Jewish voices struggle to find reconciliation in the face of university violence

Standing in front of a cloth-covered table where the Torah is read, Rabbi Sharon Brous delivered her Sabbath sermon and recounted her experience at a recent protest at UCLA.

Protesters draped in Israeli flags shouted at students wearing keffiyehs. The rhetoric was hateful and accompanied by threats of violence, she said.

“It felt like everyone was drowning on opposite ends of a raging sea, a sea of ​​pain and fury,” he told nearly 250 members of his congregation, IKAR, gathered at his place of worship, a high school gymnasium on Fairfax Avenue earlier this month. .

She described feeling heartbroken by what she witnessed on April 28, “because of the language and the vitriol that came from our own Jewish community… language that I must say was consistent with some of the worst language we have heard against Jews in the last years. months.”

Thousands rally in support of Israel as pro-Palestinian counterprotesters surround them

Thousands demonstrate in support of Israel as pro-Palestinian counterprotesters surround them at UCLA on April 28.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Two days later, pro-Israel counterprotesters attacked pro-Palestinian students at UCLA, descending on their camp, throwing objects, brandishing sticks, and sending more than two dozen to the hospital.

Since that April 30 attack, unrest on college campuses across the country has escalated further, with more arrests, protests, and canceled graduation ceremonies.

The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the Israeli invasion of Gaza have opened long-standing divisions within the American Jewish community over issues of Zionism, nationalism and Palestine. Brous and other progressive Jewish leaders are seeking a middle ground that respects humanity on both sides of the conflict, however difficult that goal may seem.

They denounce a zero-sum mentality that pits one group against another and deepens the ideological divide so that (in the rhetoric of the moment) to be pro-Israel is to be anti-Palestinian, to be pro-peace is to be anti-Palestinian. Israel. These are false dichotomies, they say.

They argue that understanding the experiences of both Israelis and Palestinians is precisely what is needed right now: grasping more than one truth at a time.

But the loss of life – around 1,200 Israelis on October 7 and more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip – has caused many to buckle to one side.

At universities like UCLA, where students from diverse backgrounds live, study and debate together, the clashes have been particularly extreme, leaving Jewish and Muslim students feeling unsafe.

Johanna Israel, daughter of a former UCLA professor, shouts during a rally in support of

Johanna Israel, daughter of a former UCLA professor, attends a rally in support of Israel while surrounded by pro-Palestinian counterprotesters at UCLA on April 28.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A recent survey of American college students and adults released in March by the University of Chicago documents an escalation in fear, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and support for political violence since October 7.

Most Jewish students, for example, understood the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” to mean the expulsion and genocide of Israeli Jews. (Most pro-Palestinian students interpret its meaning differently: that Palestinians and Israelis should live side by side in two separate countries.)

Muslim students and those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause reported being called terrorists, having their kaffiyeh ripped off and even being threatened with rape, according to the survey.

Tempers flare after violence broke out early Wednesday in the pro-Palestinian camp.

Tempers flare after violence erupts May 1 at the pro-Palestinian camp, hours after the university declared the camp “illegal and violates university policy” at UCLA.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

As pro-Palestinian tent camps have sprung up on campuses across the country, outside activists have joined the demonstrations or attacked protesters, as happened at UCLA.

“I completely understand and connect with the immense trauma of October 7, and I completely understand the sense of devastation, fear and suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza,” said David Myers, a history professor at UCLA, who found himself “feeling very Very lonely” last fall as lines were quickly drawn “But it seemed like not many people could show empathy for both sides.”

Over the past seven months, Myers has met periodically with students (some Jewish, some not) in an attempt to gain understanding about the violence in Israel and Gaza. She has helped organize a peace vigil and a teaching, and in the winter she taught a class on the history of anti-Semitism.

Graffiti on Powell Library on the UCLA campus where pro-Palestinian protesters

Graffiti at UCLA’s Powell Library, where pro-Palestinian protesters set up camp in Dickson Plaza last month.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Despite these efforts, Myers said he had never seen anything “as terrifying” in his 33 years on campus as the April 30 attack on the pro-Palestinian camp.

“Jewish community leaders must not only condemn last night’s unprovoked attacks,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Forward, “they must also denounce the malign actors within who purport to defend Jewish students but engage in same acts.” atrocious acts of which they accuse the other party”, in reference to the aggression of the pro-Israel faction.

While distancing themselves from protesters, Hillel students at UCLA issued a statement on May 1, calling for solidarity among Jewish students over “shared feelings of anger.” As for those who tried to seize the moment:

We could not have a clearer request for the off-campus Jewish community: stay off our campus. Do not fund any actions on campus. Don’t protest on campus. Your actions are harming Jewish students.

    Pro-Israel supporters gather at the "United for Israel" demonstration at the University of the South

Pro-Israel supporters gather at the “United for Israel” rally at USC on May 8.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Hillel, which has long given many Jewish students a sense of community through Shabbat dinners and other gatherings on campuses across the country, has become a target, with pro-Palestinian students calling for it to be banned at UC Santa Cross.

“Everything that everyone has been worried about and feared is happening,” said Andrea Hodos, associate director of NewGround, a nonprofit fellowship program that seeks to facilitate conversations between Muslims and Jews based on shared values. “Everything is happening, and fear and anger are narrowing our vision.”

This applies to both anti-Muslim hatred and anti-Semitism, both of which are on the rise in the United States.

“We firmly believe that if you only look at anti-Semitism without understanding how Islamophobia (and anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian prejudice and hatred) are embedded in our society, it becomes less safe for both Muslims and Jews,” Hodos said.

Hodos argues that the expression Facebook once coined – “move fast and break things” – is precisely the opposite of what is needed right now.

“One of the questions we have been asking ourselves is how to move forward slowly, in a time of such urgency,” he said. “With famine on the horizon, with hostages still being held, what does it mean to heal slowly and to heal while the trauma compounds?”

A protester in support of Israel waves an Israeli flag while surrounded by pro-Palestinian supporters.

A protester in support of Israel waves an Israeli flag while surrounded by pro-Palestinian counterprotesters at UCLA on April 28.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Estee Chandler, a Jewish supporter of Palestinian equality, was at UCLA on April 28, where she witnessed threats and taunts from pro-Israel protesters wearing Stars of David and necklaces with the chai symbol.

The violence on campus two nights later was “heartbreaking,” he said.

Chandler, who founded the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, is a critic of Zionism and calls the Israeli invasion of Gaza “genocide.”

In his work, Chandler has seen “a concentrated and concerted effort to frame the pursuit of Palestinian rights and freedoms and their support as anti-Semitic, to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism,” even though Jewish anti-Zionism has been around for so long. time. as there has been Jewish Zionism.

Calling for an “immediate, complete and permanent ceasefire,” Chandler maintains that “Jews will never be safe in a world as long as we have a state that oppresses people in the world. The destruction of Palestinian land and homes does not make Jews safer. “It is making us less safe.”

As the tenor of the protests grows stronger – and the war continues – the search for a note of reconciliation and peace has become more urgent.

Rabbi Sharon Brous in front of a photograph of Kim Silverstein

Rabbi Sharon Brous stands in front of a photo by Kim Silverstein that illustrates what she says her IKAR congregation in Los Angeles strives to achieve: community. Brous has denounced the hateful rhetoric surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Near the end of his Saturday sermon, Brous described a moment at UCLA when a leader of Standing Together, an alliance of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, began singing.

In Gaza, in Tel Aviv, all children deserve to live. In Gaza, in Tel Aviv, all children deserve to live.

As notable as the message was, even more notable, Brous said, was hearing the voices of the protesters coming together, those who had just yelled at each other.

“It seemed that these protesters, each of whom is driven by their own pain and their righteous desire for justice, did not know that such a collective call was even imaginable.”