotan, chair of the Israeli Students Organization. Having witnessed the violence caused by the suicide bombers and the decay of Palestinian life as a medic in the Israeli army, Shotan said if the campus groups continue arguing, they will just embody the same cycle of violence occurring in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shotan asked how peace can ever be achieved if students on campus, who have more in common than the leaders of the Israelis and Palestinians, cannot agree.

“There has to be a common ground. … We students should be able to reach an agreement with one another and end this arguing,” he said.

To break down the barriers between the two sides, last Thursday SAFE and ISO, along with two pro-Israeli groups the American Movement for Israel and the Union for Progressive Zionists, met at the coffee shop Espresso Royale on South University Avenue.

Acting as if they were official negotiators for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, group members opened dialogue in which they discussed possible plans to achieve peace in the region. The benefits of a two-state solution and a bi-national state were examined, while group members also discussed how the Israeli government would compensate for the homes lost by Palestinian refugees due to the Israeli occupation.

During the meeting, group members said they began to understand the motives behind the other side’s perspective and noticed that on several critical issues an agreement could be reached. In the end, group members said they felt the meeting was a breakthrough and plan to meet again.

To Shotan, the meeting symbolized progress beyond many previous precedents. “Let’s show that our leaders cannot do what we can. Instead, let’s show how our leaders from both sides are wrong and we as students can come together and show that both countries can have a good life.”“I want to have these (meetings). This is my only hope,” ISO vice chair Ziv Zagowsky said.

Group members said in the future they hope the cooperation can spur joint community service events and co-sponsored vigils. With this united vision, group leaders said they can project it upon the campus and use it to educate the student body with a more hopeful view of the conflict.

But coordination between the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups has been attempted before. The Progressive Arab Jewish Alliance was one such endeavor to establish cooperation between the groups, but dissolved last semester because the coalition emphasized SAFE events over any pro-Israeli events, Cheshin said. Salhi of SAFE said the alliance disbanded when its leaders abdicated for personal reasons.

Although the first meeting showed great promise, Cheshin said it’s still yet to be seen how those intentions will be translated into reality as he was unsure if either side would be able to stop confrontational statements from entering the Daily’s editorial page. At the same time, SAFE has recently renewed talks on strategies to force the University to divest from Israel. The pro-Israeli groups do not plan to back down from their support of the University’s position against divestment, although dialogue with SAFE will continue, Shotan said.

In the past, SAFE staunchly committed itself to the efforts, while in turn pro-Israeli groups fiercely defended the University. Both sides may need to broker a compromise on the heated issue if the coalition is too last. Disagreements will be inevitable, Salhi said during the meeting. But he added, “The focus of this (coalition of groups) is to look past the disagreements or defeat them by understanding the disagreements.”

Regardless, many students might not care about the new collective effort. “I think a lot of people are fairly apathetic about them,” LSA senior Matt Cassidy said. Cooperation between the groups might be possible if they are willing to make concessions, he said. But from his experiences at the University, Cassidy said, “I think the people involved in these groups already have their opinion formulated. … I don’ t think they will change their views because the groups both have different things they want.”

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