Rutgers Hillel, Peacemakers talk Middle Eastern conflict
Israeli-Palestinian protests on campus have created divides between the two groups in past years. Rutgers Hillel and Rutgers Peacemakers are hoping to change that through open dialogue over coffee.
Rutgers Hillel and Peacemakers co-sponsored the third “Israel Coffee Break” event on Wednesday night at Au Bon Pain on the College Avenue campus, in which roughly 20 students gathered to enjoy free coffee and share their views on conflict in the Middle East.
“The way the Palestine-Israeli conflict has been discussed at Rutgers is that one group will protest, the other group will counter protest and then the groups will turn their backs on each other,” said Patrick Parlej, president of Peacemakers.
The goal for the weekly event is to allow students a place to break down an “incredibly complex issue” and “listen with the intent of understanding,” said Parlej, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.
The discussion encompassed multiple topics, including Israel’s Arab minority, anti-Zionist parties in government and grounds for expulsion of Haneen Zoabi in elections.
Zoabi, an Arab citizen of Israel and member of Israel's parliament, is controversial in Israeli politics because she is a member of an anti-Zionist party, participated in the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid and has made anti-Semitic comments publicly, Evan Gottesman, member of Rutgers Hillel, said.
Gottesman, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, explained both sides of the issue. He said Zoabi's critics cite her participation in the Gaza flotilla as well as anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic remarks as grounds for expulsion.
Those who do not support her disqualification believe a double standard exists, by which Jewish members of Parliament are allowed to make malicious statements and actions with impunity, Gottesman said.
Peacemakers is meant to act as a third party group during the discussion, with no official stance on Israeli politics, Parlej said.
“We’re here to make sure it is a discussion everyone can participate in,” Parlej said. “If it was just Hillel talking about Israeli policies, it would be counterproductive.”
Every week, Peacemaker members create a Facebook event page for the discussion and write a summary of the chosen topic for the day, Gottesman said.
Gottesman scours the internet each week for op-eds that cover both sides of the issue and posts them on the Facebook page. He summarizes the topic and embeds various articles from different angles about the issue.
“We even pool from local news outlets in the Middle East to make sure we are sharing the real opinions people have who are at the heart of these issues,” he said.
Aviv Alter, a member of Rutgers Hillel, said the topic is not easy to discuss and even after an hour of conversation, she could not take a concrete position.
Students from all different groups are encouraged to come to the event and help other students get a better grasp on complicated issues, said Alter, a School of Arts and Sciences senior.
“I hope people didn’t hold back and felt comfortable expressing what they thought,” she said. “There was a huge range of opinions, which was nice to hear.”
There has been an increase in the number of attendees each week to the point that Parlej said there was a “slight seating crisis.” He said members of the public have even sat in to listen.
Conflicts aren’t solved by protesting, Gottesman said, but by formulating new policies and putting partisanship aside.
Protestors simply read from a “handbook of slogans” and do not offer real solutions, he said. For instance, Gottesman said people are not protesting the drug war in Mexico or the conflict in Ukraine, and are instead searching for answers to these problems.
“[The event] goes to show that given the right context, setting and approach, you can talk about these highly controversial issues,” Parlej said.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article implied that Rutgers Peacemakers established the "Israel Coffee Break" event. It also incorrectly stated that Evan Gottesman is a member of Rutgers Peacemakers.