After weeks of tension among Rutgers University students over the Israeli-Palestinian issue, students came together at two events in a spirit of dialogue, acceptance — and laughter.
On March 1, four young Israelis — one black, one Arab, one gay, and one lesbian — gathered in New Brunswick to speak about minority rights in Israel.
The Israelis spoke of acceptance of gays by fellow soldiers and commanders in the Israel Defense Forces; opportunities for Arab Israelis at universities, in government, and in business; and the assistance provided to black Ethiopian Jews in integrating into Israeli society.
The event was sponsored by Rutgers Hillel and two groups representing gay, lesbian, and transgender students: Hillel’s Jewish Allies and Queers and Big LARU, a Rutgers student association (see related article).
On March 5, about 250 students came together for a “Stand Up for Peace” program at the Douglass Student Center featuring two comedians, one Jewish and one Palestinian. The pair poked fun at the attire Muslims need to wear to get through security at airports, quirks in the Arabic language, Jewish neuroses, and the many spellings of “Hanukka,” among other topics.
Muslims, Jews, and an ethnically diverse group of students chuckled and later asked questions of the duo, Scott Blakeman and Dean Obeidallah. The pair, both successful comedians on their own, have toured together for seven years.
“It’s not enough to say you’re pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian; you have to be pro-peace,” Blakeman told the crowd.
The program was sponsored by Rutgers Shalom/Salaam, a student organization that looks to bridge the gap between Jews, Arabs, and Muslims. Cosponsors were Rutgers Hillel, Rutgers University Programming Association, Muslim Student Association, Pakistani Students Association, the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund-Rutgers, and the deans of Rutgers’ Busch, College Avenue, and Livingston campuses.
‘Unity for coexistence’
The show added an upbeat note to what had been a particularly tumultuous period at the New Brunswick campus, culminating Feb. 27-March 5 with Palestine Awareness Week. Coinciding with Israeli Apartheid Week events at campuses around the country, the Rutgers week was sponsored by the organization BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice.
On March 5, BAKA sponsored a panel discussion at the Douglass campus, “Israel, the Apartheid Analogy and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.” Speakers accused Israel of discriminating against its Arab minority and defended efforts to boycott Israeli products and cultural exchanges.
The panel and similar events in recent weeks have inspired counter-programming by Rutgers Hillel in defense of the Jewish state. Those programs included a Feb. 28 panel featuring four African immigrants to Israel — three from Ethiopia and one from Darfur. Cosponsored by Hillel, the university’s Housing and Residence Life, and Israel at Heart, it featured Israeli students from the Interdisciplinary Center, a college in Herzliya, Israel.
BAKA declined to join as a sponsor of the comedy program.
Shalom/Salaam’s copresident, Will Eastman, said his group wanted “to bring people together in a positive way in a setting where no one’s beliefs will be challenged. We all have our causes and we all have our beliefs, but we all have a shared humanity.”
Hillel president Sarah Morrison welcomed Shalom/Salaam’s participation.
“In light of the tension we have seen come to campus this semester, it was time to rebuild our relationships through Shalom/Salaam,” she said.
Freshman Amani Al-Khatahtbeh of New Brunswick said she came to the comedy night because “I thought it would be interesting to see a Jew and a Palestinian on stage performing together.” She liked the show, but said she could have lived without some of the politics at the end.
Sevinc Nuralis, a senior from Wanaque, left brimming with optimism.
“I’m sure there is going to be peace in the Middle East and this is a great start. It brought people together — Jews and Arabs and so many others,” said Nuralis. “We need that unity for coexistence.”