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From date rape to racism to gay rights, America's universities have long provided a forum for openly debating our most divisive and controversial issues. so why can't they talk rationally about Israel?

Left to right, Mohammed Herzallah, moderator, Harvard Arab-Jewish Dialogue, and Rebecca Rohr. president, Harvard Students For Israel.
Left to right, Mohammed Herzallah, moderator, Harvard Arab-Jewish Dialogue, and Rebecca Rohr. president, Harvard Students For Israel. (Photographs by Jorg Meyer)

LAST SPRING, ON AN UNUSUALLY WARM AND HUMID AFTERNOON in May, I found myself sandwiched into a Volvo sedan with several young Arab-Americans, students from MIT. All of us were sweating. The young woman to my left, Iman Kandil - who wore jeans and a black head scarf - fidgeted uncomfortably in her seat as the car's air conditioner droned weakly. On my right sat Adel Belcaid, a short, balding, intense-looking business student in his early 30s. Belcaid was talking urgently into his cellphone: "Yes, we're on our way."

Our car sped through Waltham and then pulled in the front gate Brandeis University. We zipped past a security booth manned by a guard who appeared to be asleep and continued up a winding road until we came upon a parking lot. "OK, let's go," said Belcaid. The students piled out of the car, and moments later a second car arrived with four more young men. They quickly exited their car. Belcaid nodded at them and set out at a brisk pace across the parking lot and down a narrow footpath that led to the center of the campus. Along the way, several students stopped to stare at this curious procession, but Belcaid didn't hesitate or slow down. In the distance, we could hear yelling. "I think we're close," said Belcaid. "I can hear them."

The path we were taking skirted the library and then suddenly opened into a large area, where almost a hundred students and faculty were gathered at a rally. Their attention was directed at a young woman, Lior Halperin, who was standing against an embankment of trees. Her dress was casual - tight jeans, a turquoise tank top, orange sunglasses, and a rhinestone necklace - as if she were ready for a night of clubbing. Halperin spoke in a heavy Israeli accent. Almost immediately, she noticed the arrival of Belcaid and his fellow students. "They're here!" shouted Halperin. "Our friends have come to gather the paintings."

The genesis of this moment traces back to a class that Halperin was taking that semester at Brandeis titled "The Art of Building Peace." The 27-year-old Halperin, an Israeli and self-described peacenik, grew up near Tel Aviv attending peace demonstrations with her activist parents. During her service in the Israeli army, she was assigned to a unit charged with consoling families whose sons or daughters had been killed in combat. In 2002, she moved with her family to Boston, and last year she enrolled at Brandeis as a sophomore, majoring in psychology and minoring in the university's Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence program. As part of a final project for her Building Peace class, Halperin contacted Abed Abusrour, a Palestinian who runs a program at a refugee camp in Gaza where he encourages teenagers to express themselves by painting pictures.

Not surprisingly, many of the paintings portrayed grim images - of guns, tanks, and barbed wire. Halperin arranged to have 17 of the paintings - including perhaps the most controversial, a map of Israel with a Palestinian flag painted over it - displayed in a two-week exhibition in April at the library. After four days, university president Jehuda Reinharz ordered that the exhibit, called "Voices From Palestine," be taken down. Reinharz argued that Halperin did not provide any "scholarly context." Halperin was adamant that the paintings be shown somewhere. After a media storm, she was contacted by the Society for Arab Students at MIT and soon found herself talking to the organization's president, Adel Belcaid.

As the students from MIT began collecting the paintings, a shouting match erupted at the back of the rally. I strained to get a better look and saw two young men holding a large flag that said, "Victory to the Iraqi resistance!" Beneath these words was a drawing of an Iraqi man in handcuff s; one handcuff was emblazoned with the American flag and the other with the Israeli. A third student was yelling at the two flag bearers. An onlooker called for silence; someone yelled at this person. More shouting. Rather discreetly, Halperin and the MIT entourage made their exit.

Halperin, Belcaid, and I hopped into her car and set out for MIT's Stata Center, where the exhibition was to be set up. From the back, I listened as the two discussed how the exhibit would be arranged. I asked Halperin whether she was surprised by Reinharz's decision. "Of course," she replied. "I was very surprised. Aren't you supposed to have freedom of speech in this country? Isn't this academia? Of course, the paintings are disturbing, and that may cause disagreement. But we would be dead if we did not disagree with each other. Why are people so afraid of disagreeing?"

WEEKS LATER, WHEN I FINALLY HAD A CHANCE TO SPEAK WITH Reinharz, he quickly reiterated his initial objection about the lack of scholarly context. But then he continued. "My role is also to run a community," he said. "I have to protect free speech, but occasionally I need to intervene to maintain equilibrium. So when a student put up a sign in his window that said 'Arabs kill women and children!' I had him turn it around so it wasn't projecting into public space. We need some very basic and almost self-understood principles by which we run the academy. And once they are disrupted, you know, we are going to have war."

At almost the same time that this controversy was brewing at Brandeis, a similar one was erupting at Penn State University. In that case, the director of the university's visual arts program refused to display a Hillel-sponsored exhibit by a Jewish student named Joshua Stulman who had made a series of paintings depicting Palestinian terrorists. One showed an Arab-looking man raising his arm in a Nazi salute. Ultimately, administrators at Penn invited Stulman to show his work, and the program director apologized.

Elsewhere, debates on college campuses involving Israel have turned far uglier. At the University of California, Irvine, the campus's Jewish and Muslim students are trading accusations in public clashes. In 2003, a memorial to Holocaust victims was vandalized; a year later, a mural made by the Society of Arab Students was burned down. Most recently, last May, the Muslim Student Union hosted a weeklong program known as "Holocaust in the Holy Land" that featured a speech titled "Israel: The Fourth Reich." In response to all of this, administrators have maintained a hands-off policy, which has done little to quell the vitriol of either side.

The question for students and administrators at Brandeis, UC Irvine, Penn State, and other schools is this: Why is it so hard to talk about Israel in an open, civil, and constructive manner? After all, our college campuses have long provided a forum for discussing the nation's most divisive and controversial issues - including date rape, racism, abortion, and gay rights. So why, exactly, is the subject of Israel so difficult to discuss?

THE HOLY LAND HAS NEVER BEEN AN EASY TOPIC OF CONVERSATION. The fact that three of the world's major religions all have a large spiritual stake in the city of Jerusalem, Israel's capital, guarantees that virtually every young person with an opinion has something to say on the fate of this place. But why is the topic especially contentious right now?

The answer in part is that Christian, Jewish, and Muslim college students are more organized than they ever have been - and more outspoken, especially when it comes to Israel. A former official at the national office of the Muslim Students Association estimates that in the late 1980s, there were only about 100 chapters at colleges in North America. Today, that number has grown to more than 600. In Boston by the mid-1990s, there were MSA chapters at Northeastern, Boston University, MIT, Wellesley, and even Brandeis. "In general, I think there is a presence of Muslim students on college campuses that was not here 30 years ago," says Hadia Mubarak, a recent Florida State University graduate and former national president of the MSA. According to Mubarak, when the MSA was founded in 1963, the mind-set of its members was much different. Then, most members were recent immigrants who were far more reluctant to voice their opinions or draw attention to themselves. This first generation came to the United States in droves during the late 1960s, after Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which opened the doors to people from Asia and Africa. Their children, the second generation, started attending US colleges in the mid-1990s. Around the same time, the children of many African-Americans who had converted to Islam in the 1960s also came of college age.

In general, the second generation of Muslim-American students was far more integrated into campus life. These students went to homecomings, participated in student government, and voiced their opinions on the Middle East, says Mubarak. During the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifadah in 2000, for example, Mubarak didn't hesitate to organize a large rally in downtown Tallahassee. As she saw it, that was the American thing to do.

The presence and visibility of Jews on college campuses have followed a somewhat similar trajectory. In the early 1900s, many prominent American universities - like Harvard - had strict quotas on how many Jews they would admit. The American Jewish community responded by founding Brandeis in 1948 as a nonsectarian university that would "embody its highest ethical and cultural values," according to the school website. Today, half of its student body is Jewish. By the 1960s, restrictive policies at other US colleges were largely gone, and by the 1970s, many schools were offering kosher meals, classes in Jewish studies, and days off during the Jewish holidays. Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization, was founded in 1923, but its most significant growth has occurred within the last 15 years. Since 1994, the organization has built 36 new buildings, doubled its operating budget to more than $60 million, and doubled the size of its nationwide staff to more than 1,000 people. In Greater Boston, there are Hillel buildings at Harvard, Tufts, and Boston University, and at nearby Brown and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. According to Jeff Rubin, a spokesman for Hillel, the impetus for this growth was motivated in large part by a study that came out in 1990, known as the American Jewish Population Survey, which indicated that 51 percent of American Jews were marrying non-Jews. Hillel, which had the infrastructure to reach hundreds of thousands of young Jews, was seen as the appropriate response to the situation, and, almost overnight, it began beefing up its presence on college campuses. One of the main programs that Hillel ultimately helped sponsor was the "Israel on Campus Coalition." It was specifically designed to improve Israel's image on campuses by setting up seminars and conferences.

Then there is the role of evangelical Christian students, many of whom have become ardent supporters of Israel. Albert Thompson is an African- American student at Oral Roberts University - the famous evangelical institution in Tulsa, Oklahoma - who founded a pro-Israel student group called the Knesset. He says that Jews, like African-Americans, are members of a persecuted minority who have struggled for freedom. He also sees a commonality between the founding fathers of Israel and the United States in their struggle to escape religious persecution. And, perhaps most significantly, Thompson believes that God played a role in the creation of Israel. "In Christian theology, we believe that Israel would be reborn eventually because Christ prophesized it," Thompson tells me. "And when Israel overcame enormous odds and won its war of independence in 1948, we believe that this was a miracle." Thompson says that he has friends at a number of other Christian institutions - including Liberty University in Virginia and Johnson Bible College and Carson-Newman College, both in Tennessee - who have organized similar groups. "There are lots of Christian students who are coming out to support Israel," he concludes.

The result of these trends among Muslim, Jewish, and Christian elements may be something like three separate weather systems converging and forming a single massive storm on college campuses. Predictably, the situation only becomes more tempestuous when events in the Middle East heat up. Professor Mark Rosenblum, who is the director of the Jewish Studies Program at Queens College in New York City, sees this among the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian students who enroll in the classes that he teaches on Middle Eastern politics. Time and again, Rosenblum has noticed that whenever tensions fl are in and around Israel, they almost immediately flare in his class. "This fall, on college campuses across the United States," he says, "there will be a great deal of energy on the part of students and student organizations to re-fight the 33-day war in Lebanon."

Most significant is the role that September 11 plays in all of this. Perhaps no one knows this better than professor Andy Overman of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. The college recently won a $100,000 grant from the Difficult Dialogues program at the Ford Foundation for its efforts to get students at Macalester thinking and talking about the conflict in the Middle East. Overman says that the students who are currently enrolling in colleges across the United States are part of the "9/11 Generation."

"The members of the freshman class coming in this fall were generally in sixth or seventh grade on September 11, 2001," he points out. "These kids grew up and came of age in a time when everyone talked about terrorism, and I think this really heightens and punctuates the emotions on any discussions involving terrorism or the Middle East." Perhaps the topic of Israel once seemed like a remote issue to the average college student, says Overman, but now it hits home in a personal way. In short, the very heartfelt opinions that students have on the US "war on terror" - whether pro or con - often translate into equally vehement opinions on Israel and how it is conducting itself. To combat quick-draw defensiveness on all sides, local student groups, such as the Boston-based Students For Peace, have sprung up to try to foster constructive dialogue. At Harvard alone, there is the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Arab-Jewish Dialogue, and Harvard Students for Israel, among others.

OSTENSIBLY, ONE WAY TO CREATE A CIVIL DIALOGUE ABOUT ISRAEL would be to stage a series of formal debates governed by Robert's Rules of Order. But, so far, among academics at least, this doesn't seem to be doing much good. Last winter, professors Alan Dershowitz of Harvard and Noam Chomsky of MIT met at Harvard's Kennedy School, in front of a large audience, to debate the best prospects for peace in the Middle East. In this realm, these two are old rivals. In fact, Dershowitz began the debate by saying, "I propose here today a peace treaty among academics." But what ensued was two hours of bickering over footnotes, past arguments, and personal slights.

Afterward, when I visited Dershowitz at his office, I asked him if he felt the debate had been productive. His reply was an emphatic no. "We didn't talk with each other," he said. "We talked at and around one another."

Chomsky was even more unhappy. "I agreed to enter the debate on very explicit terms that we would not evade the issues by making slanderous attacks on one another," he told me. "I don't have time to waste on that kind of infantilism. I expected it from Dershowitz - he is infantile but on the part of the Kennedy School, which allowed this behavior, I thought it was disgraceful."

Dershowitz and Chomsky weren't the only ones disappointed with their much-hyped debate. So was 21-year-old Deena Shakir, a native of California whose parents are from Iraq. Shakir is a junior at Harvard, where she is president of the Society of Arab Students. "The problem with events like the Dershowitz-Chomsky debate is that people basically show up at these affairs already knowing what their viewpoint is, and so they barely listen to the opposing side unless it is to nitpick or criticize," she says. "There is just no open-mindedness, and I find this surprising, because we are at Harvard, which is supposed to be this intellectual hub."

These feelings inspired Shakir to collaborate with several other student leaders active in Harvard's Progressive Jewish Alliance to create a jointly hosted "Falafel Night." Their rationale was that, in order for a meaningful dialogue to emerge, there must be a degree of friendship or good will that spans the ideological divide - so that when students disagree, they will also listen to one another. "The idea is that we only see each other at these political events, and so we always see each other as opponents," explains Shakir. "So we had the idea that if we could just sit down and not discuss anything political, we could enjoy the other things that we have in common, like our food."

On the night of the event, three dozen students arrived at a common room in the Winthrop House, which was distinguished by well-polished wood panels, rows of leather-bound books, and a buff et with falafel, hummus, and tahini. In the corner, there was a klezmer band - complete with trombonist, keyboardist, bassist, and saxophonist - belting out a traditional Jewish hora. Students clustered in small groups, munching on falafel and chatting amiably.

To a certain extent, Shakir's vision for the evening - in which friendships, or at least acquaintanceships, could be formed across prior divides - appears to have been a success. "I come from Saudi Arabia, and previously I had a lot of misconceptions about Jews and Israelis," explained Noor Al-Dabbagh, who is a senior. "And it has just been great to be in an environment where we can just hang out as people."

"I think it was very good," added an Israeli student named Matan Shelomi. "I had a very good conversation with someone from Kuwait and another person from Saudi Arabia. The fact that I was Israeli didn't bother them. It's good to know that you can befriend someone from another culture, and that the enmity is strictly political." Shelomi then added thoughtfully: "As long as we don't discuss Middle Eastern politics, we can all get along just fine."

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, I MET A 21-YEAR-OLD COLLEGE STUDENT named Danielle Josephs at an outdoor cafe in Cambridge. Josephs had spent the summer working for a professor at the Kennedy School and was about to return to New Brunswick, New Jersey, for her senior year at Rutgers University. She told me that she was eager to get back to college and meet her dozen new dorm mates - a mix of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish women - all of whom have dedicated much of their upcoming year to discussing Mideast politics.

Josephs is a petite woman with toned arms and muscular legs. "I have been doing tae kwon do since I was 8," she tells me. "By the time that was 15, I was sparring men twice my size who were side-kicking me in the chest and knocking the wind out of me." Josephs pauses for a moment, as if recalling a distant memory of combat, and then she laughs. "The men sometimes had no concept of how hard they were kicking," she says. "They just lost control."

It was a similar insight that led Josephs to organize the women who were to be her dorm mates this fall. She wanted to create a forum where women alone could discuss Israel and the Middle East. Why no men? "With the exception of Golda Meir, the negotiations in the Middle East have almost always been dominated by men," Josephs tells me. "I think that women have some innate advantages when it comes to peacemaking - including sensitivity, concern for families, the ability to see both sides of a problem, and a lack of testosterone. Basically, we need more women to get involved."

Josephs, who describes herself as a secular Jew, is the child of an American mother and an Israeli father. She grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, and went on to college at Rutgers, which has a student body of 35,000, including roughly 5,000 Jews and 4,500 Muslims. In the fall of 2003, when Josephs arrived as a freshman, these two communities were clashing stridently. As it turns out, that year, the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian advocacy group, was planning to hold its annual conference at Rutgers. Weeks of unrest ensued. "It quickly escalated into a really hostile and tense situation," recalls Josephs. "It was a regular occurrence for me to walk through campus and see a banner that said 'Zionism is Racism.' There were daily shouting and screaming matches. As a freshman, this environment was particularly upsetting. I felt very uncomfortable being pro-Israel and even being Jewish."

Josephs's freshman experiences prompted her to wonder whether there wasn't a better way to create an ongoing dialogue among the campus's Jewish and Muslim students. As a sophomore, she came up with the idea for the Middle East Coexistence House, in which a group of a dozen students - Christians, Jews, and Muslims - would live together in the same wing of a dorm and take a weekly seminar on peacemaking in the Middle East. The group would also take field trips to places like the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan.

Administrators at Rutgers embraced Josephs's idea. This fall, 11 female undergraduates began living together in a wing of the university's Douglass College. There were five Jews, three Muslims, one Hindu, one Christian, and one agnostic. These women all volunteered for the program, and their ethnic backgrounds include Egyptian, Lebanese, Indian, and Pakistani. Graduate student Miranda Vata, who is a Muslim from Kosovo, leads the weekly seminar. Rutgers is in a financial crunch, yet Josephs's program only requires that the university set aside some dorm space and add one small class to its roster. The program is as cheap as it is innovative.

Josephs insists that this program is designed to create and maintain an ongoing discussion. "The problem with doing just one occasional event, like a falafel night, is that the dialogue never really gets going," she says. "These women will be in each other's faces from the day they move in in September to the day they move out in May. The need to talk will be reinforced daily. They will have to think about these issues when they brush their teeth, when they eat, and when they're in the shower. And under these circumstances, it is a whole lot easier to put a human face on another person's perspective."

The true advantage of having an ongoing dialogue, says Josephs, is that it allows people to have awkward and fractious discussions. "This project is not meant to make you comfortable," she says. "We are going to be approaching some very serious issues - Jewish and Muslim fundamentalism, suicide bombers, the tactics of the Israeli army, fences, settlements, Jerusalem, etc. - and in order for these discussions to be successful, we can't just dabble politely. Our goal is to live in harmony, but also to accept the fact that people will think very differently and to realize that we must listen to one another. This won't always be easy. But, then again, this isn't meant to be a superficial exercise in harmony, where we all are acting happy and singing 'Kumbaya' at the end of each day."

LOOKING BACK ON THE CONTROVERSY AT BRANDEIS, IT SEEMS AS if Jehuda Reinharz had a legitimate point: Occasionally, it is necessary for administrators to intervene and help structure a civil dialogue. His mistake was in taking down the paintings. This is true not only because he silenced voices that need to be heard but also because he tried to muzzle the very same on-campus discussion that he himself has worked so hard to create. In the past, Reinharz has been committed to creating a lively dialogue at Brandeis on the Middle East by bringing scholars to campus from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. He also pioneered a program where the university awards a full scholarship to one Israeli and one Palestinian student each year. The problem may not be that he cares too little about creating a civil dialogue, but that he cares too much. Ultimately, as Danielle Josephs points out, there is nothing wrong with people disagreeing vehemently - or even angrily - so long as the disagreement occurs within the context of an ongoing dialogue.

If the episode at Brandeis shows us anything, it is that the university displayed a profound lack of faith in its own students. Reinharz apparently feared that the paintings, by their very nature, were so inflammatory that they were bound to stir up trouble on campus. But, in fact, the opposite happened: The paintings seemed to have brought people together. It was students at MIT who reached out to Lior Halperin has since moved back to Israel and is a junior at Tel Aviv University - to organize an exhibit of the refugee-camp paintings at their campus. Meanwhile, dozens of other students at Brandeis organized protests on campus, demanding that the president retract his decision. In some ways, it seems as if Reinharz did everything he could to prepare his students for a meaningful debate and then lost his nerve just as things threatened to get hot.

In June, Reinharz asked a group of faculty to examine the controversy, and in September, they concluded that he had made a "serious error" in removing the exhibit. But the president's spokesman says that Reinharz is still confident in his decision, adding his feeling now is "let's move on."

This issue isn't going away any time soon. As more and more students from the "9/11 Generation" matriculate into our colleges and universities, discussions about Israel and the Middle East are destined to be volatile. "You have to remember," says Overman of Macalester College, "we're talking about a generation of kids that grew up with the phrase 'You're either with us or against us' being drilled into their heads."

This has put universities in a difficult situation. "We're definitely behind the eight ball," says Overman. "And we need to crawl back into this debate in a civil and meaningful way. There are many layers of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and it is up to universities to cultivate a more nuanced discussion - one that isn't predicated on the stark, melodramatic, bifurcated language that these kids have grown up with all of their lives."

Jake Halpern is a freelance writer in New Mexico and the author of the forthcoming book Fame Junkies, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in January. E-mail comments to Additional reporting by Matt Rogers.

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