Within these walls

At Rutgers, one student has created a place for Jews and Muslims to work - and live - together.

pic 88 (photo credit: )
pic 88
(photo credit: )
When Danielle Josephs arrived at Rutgers State University in the fall of 2003, the campus was a battleground. College Avenue, the central street of New Brunswick, New Jersey and the university, was often clad in anti-Zionist banners and mock Israeli checkpoints. Protests and shouting matches were commonplace. Tensions between the Jewish and Muslim communities had reached a high. That year, the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) decided to hold their annual conference at Douglass College, an all-female sub-section of Rutgers University where Josephs was enrolled. "The Jewish community felt very attacked because the PSM openly supported armed struggle against the Israelis," Josephs explained. The Muslim community also felt on the defensive and accused Jewish organizations of limiting their free speech. In the end, Rutgers decided to cancel the conference. Josephs knew that coming to college would mean change. What she didn't expect, however, is how much of herself she would have to question. Her self-identity, politics and religion were suddenly on the line. Josephs, whose father is Israeli and lives in Israel, found it troubling that at a northeastern "liberal" university, Muslim and Jewish students were incapable of having a productive dialogue about the situation in the Middle East. "Anything that even tried to resemble a dialogue blew up," Josephs said. Her initial response was to get involved with the Jewish community full-force. Josephs became very involved with the Rutgers Hillel, where she served on the board for three years and last year served as president. But in her sophomore year, "a light bulb went on," Josephs said. Though she felt she was doing valuable work, the gap between the Muslims and Jews wasn't getting any smaller; hostilities between the two communities could be felt under the surface of daily life. In the second half of her sophomore year, Josephs broadened the scope of her work and established a student organization called the Middle East Coexistence Project to try to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims on campus. In 2005, there were roughly 34,500 students at Rutgers Newark/Piscataway. Of them, there were about 5,000 Jews and 3,500 Muslims. The organization also focused on encouraging women's involvement in international conflict resolution, something that Josephs strongly believes in. The organization invited two female negotiators - one Israeli and one Arab. It also held a comedy night with comedians from both communities and a lecture series with Mishkat Al Moumin, former minister of environment in the Iraqi interim government, and Dana Savoray, an expert on domestic violence in Israeli and Palestinian communities and the head of the women's municipal administration in Herzliya. But Josephs still wasn't satisfied. Arab-Israeli dialogues don't work, she said, for two reasons: They lack reinforcement and context. "One dialogue session a year won't make a heck of a lot of difference in the way you think," Josephs said. What Rutgers needed, she determined, was something that involved greater commitment. Josephs, who was by now known by Jewish and Muslim activists alike, decided upon a "house" where Jews and Muslims would live together and learn on an intimate level about each other. "I thought a more effective use of my time was to train women to become ambassadors in their own communities," Josephs said. THE ADMINISTRATIVE side was simple, according to Josephs, who had working relations with Rutgers administrators. Recruitment, however, proved to be more difficult. "Within the Muslim community, a lot of women come from conservative homes and many do not live on campus," Josephs said. "So in recruiting I would find myself talking to parents, brothers, sisters and aunts - it was a family affair." At the same time, the house was not within walking distance of a synagogue and as such, Orthodox Jews could not join. "But ultimately," she said, "we got past it." In September, 11 female students - five Jewish, three Muslim, one Hindu, one Christian and an agnostic - moved into the first floor of the Douglass College residence hall, now called the Middle East Coexistence House. Their goal was to learn about the Middle East together in order to improve Jewish-Muslim relations on campus and beyond. Middle Eastern Studies Prof. Paul Sprachman said the house was a long time coming. "Programs like this increase language and cultural exchange, some of the most important tools we can use to disintegrate stereotypes," he said. The house - the first of its kind on any American college campus - combines the residential experience with academic coursework. Aside from committing to live in the house for a year, students must be enrolled in a course on Middle East conflict negotiation and resolution taught by Kosovo native and PhD candidate in global affairs, Miranda Vata. The first semester of the course is dedicated to learning the history of the conflict, and in the second semester students examine techniques for solving it. "Class can get heated," Josephs said. "The goal here is to get people comfortable with being uncomfortable, to get your hands dirty, because otherwise what are we doing here?" One of the first misconceptions Josephs was forced to confront in the house was the hijab, the head covering that all the Muslim women in the house wear. "I was guilty of thinking that Muslim women are subservient and oppressed," Josephs said. "There is a misconception about the hijab - many women choose to wear it and the women in our house are leaders within their communities." The recent war with Hizbullah became a particularly tense issue. But Leila Halwani, a Muslim student of Lebanese background, said she felt more "passionate" about the house after the recent war. "We need the house now more than ever," she said. HALWANI IS a psychology major at Rutgers who hopes to reduce the stigma of therapy in mainstream America, but particularly in her own community. "Talking about trauma allows people to heal," Halwani said. The Middle East Coexistence House may serve as an example. Tensions over the recent war with Hizbullah resulted in a community-wide toy drive that the women initiated together with the Rutgers branch of the American Medical Students Association. Toys, which will be collected on campus and at various religious sites, will be given to Lebanese and Israeli children by the Jewish Agency and the Islamic Relief. "Even though the war was really painful, we figured out a way to channel it into something positive," Josephs said. The women in the house have quickly become friends and stay up late into the night talking. Sometimes they discuss politics and religion, but often they talk like other female college students about "school, hair and men," Josephs said. "What's special about the house is that the in-class learning is just as important as the informal learning," Josephs continued. She has already been contacted by activists from several American universities interested in starting a similar house, and the goal eventually is to establish one in the Middle East. "A lot of the conflict is about ignorance," Josephs said. "This house is about substantiating your arguments and spreading the word."