At UA Hillel ‘Talk Israel’ tent, peace pegged to negotiations

Nicole Siegel, a University of Arizona sophomore from Columbia, Md., wears a t-shirt displaying the names of 20 campuses taking part in Hillel’s “Talk Israel: Join the Conversation” initiative. (Sheila Wilensky)

The University of Arizona Mall is often peppered with tents promoting various causes, but on Sept. 21 the discussion inside the UA Hillel Foundation’s “Talk Israel: Join the Conversation” tent was reminiscent of college teach-ins during the 1960s. Around 30 students and faculty were standing around or sitting on folding chairs or snazzy red couches, “talking Israel” and discussing the current situation in the Middle East.

The Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel’s Center for Israel Engagement sponsored the Talk Israel program to promote respectful dialogue, raising questions and issues relating to the peace process and the Palestinian Authority’s statehood initiative at the United Nations. The UA was one of 20 campuses throughout North America chosen. Other participating campuses included the University of California-Berkeley, Columbia University, University of Maryland and George Washington University.

“We’re not here to propagandize or do advocacy,” said Ken Miller, a UA graduate student and Jewish community volunteer. “We’re here to answer questions.”

“There are a wide range of perspectives,” said Ed Wright, director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies. “It’s political brinksmanship to bring [the Mideast conflict] to this level” by precipitating a vote in the United Nations for Palestinian statehood.

“We should have respect for what [Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud] Abbas has accomplished in the Palestinian Territories,” said Wright. “I imagine that Abbas will cut a deal with the U.N. and we’ll get away from this unilateral stuff. Nothing will be resolved without negotiations. I’m not sure these two leaders [Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] are the ones to pull it off.”

Risks involved with the U.N. solution are “really high,” he said. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] will push statehood, which will pass in a landslide in the [U.N.] General Assembly but they won’t have enough votes in the Security Council when Obama vetoes it. I honestly don’t think Abbas will push it to where that will happen.”

Students in the “Talk Israel” tent were eager to talk about their views. “The move the Palestinians are making is really stupid,” said Zack Arnstein, a UA junior from Beersheba, Israel. “Israel keeps the West Bank afloat. If Israel puts sanctions on the West Bank their water and food would end. They’d have about two weeks of happiness” if Palestinian statehood passes in the United Nations.

“I understand that’s a step that would give the Palestinians pride. But they should stop and think,” said Arnstein, who made aliyah with his family from New Jersey when he was 4 years old. Noting the diversity of views in his own family, he told the AJP, “My mom is the religious one. My father’s an atheist, and my sister’s a Zionist. I’m an Israeli first more than Jewish.”

In Arnstein’s opinion, “Israel could stop supporting the Palestinians if there was peace but the Arab countries won’t jump in to help them. There’s a fear of the day after a peace settlement when they’ll have nothing.”

Aaron Elyachar, wearing a “Jew of A” t-shirt, first said he agreed with his friend Arnstein’s comments. A senior from Kansas City, Elyachar said he heard about the “Talk Israel” event on Facebook. He later added, “Give peace a chance. We need to learn to coexist. I think Israel is for everybody, Jews, Palestinians, Russians, just like America.”

Welcoming students to Hillel’s “Talk Israel” tent were Michelle Blumenberg, executive director of UA Hillel, and Shani Knaani, 28, Hillel’s new Jewish Agency for Israel Fellow, who is from Kibbutz Hulata in northern Israel.

Knaani, who intends to pursue a career in diplomacy, served in the Israel Defense Forces as an intelligence officer and studied political science at Tel Aviv University. She arrived in Tucson in early August. “Students have been asking how I feel about the U.N. resolution, and how it would work with Gaza and the West Bank,” Knaani told the AJP.

“The Palestinians definitely should have a state of their own,” she said. “But going it alone is not the best way to do it. The U.N. can’t create a state. It has to come from the people. The only way [for the Palestinians] to gain their own state is through negotiations, not through the U.N. In real life nothing would be changed.”

Other Jewish UA students were

promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace through a student-led initiative. At a Bear Down for Israel/ Jewish Arizonans on Campus table, students stopped by to sign a petition headed “You Don’t Get to Real Peace Without Talking to Your Neighbors.” Michael Campbell, a sophomore from Phoenix, said he hoped that if the Palestinian U.N. bid “to recognize a unilateral state stalls, peace negotiations would get going again.”