Apr 3, 2024 - Politics

UT students foster dialogue on Israel-Hamas war

Illustration of a cracked mortar board.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

As the Israel-Hamas war nears its six-month mark, we touched base with a couple of University of Texas students who are urging dialogue on campus.

Why it matters: UT, like universities across the country, is struggling with questions of free speech and sensitivity toward students and faculty members.

Catch up quick: The university already sanctioned several students for their participation in a pro-Palestinian protest last year that university officials said took the form of "prohibited disruption." Among the punishments was a requirement they write a paper reflecting on their actions and how they may have affected others.

  • "I have zero tolerance for the antisemitic actions targeting our Jewish community or the hate-filled actions targeting our Palestinian and Muslim communities," UT president Jay Hartzell said in a written message on Oct. 17.
  • Austin police have deemed the February stabbing of a Palestinian American man just off campus a hate crime.

UT undergraduate Elijah Kahlenberg, who's Jewish and is from San Antonio, founded Atidna at UT in 2022 to bring Jews and Palestinians together — and now runs the organization with Jadd Hashem, a Palestinian American from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

  • The word is a portmanteau of the Hebrew word atid, meaning "future," with the Arabic suffix na, for "our" — meaning "our future."
  • Roughly 80 people attended a peace vigil organized by the group in November.

The big picture: Gov. Greg Abbott, who journeyed to Israel in November in a show of support, last week commanded Texas universities to punish what he says is a "sharp rise in antisemitic speech and acts on university campuses."

  • His executive order named Palestinian student groups that he said should be disciplined for violations.
  • "State-mandated campus censorship violates the First Amendment and will not effectively answer anti-semitism," the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, an advocacy group for free speech on college campuses, said in a statement that also encouraged universities to address anti-semitic harassment. "By chilling campus speech, the executive order threatens to sabotage the transformative power of debate and discussion."

What's the purpose of Atidna?

Hashem: "The goal is to tear down the tribalistic nature on campus. We want to bring people together who have never spoken to each other."

Kahlenberg: "An illiberal environment exists on campuses across the country, and there's really no room for dialogue in established campus spaces."

How do you do that?

Kahlenberg: "Through peace events and dialogue sessions that bring together Jews and Israelis, Muslims and Palestinians. We are more similar to each other than any other peoples on the planet. We descend from the same peoples and from the same land.

Hashem: "We want to humanize 'the other.'"

Students at a dialogue session.
Students attending an Atidna dialogue session last fall. Photo courtesy Elijah Kahlenberg

How would you characterize the university's response to the war?

Kahlenberg: "UT has dropped the ball, specifically for Palestinian students. It's really one-sided, and the university definitely has not been neutral, and it's leading to a lot more tribalism on campus."

Hashem: "There has been no mention of Palestine or Gaza, in anything the administration has said. They are steadfastly protecting Jewish and Israeli students — which I completely agree with— but there's not the same rhetoric for Palestinian students."

What kind of reception have you won from Jewish or Palestinian groups on campus?

Kahlenberg: "The Jewish community has been quite hostile to getting into dialogue with Palestinians, and the chief Israeli-Zionist student organization sees our space as potentially a platform for Palestinian terrorism. The student Palestinian Solidarity Committee sees dialogue as normalization of Israel's actions, by letting Israelis into the conversation."

What's next for the organization?

Kahlenberg: "There are chapters of Atidna now at the University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard, and four more on the horizon, including at the University of Chicago and Williams."

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