Early Tuesday afternoon, for the first time in her life, Keren Binyamin took off her Jewish star necklace. Binyamin, a graduate student studying supply chain management at this university, is a proud Israeli-American dual citizen. She had decided to attend Students for Justice in Palestine’s walkout and protest on McKeldin Mall to observe what was being said. Given news about instances of violence against Jewish students on campuses across the country, she was nervous.
That same afternoon, Aleena Hassen, a freshman studying neuroscience and Arabic, left her chemistry lab early and headed towards McKeldin to try and catch the tail end of the protest. A proud Muslim-American, Hassen identifies with the Palestinian cause. Watching the loss of life in Gaza over the past couple weeks has been painful for her, and she wanted to show her support.
Since the latest Israel-Hamas war broke out after Hamas’ unprecedented surprise attack against Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, a war of words has ignited across college campuses in the U.S. With a mounting death toll in Israel and Gaza, student groups, armed with infographics and posters, have hosted rallies, walk-outs, and vigils, battling to have their pain and voices heard.
At this university, coming from different directions, Binyamin and Hassen met in the middle at Hornbake Plaza, across from a memorial for Frederick Douglass, where a conversation broke out between a large group of Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, and Muslim students.
According to Adam Bershad, Hillel’s director of engagement and Israel experiences, prior to Binyamin and Hassen’s arrival, a student from the rally started yelling obscenities at a group of Jewish students handing out candy as part of Terps for Israel’s ‘Day of Kindness.’
For a moment, it seemed like the interaction might end up like scenes from campuses across the country, where pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel rallies had devolved into haunting scenes of strife and anger, and in some cases, violence.
“On a lot of college campuses, when a fight breaks out or something, it then starts pushing the communities further and further apart where you’re not even willing to go up to their table to start a conversation,” Bershad said.
Then things took a turn.
“These two women, both wearing Palestinian Keffiyehs, and one guy came over. They said ‘we have no idea who that is. She does not speak for us. That’s unacceptable.’ And they started dialoguing with one of our students,” said Bershad.
Hassen, who arrived after the start of the conversation, didn’t realize what she was walking into. Seeing a number of students in Palestinian Keffiyeh, she assumed it was a Palestinian event.
“I realized that the other half was a bunch of Jewish students from the Hillel. So I decided I would stay there and listen to the conversation,” said Hassen. “I often am looking for that sort of perspective. And I like to see things through the lenses of other people. And the best way to do that is to, you know, talk,” said Hassen.
Binyamin also arrived after the start of the conversation. Noticing that the main representative on the Jewish side’s first language was Hebrew, she decided to step in. “I wanted to make sure that it was a civil discussion and it was a productive one where we could try to reach some common ground and not just shout our opinions at each other,” she said.
They discussed their personal connections, both people’s histories, and their own feelings on the conflict. Some of the people gathered were born in Israel or had family born in Israel or Gaza, according to Bershad. Both were personally affected. Many knew people who had died. “On the Israeli side, on the Palestinian side, there were multiple people who disagreed with their own people. It was actually kind of cool to see it wasn’t just like one versus the other. There were multiple opinions on all fronts,” Bershad said.
Though at moments people got heated, it was clear it was because they cared, said Hassen. “They’re trying to show you know, these are my loved ones. This is my community and this is happening,” she said.
Over time, the group ballooned from 15 to 25, to over 30. People walking by stopped walking. They paused, they listened.
While there was much that students disagreed on, they found one area of common ground; a loss of innocent life is terrible.
Hassen specifically thought it was interesting to hear about Jewish trauma, and how Jewish people have been expelled from a number of countries. “I feel like the most interesting thing is how I found that the narratives are flipped on both sides. Keren told me something and I was like, ‘huh, that’s interesting,’ because that’s exactly how the Palestinians feel. And I thought it was very interesting to see those similarities.”
“Everytime I talk to someone affected, I get better at putting myself in their shoes. I become more empathetic,” said Binyamin.
After an hour, the groups dispersed, according to onlookers. The girls at the center of the conversation shook hands, exchanged numbers and went their separate ways.
The interaction, photographed by Bershad and shared by a former Hillel staff member, has received a significant reaction both on and off campus. Over 2,000 people, including alumni, students, and parents, have reshared Hillel’s post about the impromptu event, reaching over 16,000 accounts on Instagram alone, as of Wednesday night.
Many shared that this interaction stood out to them because lately it feels like moments like this are rare.
Hassen feels like online, people don’t have the same empathy as they do face to face, especially when things become polarized. “I’ve seen comments on Instagram, where somebody will fully call for the deaths of like, whole groups of people and I’ll just be like, that is so wrong. That’s people dying.”
Binyamin feels that confirmation bias often gets in the way of people hearing each other. “There’s also an element of, I think on both sides, people taking bits and pieces of stuff from reputable sources and really just latching on to what they can use to bolster their argument.”
Binyamin thinks universities should do more to challenge people’s viewpoints and perspectives. When people only hear perspectives they agree with, they eventually view people as monolithic, she said.
“If you told me in the morning that the day would have ended with a very respectful conversation between both sides. I probably wouldn’t have really believed you. But I’m really glad it did,” said Emma Steinhause, a sophomore undecided student, and president of Terps for Israel. She observed the events from start to finish. “It made me feel much safer on campus knowing that we might disagree, but we do have each other’s safety and best interests at heart,” she said.