On Yom Kippur, Jews around the world read aloud a passage from the book of Isaiah: “when you see a naked one, you shall clothe him, and from your own kin you shall not hide” (58:7). The rabbis say of this verse that, when we see another person suffering, we must not turn away. Instead, even when it makes us uncomfortable or forces us to reconsider our opinions, we must try and comprehend their pain and their story. And we must let their stories guide us towards solutions, and towards a more peaceful coexistence.
As two student leaders in the J Street U chapter at Brown University, we believe that to be pro-Israel it is vital to comprehend the history and opinions of Palestinians. In order to do so, we must provide them with opportunities to speak for themselves. That is why we invited the Palestine Liberation Organization’s representative to the US, Maen Rashid Areikat, to speak at our Hillel.
Amazingly, this was the first time a Palestinian official has ever spoken under a Hillel anywhere in the United States. To some, the PLO represents nothing more than its history of violence against Israel. But since the 1995 Oslo Accords, the PLO has been recognized by both the United States and Israel as the legitimate diplomatic representative of the Palestinian people. They have rejected violence, and embraced the path of negotiations to a two-state solution. It is long past time that the American Jewish community overcome their fears and regard the PLO as what they are now—a real partner for peace, working towards the same goals as pro-peace Israelis. Ambassador Areikat is a Palestinian nationalist who is also openly and firmly committed to nonviolence. He represents the very significant portion of Palestinian society that supports a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that wants to see the conflict ended peacefully.
When such ardent supporters of peace are ignored and silenced, more violent and extreme opinions flourish instead. It is difficult to advocate for peace when no one on the other side seems interested in listening. Sadly, “we don’t want to listen” is a message that the Jewish community often sends to Palestinians. Ambassador Areikat’s visit to Brown RISD Hillel was a welcome alternative to a disturbing strand of aggressive anti-Palestinian sentiment that is still all too common among many Jewish organizations and ostensibly pro-Israel groups. Last month we saw a particularly odious example of this, when Jewish students in New York, organized in part by the Zionist Organization of America, attempted to prevent students from attending a speech by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Cooper Union school. The students tried to reserve seats in the auditorium that they had no intention of filling, just so that others wouldn’t be able to go and listen to the Palestinian leader. A representative of the ZOA told press that students were “offended and worried” that Abbas was speaking on their campus. Are the mere existence of Palestinians and the facts of their history so frightening to a portion of the Jewish and Pro-Israel communities that they cannot even listen to what Palestinians have to say? If we can’t cooperate with non-violent Palestinians who support a two-state solution, then who are we going to make peace with? How are we ever going to arrive at a better place?
Those who ignore and silence others will never be able to understand them. Lack of understanding leads to fear and to hate, and Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims on campus are often on the receiving end of both. As Jewish organizations combat anti-Semitism, they must also be vigilant against Islamophobia, especially when it is aided and abetted by elements within some of those same organizations. By hosting Ambassador Areikat at the heart of Brown’s Jewish community, Brown RISD Hillel helped send a message that they are committed to opening conversations, embracing partners for peace, and combating ignorance and hatred. Now we challenge other Hillels, our peers, and our communities as a whole to make that same commitment.
This article was co-authored by Jake Kuhn