New student group focuses on visions for Israel's future

Israeli and American students plan area-wide conference on campus in January

bVIEW founders, from left, Natan Odenheimer, Erica Shaps, Gil Zamir, Sarah Geller, Chen Arad.

This is the story of how three entering students reacted (badly) to the quality of Israel-related discussions at Brandeis last year, how they joined forces with Sarah Geller ’13 and Erica Hope Shaps ’13 to change the discussion this year, and how they hope to start making similar changes nationally, beginning with a conference for students from universities throughout the Boston area here in January.

Chen Arad, Natan Odenheimer and Gil Zamir arrived in the fall of 2011 fresh from military service in Israel. They didn’t know one another but, as can happen when students are thrown together as roommates, that changed fast as they settled into the Ziv Quad room that’s become known as The Kibbutz.

They had a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of the level of interest in their country on the campus. Brandeis fairly buzzes with events and discussions about Israel and the Middle East.

But they were surprised at how polarized the campus seemed. Too many people, they felt, only went to hear speakers with whom they would agree.

When Israel Apartheid Week rolled around in mid-winter, recalls Arad ’15, they heard the usual charges from critics of Israel and the usual response from its defenders, none of it in a form that communicated much.

“Just shouting matches, nobody listening,” he says. “Regular people didn’t go, even if they cared deeply about Israel.”

The friends decided to do an event of their own, unassociated with any group. They booked Olin-Sang auditorium and, to their surprise, “got about 70 people, with no organization, no sponsors at all,” says Arad. “We just spoke about our service in a genuine way – not that it was perfect, but expressing affection for the many things that are right about Israel.”

People came from many camps -- BAIPAC, BZA, J Street, Hillel members, BOA and members of the pro-Palestinian organizations like SJP. “It was amazing. They all came, listened respectfully and asked questions very openly,” Arad says. “We had incredibly good responses, and so we held another event.”

On that occasion, three pro-Israel activists with very different ideologies – one left, one right, one center – were invited to speak not about current events or rights and wrongs, but about their visions for Israel 20 years from now.

“What was amazing, and which we did not anticipate, was that there was very little difference in what they hoped Israel would be in 20 years,” Arad says. “That’s when we had the idea that vision was a common ground, a good basis for discussion.”

The friends founded Brandeis Visions for Israel in an Evolving World, or bVIEW. This semester, bVIEW has held three well-attended programs – the first on what is wrong with the discussion about Israel, the second on the roots of Zionist thought and the third on the variety of narratives of Israel and Palestine within the student body.

The fourth and final program of the semester, “Burning Issues, Hot Sufganiyot,” will be at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 11, in the Shapiro Science Center atrium. (Sufganiyot are the jelly doughnuts widely consumed in Israel on Hanukkah, which is being celebrated this week.)

This latest program will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel in relation to the Arab Spring, social and economic inequality in Israel, and religion and the state. Participants will discuss these topics in groups facilitated by students who are in training for the next bVIEW initiative – a conference to which they hope to draw 300 students from throughout greater Boston who are interested in improving the quality of dialogue on Israel.

The conference is scheduled for Jan. 27.

Categories: International Affairs, Student Life

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