Have you ever had difficulty trying to find the right words to say? Language allows us to communicate with one another but also tends to limit our ability to say what we mean and mean what we say. It is perhaps one of the most important yet most limiting of all human capabilities.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent or crippling than on a college campus. Diversity is both our greatest blessing and our most controlling curse. I am midway through my first year at UCLA and have already encountered this issue. The inefficacy of language has limited my ability to connect with those who have had experiences different than mine, and it has undoubtedly inhibited the abilities of others to connect with me, as well. Growing up in a predominantly Jewish community, the concept of Israel-Palestine was black and white. It was not to say that one side was right and the other wrong. There simply were not two sides in any sort of equation. It was not until I came to UCLA that I was introduced to the intricately complicated world of campus advocacy.
Without passing judgement on any group or individuals, the current conversation on campus regarding Israel-Palestine is futile. There are simply so many groups, each bearing its own stigma and each presenting a certain perspective on the conflict. While the diversity of opinion is commendable, there is no infrastructure in place for cross-group dialogue. For this reason, students seek out like-minded individuals who echo what they already believe (or want to hear). This groupthink mentality is destructive to campus climate and inhibits any chance of progress with the conflict, both on campus and in the region. In turn, the Israelis lose, the Palestinians lose, our campus loses, and we lose.
To better understand the nature of our current state, I attended several Israel-Palestine related events hosted by different groups on different ends of the spectrum. During the events I spoke to different students, both in the leadership and in the audiences, to gain a better understanding of the community of students at UCLA invested in the conflict.
There was not one conversation that did not mention the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. Each student leader addressed the current level of polarization on our campus, his or her goals for his or her group, and most importantly, his or her personal connection to Israel and/or Palestine.
Genevieve Javidzad, a second-year student and director of marketing for Bruins for Israel, said she pursued her current position to “change the negative viewpoints [on campus regarding Israel] and show people what a wonderful place [Israel] is — for Jewish and non-Jewish people alike.” Calling Israel her “home away from home,” Javidzad believes her role is to ensure that the “[Jewish people] always have this safe place to call home.”
Second-year student Gil Bar-Or, president of JStreetU at UCLA (an organization which describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace”), explained that as a first-generation American, he is invested in this campus conversation to perpetuate his grandfather’s legacy as a pioneer of the Jewish state. Bar-Or says he is working to “ensure that the American Jewish community stops supporting the occupation [of the Palestinian territories] and enabling Israel’s worst behaviors, which threaten its own Jewish and democratic futures.”
On the other end of the Jewish-Israeli conversation about Israel is Jewish Voice for Peace, led by fourth-year Jacob Manheim. Following last year’s USAC Divestment hearing, Manheim and his fellow co-founder Gabriel Levine founded UCLA’s JVP chapter. Manheim was “very disturbed with groups and individuals who claimed to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community and who co-opted [his] Jewish identity to justify occupation and internationally recognized human rights abuses against Palestinians.” He believes he has a “responsibility to speak out and say, ‘Not in my name.’”
There are also groups in the conversation that are not directly associated with the Jewish community. Among these is the Olive Tree Initiative, led by fourth-year student Saeed Marandi. Marandi believes the current state of conversation on campus is “disappointing.” “Students are failing to talk to each other with reverence for and understanding of the history of the conflict,” says Marandi. “[They] have and continue to make insensitive remarks that are inflammatory at best.”
The newest player in the game is Israelis and Palestinians Unite, a new group started by fourth-year Eli Mordecai, with the intention of bringing together “people on both sides to get to know each other as human beings and to form quality friendships.” IAPU preaches a strategy of “put[ting] aside politics to bond over common interests.”
BFI. JStreetU. JVP. OTI. IAPU. What does it all mean? Where does it get us?
When asked about the state of current campus climate, each student called it “polarized,” complaining about the lack of understanding from other groups of its missions and intentions.
Javidzad believes that there currently “isn’t [a conversation]” on campus, and suggests that students “pursue constructive dialogue on the issues and come to a better conclusion than polarity on campus.”
Bar-Or believes the current conversation to be “counterproductive.” He hopes that students will work to “form a better, more nuanced conversation and talk about matters that were pushed under the rug due to divestment.”
Manheim, too, agrees that there is a “lack of meaningful conversation,” but that any conversation needs to be “inclusive to the broad diversity of Jewish perspectives, including those that support divestment.”
Marandi responded that the goal should be for “students to empower themselves to actually try to understand the core issues in this conflict.” He says that the “final and most important step [to mutual understanding] is humanization; to unshackle the weights and hear each others’ narratives without judgement…[this] can only come with actually listening, inquiring, and partaking in informed discussions.”
Mordecai believes the future of the conversation lies in postponing the conversation, and calls on UCLA students to” lead by example” by “showing everyone that, [here], Israelis and Palestinians are friends.”
So where do we go from here? Each group has its own agenda, each group complains of the growing polarization on campus, each group seeks to be heard and understood. So what is inhibiting us all from gathering around the campfire and singing “Kumbaya”? Why aren’t we able to come face to face, meet eye to eye, and hear each other out heart to heart? We’re speaking different languages.
One group speaks of self-determination, one of occupation, and one of friendship and normalization. Unless we are able to compromise on some sort of mutually accepted vocabulary, the status quo will never change. But maybe that’s the problem: We spend more time speaking than we do listening.
As my father always says, paraphrasing Charles Caleb Colton, “G-d gave us two ears and one mouth to remind us to listen twice as much as we speak.” In the aftermath of the passage of the divestment resolution, the time has come for the UCLA Jewish community to regroup and engage in more nuanced, inclusive conversations about Israel. BFI. JStreetU. JVP. OTI. IAPU. At the end of the day, they’re all just letters. And without taking the time to listen to each other, it’s all just noise. Language inhibits our ability to adequately share with others that which we think and that which we feel. But maybe it’s not about finding the right words to say, but taking the time to listen; not about the words you say, but the words you choose to hear.