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‘Like family’: three women – two Palestinian, one Jewish – find peace amid campus chaos

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Three students united at the University of California, San Diego. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

Seven months ago, before Hamas stormed into Israel, killing roughly 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostage, Eleanora Ginsborg and Samar Omer had never met.

But in the attack’s violent aftermath, Ginsborg and Omer, students at the University of California, San Diego, forged a new friendship – and a new sense of activism-fueled purpose. A third student who already knew Omer “like a sister”, and requested to go by the pseudonym Hala Abdallah out of safety concerns, completed the group.

As Israel waged war in Gaza, leading to a death toll of more than 34,000 people, mass destruction and the threat of famine, the three women’s separate worlds came crashing together. Suddenly, they were sharing many long nights at student meetings on campus, talking about their own backgrounds, the war and their collective desire for peace.

On paper, the three were very different.

Ginsborg is Jewish, and Omer and Abdallah are first-generation Palestinian American. They hail from disparate corners of California, with varying dreams and goals for the future. Ginsborg, a second-year student, is a photography and film-making major. Omer is majoring in political science and communication, and Abdallah in international relations and ethnic studies; both are set to graduate in just a few weeks.

But a network of student organizations on campus drew them closer. Ginsborg is a member of the university’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, a national organization self-described as “progressive Jewish anti-Zionist,” and she often works to plan action and protests on campus with Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that Omer and Abdallah belong to. They, along with many other UC San Diego students, started discussing the war in group chats, in planning meetings for protests, even at ultimate frisbee practice.

“It created not just solidarity,” Ginsborg said, “but I also know I can count on Hala or Samar in the future, even after they graduate, to be there for us.”

For Omer, as Israel’s months-long counterattack in Gaza unfolded, a deep sense of dread and fear also set in, for herself and Abdallah, and also for Ginsborg. “Because I knew what was to come,” she said. “I knew that we were going to be surrounded by an immense amount of hate and violence that wasn’t going to be properly documented.”

A sweatshirt reading ‘Free Palestine’. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

Indeed, the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have erupted on college campuses across the country have been marred by a sense of intense division. There have been reports of antisemitic and Islamophobic threats and harassment at dozens of colleges since October.

Those tensions have only intensified in recent days, as several colleges called in the help of law enforcement to clear encampments. Police have arrested scores of students from New York to Texas to California, and at UCLA this week, a group of masked counter-protesters attacked a pro-Palestine encampment, leading to physical fights between the two groups.

But amid the intense fractures, there’s also an undercurrent of more nuanced, private conversation, as students from different backgrounds try to navigate their own identities and have an impact on a devastating war happening a world away.

The three students, despite their distinct cultural heritages, shared similar beliefs on the war and human rights concerns in Gaza. Still, for Ginsborg, the newfound friendship is a sign that, amid the division, there are still moments of unity to be found.

“To me, they’re kind of like family,” Ginsborg said. “It’s something that, even after we all leave college, will last a lifetime.”

‘Together we can be resilient’

Protests have proliferated on campuses for weeks, as students call for an end to the war in Gaza and for universities to disinvest from Israel and from the institutions that support it. At UC San Diego alone, a new “free Palestine” encampment sprang up virtually overnight this week, featuring a growing cluster of tents and a packed schedule of programs, from a “military industrial complex teach-in” to Jummah prayers.

Thousands of miles from Gaza, Ginsborg, Omer and Abdallah met after classes on Tuesday afternoon, reminiscing about student-led events from the past week. Despite the growing national fervor and the long string of protests, the campus was calm – at least for the day. Students streamed in an orderly fashion between academic buildings, and there weren’t yet any tents or handmade signs.

The three women, though, sported merch from their respective organizations; the back of Ginsborg’s black T-shirt read, in all caps: “JEWS SAY CEASEFIRE NOW.”

The students recently held a “threads of resistance” event on campus, spotlighting Omer’s mother, who taught attendees how to do tatreez, a traditional Palestinian embroidery. Preserving her family’s culture and heritage, Omer said, “is one of the most important forms of Palestinian resistance”. “Your mom is so great,” Ginsborg gushed to Omer afterwards.

A Passover Seder, hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace, also drew Jewish and Muslim students, including Abdallah, who was fasting from sunrise to sunset in honor of Shawwal, the month that follows Ramadan.

Students on campus at UC San Diego. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

“I actually took the egg from the – what was that platter called again?” Abdallah asked Ginsborg, as the three student activists sat together outside the college’s main library on Tuesday.

“The Seder plate,” Ginsborg told her, laughing.

“Yes, the Seder plate,” Abdallah said. “They had an egg on it, and I took it home, and ended up eating it to break my fast.”

Being able to meld multiple cultures and religions, and to find common ground with students from other groups, “really shows that together we can be resilient”, Ginsborg said.

“When you think about Judaism, and the idea that we continued to survive even after different genocides … why are we committing a genocide to other people who are still trying to thrive just like us, and who are still trying to be resilient just like us?” Ginsborg said.

That sentiment has been mirrored elsewhere.

“I am a Holocaust survivor,” an 88-year-old woman told a crowd of protesters at George Washington University last week, gripping a megaphone. Like many children in Gaza today, she said, she also lost her family and experienced war and bombing. “We need to bring this to an end. There is no excuse for the slaughter of 15,000 children and untold others. We have to act with peace and love.”

At other colleges, more Jewish students have made the case that, despite seeing “a shocking and upsetting rise in antisemitism over the last few months,” there are activists and organizers who are “eager to listen, ready to learn and committed to including Jewish voices and perspectives”.

“Yale Jews for Ceasefire exists because of – not in spite of – our Jewish values,” wrote fourth-year Yale student Ian Berlin in an opinion piece for CNN.

But opinions differ among Jewish students across the nation, with many students experiencing a palpable sense of unease at their schools. Some critics argue that the broader BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement, which first started two decades ago and has now taken root on campuses, challenges Israel’s general right to exist and unfairly singles out Israel over other countries with human rights violations.

The students together on campus. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

These conflicting viewpoints are evident on the UC San Diego campus, too. While Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine, and a handful of other student groups passed a resolution in March in support of the BDS movement, some Jewish organizations on campus were against the effort.

“BDS marginalizes Jewish students who have been under increasing threat from sharply rising antisemitism since October 7,” said a student involved with Tritons for Israel and Triton Jewish Leaders, two student groups that are not participating in the current encampment. The student asked for their name not to be used out of concerns for their safety. Being Jewish on campus over the last seven months has been “incredibly hard,” they said.

“Many Jewish students feel silenced and dehumanized for their belief in Jewish self-determination in our ancestral homeland.”

‘Seeing atrocity after atrocity’

The conversation surrounding campus protests in recent weeks has sometimes drifted away from the actual state of warfare in Gaza. But bombardment continues “from the air, land and sea” across much of the Gaza Strip, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported. More than 10,000 people are thought to be missing under rubble in Gaza, the UN said, and the risk of encountering unexploded weapons is at its “most dangerous stage”. Meanwhile, dozens of Israelis are still being held hostage.

Without protests, the students argue, those kinds of details run the risk of fading into the background completely.

“The longevity of the media is non-existent,” Omer said. “People are just seeing atrocity after atrocity every single day, and they forget what they’ve seen months ago. This keeps those stories front and center.”

“Students are talking about Palestine,” Abdallah said, referencing the daily violence and vast number of deaths in Gaza. “They’re not just out here protesting for no reason. It’s about Palestine, and we need to focus the attention on what’s going on there.”

As recent protests have sometimes emphasized the divisions between students, lately she’s been thinking about an experience she had growing up, when her family would attend pro-Palestinian protests near San Francisco.

Abdallah’s father, who was born and raised in the West Bank, would always underscore one particular point to her and her sisters at those events.

“He always said, ‘I grew up with a Jewish family on my left side and a Christian family on my right side,’” she said. “Essentially, he was symbolizing how Palestine is native to all religions, all societies, all communities, all types of people.”

And the current UC San Diego encampment is bringing Ginsborg, Omer and Abdallah together once again, they said.

“So much hope, unity, solidarity, love, and most of [all] education!” Abdallah wrote in a text from campus. “We are learning from one another!”

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