Any program that can get young Jews and Palestinians to sit together under the same tent, then peacefully and respectfully discuss the issues that divide them, is arguably a darn good program.
That’s what happened Thursday, Sept. 22, when the Hillel Jewish University Center hosted a “Talk Israel” forum at a tent pitched on the William Pitt Union lawn.
The Center for Israel Engagement, an arm of Hillel: The Foundation for Campus Jewish Life, selected the University of Pittsburgh as one of 20 schools in North America to organize and supervise a “Talk Israel” forum.
The forums are intended to educate and engage students on difficult and divisive issues in the Middle East.
The event would not have one particular agenda or political leaning and would not be intended to provide answers, said Micah Toll, a Pitt senior and business manager of Panthers for Israel. Rather, the group hoped to see critical questions raised and discussed.
The 20 schools that hosted “Talk Israel” were a handful of those who applied to do so. Pitt was selected along with many prestigious schools, including several Ivy League universities.
The event took place under a blue sky on the lawn of the student union. A canopy the width of three tents held a snack table, a TV on which relevant movies played throughout the day and a circle of chairs for people to sit in and converse.
Leehee Kanne, Israel Fellow at Hillel JUC, said most of the meaningful discussions took place between 12 and 5 p.m., with about 15 people engaged in conversation at any given moment.
“What was really exciting was the diversity of the people who engaged in conversation,” she said. “It wasn’t just the people we’re used to. We had the leader of People For Justice in Palestine, Israelis, Jewish students, Christian students, we even had a Muslim woman stop by and wish us luck.
“We consider it a big success,” Kanne added, noting that the leader of People For Justice in Palestine was scheduled to come and was expected to stand on the other end of the tent handing out flyers. Instead, he sat down and joined the discussion for over an hour.
“He was civil; both sides were heard and raised critical questions,” Kanne said. “The point was not to get answers but to start a conversation, and that is what happened.”
Kanne said one film that got a particularly great response was the American-made, Academy Award winning musical parody “West Bank Story,” a 20-minute short film about an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian woman who fall in love.
Kanne is unsure when they might host such an event again, but said the group does hope to continue with it. She added that the facilitator, Lisa Santer, played a huge part in the day’s success.
“She was impartial and really asked great questions,” Kanne said, “and [she] gave room for everyone to voice opinions without interruption.”
(Abby Gordon can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.)