This post was written by student Kevin Lefkowitz. He is a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is active in pro-Israel advocacy. Before college, he spent a gap year in Israel as part of Young Judaea’s Year Course and, along with six others, created changethebrand.com. Change the Brand is a pro-Israel social networking website designed to unite the online pro-Israel community, regardless of political affiliation. While on Facebook one day, I noticed a typically vitriolic online Israel debate. My friend had posted that she had joined the IDF, and was being verbally assaulted in the comments. Anti-Israel commentators called her a “baby killer,” “murderer,” and “abuser of human rights,” but then one person stepped in to defend her. He wrote that anyone who attacks the character of someone they do not know or understand loses all credibility, and cannot be listened to. He then proceeded to criticize Israeli policies in a well-written, respectful way.
I decided that meeting him could be a rare opportunity to learn another perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian subset of the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, so I asked him if he was interested in having a discussion on the issue. He agreed to meet me at a Starbucks and we set a date. Little did I know that that conversation would become one of the most important conversations I would have about Israel in my time as an advocate.
We decided that to maximize our time before the meeting, we should learn each other’s perspective. At Starbucks, we would present each other’s views and fill in gaps when necessary. For example, I presented the Palestinian narrative and he presented the Israeli narrative. We spoke for three hours and covered both narratives in great detail, but more importantly, we became friends. We agreed that this meeting benefited us so much that we decided to give others an opportunity to have the same experience.
Luckily for us, we both attend the University of Texas at Austin. We formed a discussion group, invited others to join, and laid the foundation for all future discussions. The format is simple: Each side must present both perspectives and the conversations must be educational and not confrontational. With these simple rules, we seek to bring moderates on both sides of the conflict together to learn all perspectives.
If we succeed in bringing moderates at UT together, maybe this group can expand to campuses across the United States and maybe, just maybe, the era of extremist groups on campus can be forced out by the moderates. All this may sound speculative and naive, but what revolution in history started with a “realistic” goal? Worst-case scenario, a group of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students will come together to discuss a controversial topic in a civilized way. I’ll take that deal.