Conflict on campus: Picking up where Jerusalem left off

NEW YORK — Back on Columbia’s campus after 10 days in Israel and Palestine, it feels different. Students are still dashing about to get to classes, but the masses of undergrads seem to slow down just a bit as they reach the center of campus walk, almost as if students are rubbernecking at an accident on the highway. And then I see the flags. The same ones I saw hanging proudly outside buildings and painted all over walls in Israel and Palestine.

The last week in March brings two conflicting events to Columbia: Hebrew Liberation Week and Israel Apartheid Week.

It seems like it’s the same old story from which I cannot escape: us vs. them. Oppressors vs. liberators. Zionists vs. anti-Zionists. As a journalist, I want to hear both sides. So that’s what I set out to do. On one side of campus, in front of Low Library, stand the Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, Columbia University Apartheid Divest and the Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace in front of a makeshift Israeli West Bank Barrier, complete with iconic Bethlehem graffiti from British artist Banksy. On the other side stand the Columbia Students Supporting Israel, complete with flyers and keffiyeh scarves embroidered with the Star of David.

“[It’s] a week of celebration about the connection of Jews and the land of Israel and what Zionism is,” said president of the pro-Israel group, a Columbia junior named Dalia Zahger, 24.

A display of materials shared by the Students Supporting Israel during Hebrew Liberation Week at Columbia University. (Godland News / Steph Beckett)

She said the student group hosts a Hebrew Liberation Week every semester.

“I hope [people] come with an open mind to listen, to read and to learn and to hear from us,” she said. “Not to listen from other people about what Zionism means but to ask a Zionist what it means.”

After speaking with her, I feel even more confused about this term and its place in relation to the tensions that exist in Israel and Palestine. In Israel, our class visited the city of Acco to speak to Imam Samir Assi and Acco’s Chief Rabbi, Yosef Yashar. They were friends.

“Best friends,” Yashar said.

After speaking to us about their faiths and their unlikely friendship, I asked how they could be so different and how Yashar could be a Zionist and still be so close with Assi. He looked at me for a second before saying in Hebrew, “It’s about respect for each other.”

That respect is rare. It doesn’t exist in most corners of Israel and Palestine, so how could I expect to come back to New York City and find it here?

I spent some time over at the anti-Zionist corner of campus, staring at the fake Israeli West Bank Barrier. It reminded me of Bethlehem and I missed it. One day while standing at the fake barrier, I heard a couple of students remark in disgust at a puppy wearing an Israeli keffiyeh on the opposite side of the courtyard.

“Ew,” one student remarked.

“Why would you do that to a puppy?” The other agreed.

Zionism, in the dictionary means, “a movement for (originally) the reestablishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel.” The movement was established in 1897 under Theodor Herzl. But it’s come to mean different things to different groups since the term was originally coined.

For Zahger, it’s a word that means a connection to her home. She grew up in southern Israel, in Lehazim, where she served in the army before coming to study at Columbia.

But for other students it’s almost a trigger word.

I spoke with a student involved with the Columbia University Apartheid Divest and the Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace. She asked that I not use her name because of how political the topic has become. She became involved in the organizations during her freshman year after realizing there was something wrong about the way she viewed Palestine.

“I don’t see how it’s okay for one group of refugees to create another group of refugees,” she said. “I also don’t see how I can justify that as the continuation of a state to do anything in its power to maintain a white Jewish demographic.”


Violence in the Old City as our trip comes to an end

JERUSALEM — Today was our last day in the Holy Land, or Godland, if you will. Our schedule deemed it a “reporting day” and, for the first time in a week, we didn’t have a set schedule. There were no places to see or people to meet; everything was up to us. Most of us took this opportunity to report (or shop for gifts and souvenirs) and finish tying up loose ends on the stories we’ve been thinking about all week.

I spent a lot of this day at the Western Wall: thinking about the time we spent there as a class and reflecting on how I could use the conversations I’d had with different pilgrims throughout the week to create something that might resemble a good news story. My colleagues did similar things: Augusta spent her day at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Sarah spent her day taking a tour of Jerusalem’s water tunnels, Dan visited an evangelical church in Bethlehem and Vildana and Isobel were reporting on cross-bearers in the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City.

But things didn’t go as expected. This afternoon at one of the gates of the Old City, an Israeli security guard was wounded in what police said was a stabbing attack. The assailant was killed at the scene. The security guard was taken to the hospital. As journalists, we’re trained to see this as news and almost expect these things to happen. We live in New York City, after all. But today, after everything we’ve seen, done and experienced all week, it weighed on us more than it normally would have.

Vildana and Isobel were at the gate when it happened.

“We heard a scuffle and someone being beaten, and then a few seconds later we started hearing gunshots,” Isobel said. She estimated she was five meters from the scene when she and Vildana sought shelter from the gunfire, pressing themselves against a stone wall.

According to a report by Haaretz, the assailant was from the West Bank, and belonged to the Hamas party there, although he is not considered to be an active member. Hamas commended the attack in a statement, saying that it commemorated 100 days since President Donald Trump declared the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In the moment, everything was “super surreal,” Isobel said. “Afterwards, it was clear that tensions are still running very high in the city and it was a rude awakening to that.”

After the attack, some shops closed and guards stayed at the gate, ensuring that the area was safe. Some of the holy sites in Jerusalem also shut down, al-Haram al-Sharif being one of them; Professor Moghul was locked inside for about an hour. Tensions were high until we all touched base with one another.

I rushed with my classmates Dan and Galie to the Old City, in hopes that someone would be able to tell me what happened before it was all over the news. I found myself back at the Western Wall and talked to one of the women there. We were both trying to understand what happened. It turned out I knew more than she did.

“Be careful and God bless you,” she said before hugging me tightly. “God will protect you. He protects his people.”

Thea did a quick WhatsApp check and made sure that all of our classmates and faculty were accounted for. I don’t know who protected us today, but I am thankful that we are all safe. We met for dinner back at our hotel just in time for everyone to talk about this day and the experiences of the week. We celebrated being together, learning and growing throughout this journey. We traded stories of our best encounters, our favorite jokes and the religions we would switch to for a week if we could.

My favorite part of this trip was learning so much about the world around me. This was my first time outside of the United States, and I was so grateful to enter every situation with an open mind. Today was hard. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this dispatch because of how difficult it was for my colleagues to be present for something so hard to watch or hear. But they are okay and we are all safe. For that, and for Godland, I am also grateful.

We’ll see you soon, Israel/Palestine.


The hardship of living in Jesus’ birthplace

BEIT SAHOUR — “We starve sometimes for a drop of water.”

This quote has been replaying in my head over and over ever since Wednesday night when we divided up into small groups to spend the night with different families in Palestine. Our group, Sarah, Augusta, Thea, Isobel and myself, spent the evening at the Khair home in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem. Raed Khair picked us up and brought us to the house. We were immediately greeted by his wife, Therese, their 15-year-old twins, Mais and Majd, and three Christian pilgrims from Texas who were also there for dinner.

The first thing I noticed was that the family was East Orthodox Christian. Therese mentioned this to us early on, but it was clear from the giant rosary that stretched from floor to ceiling on the living room wall. Depictions of the Last Supper featured heavily in house décor, in frames and hanging on key chains.

At first, it was a little awkward. No one quite knew how to begin a conversation as we started eating a grain soup and drank lemonade made with lemons from Raed and Therese’s garden. Conversation began to come a little easier as we ate the main course: chicken with vegetables (seasoned with seven different spices) and stuffed zucchini. The pilgrims couldn’t stay for long, and after they left we had dessert: bananas, grain cake and tea with sage. We started to talk about what life is like for the Khair family.

(Clockwise from left) Sarah Wyman, Therese Khair, Mais Khair, Thea Piltzecker, Augusta Anthony, Majd Khair, Raed Khair and Steph Beckett share a family meal in the Khair home (Godland News / Isobel van Hagen)

She told us that she tries to invite pilgrims and visitors from other countries to their home about every four months so that they can learn more about Palestinian life and culture.

The story is not a simple one. There is bad and there is good. “We are trying to encourage everyone to come,” said Therese. “It’s safe and secure.”

“I like to exchange our stories together,” she said.

On the other hand, she added: “The obstacles that we face every day… the future of our kids. It’s very sad.”

Therese told us about some of the things that Palestinians in Bethlehem struggle to do. Maintaining a steady stream of water is one of them – Palestinians use water tanks on top of their houses for their water supply. The problem is that when the tanks empty, families have to wait up to four weeks for a fresh supply. Therese, with the occasional interjection in Arabic from Raed, told us that when the water runs out, the family will have to run the faucet for a few times per day, hoping they’ll catch the moment when the water returns. During most summers, they don’t get to water the plants in their garden.

We ended the dinner by helping Therese peel khubeizeh leaves off their stems, piling them on a platter for her to cook later in the week. Khubeizeh is a green vegetable that is typically sautéed with onions. It was then in our conversation that I realized how, in some ways, we are strikingly similar. Therese wakes up every morning and makes her kids breakfast and packs them lunch. She takes them to school, then goes to work as a nurse. She picks them up and makes dinner. It’s a normal life.

“We are good people,” she said. “We are humans. We should have our freedom and basic needs.”

But there are parts of her life that are totally alien to me. Like others in the occupied territories, the Khairs can’t move freely. There are Israeli checkpoints on many entrances and exits to the city. To travel internationally, they have to fly out of the airport in Jordan rather than the Israeli airport in Tel Aviv. For a family living such a normal life, they also feel trapped. Raed had Therese translate a sentence that also still replays in my head:

“You are living better than we do.”