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The Calm Center in the Middle

March 16, 2016
Posted by: Jason Steckler, JCRC Intern

Apartheid Week, San Francisco State University, spring 2014 – As an engaged Jewish student active in San Francisco Hillel for more than a year I thought I knew what to expect. But, in fact, what I saw changed me and altered the course of my ensuing years as an SFSU student.

When I arrived on the quad, the tables for General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) and the “I-Team” – the pro-Israel community on campus – were directly across from each other. GUPS was conducting its standard Apartheid Week protest, promoting the message, “My heroes have always killed colonizers,” with flyers and stencils. The I-Team sat opposite with their arms crossed or waving Israeli flags. The tension left me ill at ease. I’d hoped the student community would take the high road, but instead the protest and counter-protest evoked an “us vs. them” feeling. How, I wondered, are we going to move forward if we continue engaging in oppositional viewpoints? Is this any way to achieve peace and reconciliation?

The Israel advocacy that my peers and I had experienced on campus up to that point had been reactionary. Flag waving Jewish student activists would hand out fact sheets at GUPS events, just as GUPS activists would at our events, and the incoming freshman who saw all of this steered clear or felt pressured to pick a side. I have never seen this type of divisiveness as productive. For me, bringing non-Jewish friends into my Jewish community is a central part my Jewish identity and I’m always delighted to learn about the religious and cultural traditions of other ethnic and faith communities.

After the events in Israel in the summer of 2014, campus sentiment shifted towards dialoguing. SF Hillel changed its strategy to ask the question: How can we best create a safe space on campus so that all voices and opinions can be expressed? As an SF Hillel Israel Education Fellow and one of the students implementing the new strategy, I was given the opportunity to facilitate a new program called “Food for Thought.” We host dinner and discussion events to explore our community’s many complex perspectives on the State of Israel. The program has gotten students to start learning from a place of understanding, and it continues to grow. In March of 2015, SF Hillel also started a new internship program to build relationships with diverse student leaders. These efforts have allowed us to form genuine connections with other ethnic and faith communities, to better understand their struggles and to find common ground.

My work helping to reshape campus interactions with SF Hillel is what led me to the Jewish Community Relations Council. As an undergraduate in the SFSU Recreation, Parks and Tourism Department, I’m required to complete a full-time spring semester internship and my desire was to further hone my new skillset in relational advocacy and coalition building. JCRC has been an ideal place to apply my skills within a non-campus focused organization and I am more inspired than ever to continue building bridges on and off campus. My hope is to lead by example by being part of the calm center in the middle working to unify diverse communities toward the goal of peace.

A Final Thought

In early 2014, an article on the “Top 10 Worst Anti-Semitic Campuses in America” ranked San Francisco State University at number six. Unfortunately, because of this article, some people now hold the incorrect view that our beautifully diverse campus isn’t a place where Jewish students can feel safe and free from anti-Semitism. While we face many challenges, there have been no efforts to pass Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions as SFSU. In fact, the on-campus conversation on these topics continues to broaden and deepen. As President Obama recently said in a speech to college students, there is no need for students “to be coddled and protected from different points of views.” In fact, doing so takes away from opportunities for relational advocacy that students like me are continuing to pursue.

 

PHOTO: Jason Steckler (Left) and a leader from United People for Peace at San Francisco Hillel’s Interfaith Passover Seder, 2015 (Photo by Sam Boikaner).