American Civic Life, Higher Education

Campuses Should Model Care: Engaging Deep Divides on Israel, Palestine and Beyond

By Jenan Mohajir, Rebecca Russo
Two students and friends on campus.

"We hope that in this moment, both campus professionals and students will lead with care, creating space to honor the distinctive pain," write IA's Jenan Mohajir and Rebecca Russo. (Guillermo Spelucin/Getty Images)

(RNS) — We are two senior leaders at a national interfaith organization, Interfaith America, who have deep personal connections to the tragic situation in Israel and Gaza and profoundly differ in our analysis of the situation. Yet, it has also become clear where we do agree — on the importance of seeing each other and each other’s people as fully human.

We are bereft at the sheer loss of human life, of Israelis killed and remaining under threat from Hamas’ brutal attacks and of continued Palestinian suffering as Israel prepares for a ground invasion of Gaza. We recognize that we are able to write this piece together in a time of immense grief and tension because we have invested nearly a decade in building our friendship — one that uplifts our many shared values and honors the deep differences that still exist between us.

I, Rebecca, am an American Jew who grew up visiting Israel regularly and spent nearly two years living there, including time volunteering with interfaith organizations and Palestinian communities in Jerusalem. I have dedicated my professional life to bridging religious and other divides, particularly on college and university campuses. In addition to my seven years leading campus programs at Interfaith America, I spent years working at Hillel and understand both the richness of Jewish life on campus and the acute fear many Jewish students feel at times like this. Perhaps most importantly, I have a brother-in-law, sister-in-law, nieces, cousins and countless extended family members and friends who live across Israel. My love for them and concern for their wellbeing — along with the wellbeing of all Jews worldwide whom I consider my extended family — is the primary reason I have felt constantly terrified these past two weeks.

I, Jenan, am a Muslim American, and I have dedicated my professional life to the work of interfaith cooperation and building bridges in America. I came of age as a college student in September 2000, during the Second Intifada — and as a leader in the Muslim student group, I organized my campus community to uplift the suffering of Palestinians under decades of occupation. In my 17 years of service at Interfaith America, I have trained hundreds of leaders with the skills of cultivating relationships, navigating deep differences and collaborating on issues of common concern. I am also a mother of three beautiful children who are part Palestinian, part Irish, part Indian and fully Muslim. Their Palestinian and Indian heritage is an important part of our family life, anchored in the ways we worship, celebrate, mourn and love. Preserving the dignity of Palestinian life and narratives is deeply important and personal to me, as it is preserving the dignity of my children’s family and their own stories.

College campuses this week have become tinder boxes, on the brink of eruption, exposing the intense pain that is very present within communities here in America. We both understand viscerally why the events of the past two weeks, which build on decades of conflict, violence and competing narratives, have led many to turn inward, to focus on the safety of their own “people.” We understand this crisis feels — and is — existential for so many. And we also believe college campuses should be places where people can disagree deeply, on Israel, Palestine or any other issue, while honoring each other’s humanness.


We hope that in this moment, both campus professionals and students will lead with care, creating space to honor the distinctive pain.


We hope that in this moment, both campus professionals and students will lead with care, creating space to honor the distinctive pain of both Israelis and Palestinians and ensure that members of the campus community who are personally impacted by the current violence have the support they need.

We hope campuses will ensure students’ physical safety while highlighting our shared humanity and mourning with all those who are grieving. We hope students, staff and faculty who disagree on this crisis will still be able to learn and live together in community so institutions can continue to function, flourish and do what they do best.

And finally, while we understand this moment of crisis is not the time to begin the intensive work of building bridges across differences, we hope campuses will create space — for those who are ready and interested — for respectful conversations across these divides, to share personal stories and build empathy for others. Many resources exist for those conversations, including IA’s Bridging the Gap resources, Greater Good Science Center’s resources and others. We have been heartened to hear that on some campuses where preexisting structures and interfaith relationships were already in place, some of this bridgebuilding has already begun to happen.

Two faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley — Dr. Hatem Bazian in Middle Eastern languages and cultures, who was also an original founder of Students for Justice in Palestine, and Dr. Ron Hassner in Israel studies — sent a powerful message together to students this week. They wrote:

We are two professors on this campus who disagree, vehemently. But we have always treated one another with respect and dignity … disagreement and differing points of view are an essential part of campus life, and we expect that you treat one another with the same respect and dignity we are modeling here.

A seemingly obvious, yet painfully countercultural message.

If you believe Palestinians have suffered under decades of occupation and must fight for justice, you can still express devastation and heartbreak for the killing of over a thousand Jews. And if you believe Israel has suffered for decades under existential threat from terrorism and neighboring countries and must defend itself, you can still express devastation and heartbreak for the continued killing of Palestinians.

This does not require belief in moral equivalence, only in compassion and honoring of human life. If the only way to make a case for our people, whoever they are, is to dehumanize another community of people so far that we no longer see them as people, then we risk losing our own humanity, too.

Professors Bazian and Hassner exemplify the best of what a campus can be — a place for scholarship that allows for diverging intellectual perspectives and a place built on respect and relationships across those differences. We can disagree fundamentally about what is happening, why it is happening and where responsibility lies for the current tragic violence, but we must see each other as human beings.

We should mourn that thousands of innocent people are now dead, both in Gaza and in Israel. And we should come together to push back the rising tide of antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry here in the United States. We are especially horrified by the brutal murder of Wadea Al Fayoume, a Palestinian American child in Illinois, our home state. Our small moment of hope is that we saw Muslim and Jewish communities coming together in the wake of this terrible hate crime to show care and solidarity despite differing political views.

For us personally, we each feel strong solidarity with our own community in this moment, but we have not let that prevent us from acknowledging the pain of human beings outside of our community. Our deep love for our own families, friends and people is not diminished by our recognition of the humanity of others. 

We pray that the coming days will bring increased calm and peace to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Yet regardless of what may continue to unfold, we will maintain and deepen our friendship and show up for each other, even when we disagree in ways that are painful. We hope that U.S. campuses will be places to build these types of relationships and hold space respectfully for diverging views, and that even when it feels hard and painful, we will prioritize seeing each other’s humanity.


(Jenan Mohajir is the vice president of external affairs for Interfaith America. Rebecca Russo is the senior director of higher education strategy for Interfaith America. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)