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At Princeton, a chance for dialogue, if not debate
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At Princeton, a chance for dialogue, if not debate

While the United Nations weighed a unilateral bid for Palestinian statehood, students at Princeton University and 20 other campuses across the United States and Canada participated in their own discussions of ways to achieve peace in the Middle East.

The Sept. 21 event, Talk Israel: Join the Conversation, was conceived by Hillel International’s Center for Israel Engagement as a forum for students to discuss critical issues in the Middle East in a civil atmosphere.

And yet the conversation at Princeton was mostly a discussion among Jewish students. Arielle Greenwald, student life coordinator at the university’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel, said invitations were extended to the Princeton Committee on Palestine and the Muslim Students Association.

“One member of the PCP came,” she said, “but the majority of students who attended were Jewish.”

Although the turnout by non-Jews was minimal, Greenwald said, the goal of Talk Israel — to provide a venue for students to engage in significant dialogue about the Middle East — had been met.

“We did what we set out to do, and I believe that those who participated did have meaningful conversations.” She added, “We can only provide the opportunities; we can’t make students take advantage of them.”

Greenwald told NJJN afterward that around 60 people in all came to the Princeton event — the only one in New Jersey — which ran from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The program was cosponsored by CJL, the university’s Office of Religious Life, the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Conversation areas were set up under a large tent on the lawn outside the Frist Campus Center. In keeping with the interactive component, two big-screen monitors broadcast news from the United Nations, as well as Facebook and Twitter posts from other participating campuses.

Integral to the event were three separate dialogue groups, each consisting of about 10 students and moderated by Mitch Chanin, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Dialogue Group. Participants were encouraged to speak freely, Chanin explained, as the discussions were considered confidential.

During a 45-minute portion of one session, eight Jewish students dealt with their concerns about how Israel is viewed by the rest of the world. Participants agreed that the media, including reputable news sources, consistently portray Israel in a bad light. Israel is held to a higher standard than the Palestinians, said some participants, and as a result, any actions it takes, even retaliatory ones, are subject to criticism.

On another topic, students suggested that Jewish lobbying groups have played a big part in creating the perception that President Obama is not friendly toward Israel, adding that many Israelis think the president does not understand the complexities of the situation. One student commented that Obama encouraged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians; Israelis, she noted, do not want concessions or compromises.

The students agreed that there was little appetite for confrontation on the Princeton campus. One said that they live in the “orange bubble,” where real-world events take a back seat to classes and exams. Another noted that organizations will advocate for their positions with programs and flyers, for example, but will not sit down with those on the other side to talk about their differences.

Kerry Brodie, a senior from Potomac, Md., majoring in Near Eastern studies, echoed this sentiment in an op-ed piece in The Daily Princetonian on Sept. 19. She cited the 2010 “hummus debate” (an attempt to offer an alternative to Sabra hummus at university dining halls) as “merely an attempt to make a statement. It drove the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine camps farther away from one another rather than giving them a chance to communicate. There was so much energy wasted that could have been better spent in conversation.”

Brodie, former CJL president, told NJJN in an interview, “Unfortunately, both sides are always preaching to the choir. We need to move away from advocacy and set a precedent where opposing groups speak to each other in order to understand as many perspectives as possible.”

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