How Bristol built a bridge across the Middle East divide


At a time when the story from campuses around the country has been a depressing one of increasing tensions between Israel and Palestinian supporters students at Bristol University have managed to buck the trend.

Members of the Jewish and the Palestinian societies have found a way to encourage dialogue and even friendship across the Middle East divide - and it has involved an abortive boycott vote, an ex-IDF soldier and a mutual liking for falafel.

Relations hit a low earlier this year when Bristol University Friends of Palestine (Palsoc) attempted to pass a student union motion to boycott goods produced in West Bank settlements.

The move failed after an impassioned debate in which members of the 150-strong Jewish Society highlighted the damaging effect on Jewish students of singling out Israel. Accusations of antisemitism were levelled as emotions threatened to spill over.

Following the vote, Dan Wernberg, the president of Palsoc, which has 300 members, wrote an article in the student newspaper, Tab, criticising pro-Israel students for diverting attention from the real issue.

We feel BDS are quite divisive in their rhetoric — dialogue is a much better way to go

First-year student and Bristol JSoc interfaith officer Jordan Mizrahi decided it was time to step in.

The 19-year-old said: "I feel we won the motion because people were not clear on the issues, but also because Jewish students were saying they were uncomfortable.

"I messaged Palsoc and talked to them. They were disappointed and blamed JSoc for diverting from the key issues and for plucking on emotional strings."

Mr Mizrahi, who is a Zionist Federation ambassador and a member of Israel advocacy group Stand With Us, was keen to explain how Jewish students felt.

Stand With Us had already arranged for Hen Mazzig - former IDF soldier from the army's Cogat unit which liaises with the Palestinian Authority on humanitarian issues - to give a talk at the student union a few weeks after the failed boycott motion.

Mr Mizrahi said: "The Hen talk was very good timing. I messaged Palsoc member Nathan Beeseley saying, 'I know we have had our differences but we would like for you to come'. He then posted the event on his Facebook, with the added message: 'Don't come if you're not willing to listen or planning to walk out.'"

The talk drew a large audience of supporters from both sides, with Mr Mazzig creating a favourable impression among the Palsoc members. So much so that afterwards Mr Beeseley tweeted thanking him for the talk - a surprising outcome given that Mr Mazzig had previously been faced with heckling, protests and walk-outs on Exeter and King's College London campuses.

Since the talk broke the ice, members of the JSoc and Palsoc have been in frequent contact. Instead of Israel Apartheid Week - a series of anti-Israel events on campuses around the country - the Palsoc held a Palestinian Awareness Week and invited Jewish students to attend events.

A book club, called "Hasbara", was launched by Palsoc who invited Jewish students to join. It was an attempt to understand the Israeli side of the conflict by reading and analysing.

Mr Mizrahi said: "The idea that I like is that there is very strong disagreement but at the same time we don't line up across the street screaming at each other. We channel it very differently.

"There are now personal relationships between people high up in both societies. They discuss critical issues."

The city of Bristol has a strong Palestinian solidarity movement and is home to the only "Palestinian embassy" outside London - opened by the city mayor in June 2013.

Mr Beeseley, a final-year history student writing his dissertation on Palestinians living in the UK, said Palsoc members have been disappointed by the accusations of antisemitism made during the boycott debate.

"Pro-Israel students had shifted what we were talking about from human rights in the West Bank to antisemitism on campus. It felt like the motion was being misconstrued," he said.

"But we went to Hen Mazzig's talk and he was interesting. His humanitarian work was admirable. We talked to him afterwards and I tweeted him saying it was a compelling talk and hoping it could be the start of broad dialogue between the societies.

"For Palestinian Awareness Week, we organised for members of JSoc to come and managed to avoid hostilities that have been seen on other campuses."

He added: "People like Hen do good work and get shouted off stage in Exeter, and in other circumstances pro-Palestinians can get called antisemitic. I am graduating in two or three months and would like to leave with an air of good relations between the two societies.

"We feel that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and Israel Apartheid Week are quite divisive in their rhetoric and do not help resolve the conflict - dialogue is a much better way to go."

Mr Wernberg came up with the notion of a book club. He said: "The idea was, let's make it boring. People who shout about the issues often don't read about the issues. We can read articles on the conflict and analyse them in an academic way.

"We've had one session so far and it was a really good discussion. It felt like we learned a lot more about each other's position. It was more valuable than trying to change someone's views. And we all went for a falafel afterwards."

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