By Micah Sweet and Matan Berg
October 7, 2023, was a day that neither of us expected. As we woke up that Saturday morning, we were horrified by dozens of news notifications of an unprecedented terrorist attack on the Jewish people. We were sad, shocked, angry, and confused all at once — more than anything else, we were terrified to witness what was to come.
We are both members of J Street U, an organization that has historically been a space for progressive Jewish students to express their support for the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians. As an outgoing senior and an incoming freshman, we have both found J Street as a refreshing alternative to many mainstream Jewish organizations that we feel lack the nuance necessary to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are proud to belong to a group that centers the right of Palestinians and Israelis to live in dignity, safety, and peace. We detest oppression and hate in all its forms and stand in solidarity with all those facing discrimination and brutality. October 7 and its aftermath have felt like an unconditional failure of all of our previous organizing efforts: peace has never felt so far away.
Our feeling of disappointment has spanned beyond this failure and the seemingly improbable nature of peace, however. We have seen groups to our left celebrate the disgusting Hamas terrorist attacks as justified resistance to occupation. We watched as the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust was reframed as a historic counteroffensive. On the other hand, we have seen groups to our right make racist generalizations against and about the entire Palestinian people, and promote wanton, retaliatory violence against civilians. And inward, we have struggled as a student organization, grappling with our own grief and the best course of action to ensure that the future for Israelis and Palestinians takes a different course than the past. We believe Hamas should be dismantled, but we stand strong in our condemnation of the immense suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians. Nor do we want to risk fostering animosity in Gaza that results in entrenched hatred. We have been overcome with a sense of nihilism as we simultaneously recognize that the mission of Hamas is antithetical to the Palestinian plight and that the entire ideology of the current Israeli government is incompatible with true democracy and basic morality.
Above all else, we recognize that members of the University of Michigan are mourning. Muslim and Jewish students, and even students who have never thought about this conflict before, are experiencing unbelievable sadness. While so much can be said about the various political reactions that have occurred this past month, analysis of our campus’s environment has consistently omitted the underlying source of all of the division and bitterness: people are distraught that thousands have died, and they want the indiscriminate death and destruction to stop.
Nonetheless, this is not the story that has been told about Michigan and college campuses across the country. Even though students and organizations are full of sorrow and grief, the divisive political and social environment ensuing from this despair has been far more apparent than the despair itself. Our fellow students are not allowed to just be sad; they must pick a side. People feel uncomfortable engaging with anyone who holds even a slightly different perspective, except, of course, on social media, where the absence of civility is a given. Professors, students, and clubs alike have been scrambling as they discern which statements to sign and which rallies to attend in order to avoid ostracization from their religious, ethnic, and political circles (you can imagine how we must feel as leftist Jews).
What’s more is that antisemitism and Islamophobia are at abhorrently high levels. As aforementioned, polarization on campus has proliferated, which has bred even more student fear — and for some, downright hatred. Many of our friends are scared to wear yarmulkes and hijabs, posters of kidnapped Israelis have been torn down, and the divisions between so many students have seemingly never been larger. In the face of this onslaught of hostility, we feel the only way we can combat hate is in coalition with our Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim friends and students. Right now, everyone feels unseen, unsupported, and unsafe on campus. Everyone is scared, but the outside attention on our campus invigorates this polarization, rather than promoting coalition. We need a space where our emotions are validated and nuance is encouraged.
While we have begun planning for such an event, friends have warned us that doxxing is coming to Michigan. Individuals believe that someone might read about a potential public interfaith conversation and put posters of faces around campus. Students are afraid to come together. Despite this, we believe that a will for dialogue exists. When we talk to individuals — Jewish, Arab, Muslim, and secular alike — they almost all share one common goal: peace and freedom for all.
As J Street U leaders, we believe it is our job to bridge divides. The media would have us believe that we all have hatred in our hearts and are inherently unsafe, but we believe that a majority coalition of students dedicated to peace and nuance is alive and well. Conversations between students of differing identities and perspectives are the only way for people to feel truly heard, seen, and supported. Moreover, dialogue is necessary to achieve tangible progress and make each other feel safe. On campus, we will continue to bring people together and encourage discourse. The Middle East has seen one of the worst months in its already tumultuous history, and it is imperative that we use this series of tragedies as an impetus to support bold solutions, rather than quarreling over small disagreements in terminology or framework. We must center humanity over our differences. As students, we are the decision-makers of tomorrow. If we cannot find ways to come together as young American peers today, we will lose our ability to help make peace abroad for decades to come.