By Danielle Agress, Senior Intern, George Mason University Campus climate issues concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are becoming increasingly controversial across the nation. George Mason University is no exception. Since I became active in Israel advocacy in the fall of 2014, I have personally witnessed the construction of two mock Israeli apartheid walls and the protesting of two major campus events by Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). I have seen students from both SAIA and the Israel Student Association (ISA) identify themselves as members of their respective groups, only to be greeted with a dirty look and instant judgement by others. I have had Jewish students tell me that they are afraid to identify as Jewish on campus and have taken off their yarmulkes when SAIA is campaigning outdoors.
What I had not seen until last year was members of SAIA and ISA speaking to each other about their differences. I had not seen members of either organization acknowledge the humanity of individuals in the other group. I only saw organizations that claim to work toward peace organize protests against points of view – an endeavor that never lead to discussion.
In the fall of 2015, I decided to take steps to change this unhealthy campus climate regarding Israel. With the help of a couple friends and the support of The David Project, I began a discussion group on campus called Bridging Narratives @ Mason, which identifies itself as a safe space dedicated to creating a dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so students can emerge with a greater understanding of various perspectives.
After one year of successful semi-monthly discussions, Bridging Narratives has made substantial progress toward achieving its goal. Each session was attended by an average of 15 students from various organizations such as SAIA, ISA, Hillel, and the Working Group for Displaced Populations (WGDP). Together, we reviewed the history of the conflict and the causes of many of the issues that exist today. We heard narratives from all different perspectives, including a half-Israeli student and the daughter of Palestinian refugees. We discussed topics such as Judaism and democracy, the effects of media coverage on the conflict, the future of the conflict, and many other issues. We broke down barriers that had prevented us from speaking to each other civilly, and learned about each other as people. We shared where our points of view came from, and how they were formed. And most importantly, we learned to remember that we are all humans with a common goal of fighting for lasting peace for our peoples.
During the last session of Bridging Narratives, we took the time to reflect on our year of discussions. Perhaps the most eye-opening comment made during this reflection was by a well-read member of SAIA, who stated that he now understands Zionism with more nuance than he ever had before.
What Bridging Narratives provided for our campus is a space for students to not only speak their minds and share their stories, but truly listen to others as well. It created the opportunity for students to educate each other in a way that no book written on the topic ever could. As a group, we wrestled through some incredibly controversial, emotional, and difficult topics, and became a close community of friends because of it. We learned that it is necessary to listen to and take into account all points of view in order to work toward the possibility of a real and lasting peace and justice for all parties. We did not talk past each other – we talked to each other.
Danielle Agress is a graduate student at George Mason University pursuing a Master's in Political Science concentrating in International Relations. She is the president of the Israel Student Association, president and founder of Bridging Narratives @ Mason, and the head of public relations for the Secular Student Alliance.