How do you foster healthy dialogue among college students discussing polarizing issues with peers? And how long does it take to write a book about it? For Narrow Bridge Fellow Elana Nussbaum Cohen ’19, it took just over a year of weekly discussions with her fellow Fellows about Israel, Palestine, Zionism, and antisemitism.
Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, Associate University chaplain for the Jewish community at Brown, created the Narrow Bridge Project to bring together Jewish student-leaders of groups engaged with Israel and Palestine advocacy on campus, including Students for Justice in Palestine, J Street U, and Brown Students for Israel. She encouraged the fellows—including Elana—to share their opinions respectfully, learn to adapt their rhetoric, and make space for other ideologies. The result is a free, downloadable guidebook entitled Love Thy Neighbor: A Guide for Tackling Antisemitism While Committing to Justice for All, with sections on the definitions and history of antisemitism, race, and Zionism, among other crucial subjects.
“We wanted to bring out this resource to level the playing field with definitions (who are Jews? What is the land of Israel?) and questions: why is Israel so complicated, and why does it foster antisemitism in the process?”
Elana, who is studying sociology and data science, has a strong basis in Jewish history, thanks to her education at Heschel. She is also the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Working on the guidebook, then, exposed a series of interpersonal surprises. “I had newfound key insights in understanding how antisemitism operates—interstitiality, punching up vs. punching down, middlemen—which makes antisemitism a very unique type of oppression.” All definitions, by the way, are very helpfully included at the end of the guidebook, which has a click-through function while reading online for streamlined learning.
“Being in a pluralistic Jewish environment surrounded by Jews [at Heschel], there were a lot of things that we just understood without needing to talk about them,” says Elana. “That wasn’t the case in college. There wasn’t that same understanding or education about what Judaism is and how there are different types of Jews. All of that was very natural coming from Heschel. But this was a way for me to explore issues further.”
Of course, discussing fraught political tensions is often difficult. But it was essential to the heart of the project. “Coming to this project, we all thought we knew a lot and had a lot of opinions, but we came together and said ‘hey, I don’t know as much about this, so let’s chat about it.’ That’s where the real learning and the real growth happens. Learning to engage with other people whose values differ is really important.” It took months, Elana says, for the group to even come up with a definition of Zionism they all felt comfortable with. “We have to engage with each other otherwise we’ll perpetuate this lack of awareness which could aid in perpetuating antisemitism.”
Since the project has been completed, the fellowship has also ended. “Our goal now, broadly, is to get this resource out to other communities,” Elana says. Especially on other college campuses who might not previously have had access to such a cohesive resource. “We want other communities to use [the guidebook] to get the conversation started, to bring empathy to issues around Israel and Palestine.” To download the guidebook and learn more, visit lovethyneighborguidebook.com, or feel free to reach out to Elana to bring the guidebook to your community or discuss further at firstname.lastname@example.org.