Two weeks after anti-Semitic, racist, and anti-immigrant fliers were found taped to doors around Princeton University’s campus one morning, including the entrance to the Center for Jewish Life, Muslim and Jewish students and faculty joined together to collect signatures and funds for an organization to bring Palestinians and Israelis together.
The university’s Public Safety Department received a call from someone who saw a person wearing a ski mask and dark clothing posting one of the fliers on April 20, according to a statement from the university. The Fliers, which depicted an image of Adolph Hitler wearing a party hat, as well as various anti-Semitic and other racist statements, were left on four buildings — on a door at Stanhope Hall, at the entrance to the Center for Jewish Life-Hillel (CJL), at Murray-Dodge Hall, and in East Pyne Hall. All were removed by the department.
“Princeton is committed to protecting and promoting free expression, but it regards actions that are threatening or harassing based on identity as serious offenses,” the university statement read. It noted that the postings are being investigated as a bias incident.
The fliers were from an organization called Vanguard America, which bills itself as a group for “White Nationalist American youth working to secure the existence of their people.” The date that the fliers were hung was not random; April 20 was Hitler’s birthday. The fliers were also posted on the group’s Twitter feed, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
This incident stood in sharp contrast to the generally good relations Jewish students share with others at the ethnically diverse university. Rabbi Julie Roth, CJL executive director and university Jewish chaplain, said she thought the university was taking appropriate steps; the fliers were promptly removed and Roth doesn’t think any students saw them.
In part because of the incident, on May 3 and 4 Muslim and Jewish students sat in pairs in the Campus Center in support of Build Israel Palestine (BIP), an initiative that began in 2014 to raise money from American-Muslims and Jews to support development of cross-border water projects in Israel and the West Bank.
“The students think it’s great, hearing that Israelis and Palestinians are getting together to improve the lives of people in the West Bank,” said Roth, who sat with Amaney Jamal, the Edward S. Sanford Professor of Politics and director of the Mandouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice. “The Muslim and Jewish communities have a very positive relationship at Princeton.”
As part of that relationship, during Hillel’s biannual Inside Israel trip this winter led by Daniel Kurtzer, the former American ambassador to Egypt and Israel and the S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, a group of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian students visited the site of BIP’s first project, a date-farming community in the West Bank village of Al-Auja. Because of the high cost of electricity for pumps, the farmers’ access to water had been limited. Working with both Palestinian and Israeli engineers and agricultural experts on both sides of the border to design the project and train farmers, last year a $100,000 solar facility was installed to reduce energy costs and increase water access.
Lior Sharir, CJL’s Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow, said he accompanied the students on the Israel trip to see the project and “to show them that instead of talking about it, in a constructive way this is something tangible being done. There are other organizations helping Israelis and Palestinians, but not many allow you to really get your hands on an issue like this one.”
The program was started by Ben Jablonski, a New York Jew (but not a Princeton student), and Tarek Elgawhary, who did his graduate studies at Princeton. Sharir said the campus imam, Sohaib Fultan, has lent his support to the initiative as well.
BIP uses Israeli, Palestinian, and international engineers, but its primary engineering partners are Dr. Clive Lipchin of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura, and Monther Hind of the Palestinian Wastewater Engineers Group in Ramallah. Sharir said Lipchin took the group to the farm on which the solar panels are located and then into the village where, through a translator, they learned how the facility helps people and what still needs to be done.
The Princeton chapter of BIP was founded by four students, Maya Aronoff, Anam Vadgama, Alec Getraer, and Ekrem Ipek.
“We want to bring the Princeton campus community together to learn about and support a project we believe can have a real and tangible impact on Palestinian lives on the ground, as well as reducing the distrust between Israelis and Palestinians, which makes any progress more challenging,” wrote Aronoff in an email to NJJN. She wrote that although sudents’ abilities to influence the policies of governments is limited, through BIP they can be a part of a grassroots organization to improve lives in a “meaningful and immediate way.”
BIP started a second project May 4, which is half funded in Wadi Fukin, a Palestinian village near Bethlehem, to develop the first cross-1967 border cooperative farming initiative in 70 years, working with Tzur Hadassah to provide a lucrative market for goods and increase access to water, said Aronoff.
After learning about BIP through another organization last year, she hosted a small gathering for its leadership on campus and continued speaking with Jablonski throughout the year. Her university trip to Al-Auja “reinvigorated” her passion for the organization’s work.
“The organization is fairly new and faces many challenges on the ground, but seeing the solar fields and irrigation implementation myself made me more aware of the problems facing West Bank communities and the ways in which local individuals were working to increase the sustainability of their livelihoods,” wrote Aronoff, a sophomore at the Wilson School from Okemos, Mich. “[Neither] I, nor any of the core individuals currently working on this on campus, are Israeli citizens or Palestinians. Therefore, during the visit, it was an incredibly important opportunity to listen to others.