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

Standing at a cloth-covered table reading the Torah, Rabbi Sharon Brous delivered her Saturday sermon, recounting her experience at a recent event at UCLA.

Protesters draped in Israeli flags shouted at students in keffiyehs. The rhetoric was hateful, mixed with threats of violence, she said.

“It was like everyone was drowning on opposite ends of a raging sea, a sea of ​​sorrow and fury,” she told nearly 250 members of her congregation, IKAR, gathered in their place of worship, a high school gymnasium on Fairfax Avenue earlier this month.

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

Thousands demonstrate in support of Israel as pro-Palestinian counter-protesters surround

Thousands of people demonstrate in support of Israel as pro-Palestinian counter-protesters 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 tent encampment, throwing objects, brandishing sticks and sending more than two dozen to the hospital.

Since the April 30 attack, unrest on university campuses across the country has further intensified, with more arrests, protests and cancellations of classes.

Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7 and Israel’s invasion of Gaza tore apart long-standing divisions within the American Jewish community over the issues of Zionism, nationalism and Palestine. Brous and other progressive Jewish leaders are seeking a common ground that respects the humanity on both sides of the conflict — however elusive that goal may seem.

They denounce a zero-sum game mentality that pits one group against another and deepens the ideological divide such that – in the rhetoric of the moment – ​​to be pro-Israeli is to be anti-Palestinian, to be pro- peace means being anti-Palestinian. Israel. These are false dichotomies, they say.

Understanding the experiences of Israelis and Palestinians is precisely what is needed now, they argue – to grasp 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 – led many to double down on their camps.

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

Johanna Israel, daughter of a longtime UCLA professor, shouts during a protest in support of

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

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

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

A majority of Jewish students, for example, understood that the chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” meant 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 torn off and even being threatened with rape, according to the survey.

Tempers are heating up after violence broke out early Wednesday in the pro-Palestinian encampment,

Tempers are heating up after violence broke out on May 1 at the pro-Palestinian camp, hours after the university declared the camp “unlawful and in violation of university policy” at UCLA.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

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

“I fully understand the immense trauma of October 7 and am fully aware of the sense of devastation, fear and suffering of Palestinians in Gaza,” said David Myers, a professor of history at UCLA, who “feels Alright “. a lot alone” last fall, when the limits were quickly emerging. “But it seemed that few people could empathize with either side. »

Over the past seven months, Myers has met regularly with students — some Jewish, some not — to try to raise awareness about the violence in Israel and Gaza. He helped organize a peace vigil and a class, and in the winter he taught a class on the history of anti-Semitism.

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

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

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

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

“Jewish community leaders must not only condemn last night’s unprovoked attacks,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Forward, “they must also denounce malicious actors from within who claim to defend Jewish students but are heading down the same path. heinous acts of which they accuse the other side,” referring to the aggression of the pro-Israeli faction.

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

We cannot ask the off-campus Jewish community more clearly: stay off our campus. Do not fund any action on campus. Do not protest on campus. Your actions are harming Jewish students.

    Pro-Israeli supporters gather at

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

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Hillel, which has long offered many Jewish students a sense of community through Shabbat dinners and other gatherings on campuses across the country, has itself become a target, with pro-Palestinian students calling for its ban at the University of Santa Cruz.

“Everything that everyone worries and fears is happening,” said Andrea Hodos, associate director of NewGround, a nonprofit scholarship program that seeks to facilitate conversations between Muslims and Jews based on shared values. “All this happens, and fear and anger narrow our vision. »

This is true for both anti-Muslim hatred and anti-Semitism, both of which are on the rise in the United States.

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

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

“One of the questions we ask ourselves is how, in such an urgent moment, we move forward slowly,” she said. “With famine on the horizon, with hostages still held, what does it mean to heal slowly and heal while the trauma deepens?

Pro-Israel protester waves Israeli flag while surrounded by pro-Palestinians

A pro-Israel protester waves an Israeli flag while surrounded by pro-Palestinian counter-protesters at UCLA on April 28.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

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

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

Chandler, who founded the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, criticizes Zionism and calls Israel’s invasion of Gaza a “genocide.”

In his work, Chandler found “a focused and concerted effort to present the Palestinians’ quest for rights and freedoms and their support as anti-Semitic, to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism,” even though Jewish anti-Zionism has existed for just as long. as there was Jewish Zionism.

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

As the tenor of the protests intensifies – and the war continues – the search for a note of reconciliation and peace becomes more urgent.

Rabbi Sharon Brous in front of a photograph by Kim Silverstein

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

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Toward the end of his sermon Saturday, Brous described a moment at UCLA, where a leader of Standing Together — an alliance of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel — began chanting.

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

As remarkable as the message was, even more remarkable, Brous said, was hearing the voices of the protesters who joined in — those who had just been shouting at each other.

“It seemed that these protesters, each of whom is motivated by their own grief and righteous desire for justice, did not even know that such a collective appeal was imaginable. »

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