Of the hundreds of passions and interests pursued on campus, none manages to simultaneously unite and drive apart the community as much as the conflict in Israel and Palestine.
The discourse on College Hill can be polarized - even with two groups specifically designed to reinforce the middle ground - in a manner that just doesn't happen with other forms of student activism. But even if table slips and guest speakers leave some students feeling torn between just a few sharply different perspectives, the contention and rancor at some other campuses leaves Brown looking positively harmonious.
Big voices on campus
"It's an extremely hot button issue on campus," said Liz Jackson '01, a law student at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine. "It's extremely polarized."
Last year, the Associated Students of the University of California - Berkeley's student senate - passed a measure urging divestment from two American companies that supply war materials to Israel, but the student president later vetoed the proposition, and his veto was upheld.
"The student body overwhelmingly supports divestment," Jackson said. But student dissent and demonstration have occasionally turned violent in California, she explained, with "some really intense" physical interactions erupting between members of pro-Israel groups and students encouraging divestment.
At Columbia, though, students are "predominantly pro-Israel," said Michael Shapiro, president of Columbia's Israel-supporting group LionPac. In contrast, the most vocal faculty at Columbia opposes Israel's policies, he said.
"The faculty get pretty involved, especially on the anti-Israel side," he said, referencing vocal pro-Palestinian professors like Rashid Khalidi and Joseph Massad. "It is concerning to us."
Jackson said that the faculty at Berkeley tends to also support divestment and SJP's other initiatives, but "the administration is hostile to SJP and any criticism of Israel."
At Brown, the conversation is much less influenced by faculty voices.
"The faculty really want to leave this debate in the hands of the students," said Laura Fried '12, president of Brown Students for Israel. "They're very reluctant to be explicit about their personal views."
David Jacobson, director of the program in Judaic studies, said there are no professors currently in the Middle East Studies department who are strongly associated with one side in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
"It's very good that MES is not poisoned by some of the politics," he said. "There has been a problem in academia of professors teaching in what I would consider to be a biased way."
When Brown Students for Justice in Palestine has approached faculty for help and advice, they tend to find support, said Alysha Aziz '12, a Brown SJP member. This year, the group plans to start reaching out to the administration as well. The group works to encourage University Hall to divest from companies that profit from Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The action-oriented group is not directly tied to Berkeley's SJP or any other of the dozens of university groups sharing the same name, though they participate in regional networks. No national structure unites all of the SJP groups calling for various forms of divestment, but many participate in the international Israeli Apartheid Week that likens Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories to racial segregation in 20th-century South Africa, Aziz said.
More similar than they appear
Jacobson said much of the polarization at Brown "is out of ignorance. A lot of people involved don't know a lot."
Two years ago, Jenna Zeigen '12 and Sophia Manuel '11 helped create Puzzle Peace - originally under a different name - in order to "promote dialogue and to say that this isn't a one-sided discussion," said Zeigen, the group's current president.
"The loud screaming voices that you hear are often Israel or Palestine," she explained. "But when you got down to it, most people are less divided."
Manuel added that the individuals involved in the four groups dedicated to the discussion - Puzzle Peace, BSI, Brown SJP and Common Ground - are "much more nuanced" than they might appear.
"Most of the leaders of these groups are actually friends with each other," she said.
Fried, the president of BSI, said she worries that "a lot of people think they need to associate with one camp" and choose to only support Palestine's national aspirations or Israeli security concerns.
"They don't have to choose a side, and they shouldn't be choosing sides," she said. "The needs and interests of both peoples are intrinsically linked."
Even though BSI's mission statement is directly tied to supporting Israel, she said its leaders staunchly support both groups. Fried said that the group does not want to convince students to only support Israel, but that it instead exists to make sure that students hear more than one perspective.
"Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of uniformity in higher education when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The overriding narrative is one that views the Palestinians as blameless - and ignores internecine struggles - while uniformly condemning Israel, often to the point of delegitimizing the country's existence," wrote Cinnamon Stillwell in an e-mail to The Herald. Stillwell is the West Coast representative for Campus Watch, a group dedicated to promoting objective scholarship in Middle East Studies academia.
Because Israel is a Jewish state with sites holy to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, religious dimensions often color the political debate on college campuses, even at Brown.
Both BSI and Puzzle Peace operate out of Brown/RISD Hillel and use Hillel funds.
"We see ourselves as a political group," Fried said, explaining that her group is not religious even though it gets support from Jewish organizations.
She said BSI has started to rethink its Hillel connection, especially since it was placed next to religious groups at the September Activities Fair instead of with other political groups.
Francesca Contreras '11, another Brown SJP member, said that religion is not a part of criticism of Israel. Brown SJP includes Jews and Muslims, and half the group has no identity ties to the issue, she said.
When Berkeley students were debating the original motion to encourage divestment of university funds from companies supplying Israeli war materials, Jackson - who went on a Taglit Birthright trip to Israel through the Brown/RISD Hillel while she was an undergraduate student - said that many students spoke out to say, "I support divestment because I'm Jewish."
As peace talks stall and conflict continues in Israel and Palestine, the conversation on college campuses is still going strong.
"I think there's hope for a common ground," Fried said, especially if groups start to work for "more even-keeled" programming.
This spring, Jacobson, the Judaic studies professor, will begin a new course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will look at how different groups remember and describe the narrative. The course was originally planned as an Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award involving two students, Sami Jarbawi '12 - a Palestinian student who grew up in the West Bank - and Avi Schaeffer '13 - a former Israeli soldier who died in a car accident last February.
"I'm really hoping to have an impact on the campus as a whole," Jacobson said of his goals for the course and the programming that will accompany it.
"Let's put aside the rhetoric," he said. "Let's see if we can just understand what these stories are about."