Tent at Cal: No flaps, only civil discourse about Israel

Libyan-born Jew Gina Waldman and a young Arab student from Lebanon started out arguing the merits of the Palestinian right of return. They ended up hugging, with Waldman inviting him over for couscous.

That was one of the mini-successes inside the white tent that was up Sept. 21 and 22 on U.C. Berkeley’s busy Sproul Plaza. It was part of “Talk Israel: Join the Conversation,” a national two-day program developed by Hillel’s Center for Israel Engagement and funded by the S.F.-based Jim Joseph Foundation.

U.C. Berkeley was one of 20 universities nationwide chosen by the national Hillel organization to host a tent and get the dialogue going. Open for seven hours each day, the roughly 180-square-foot tent featured educational materials, discussion facilitators, audiovisual equipment and, most importantly, young Jews ready to talk about Israel.

U.C. Berkeley student Ben Katz (left) talks with Einat Dvir in front of the Hillel tent.   photos/dan pine

In Berkeley, the emphasis was on creating what campus Hillel director Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman called “a safe space to have difficult conversations about Israel. We want to explore, engage and educate.”

U.C. Berkeley has long been a hotbed of anti-Israel activism. Indeed, a handful of pro-Palestinian student activists set up shop a few feet away from the tent, waving signs and unfurling the Palestinian flag. But they didn’t bother the students and Jewish community professionals as they engaged passers-by in dialogue.

“What I hope to achieve,” said Einat Dvir, a native Israeli staffing the tent, “is to change the discourse from rallies and demonstrations to a place you can have an educated conversation around the Middle East.

“People are giving their points of view,” she continued. “They are not happy with the situation. On some things we agreed to disagree, but that’s better than screaming.”

Around midday, Sproul Plaza can get nearly as crowded as a Tokyo subway platform at rush hour. But with all the activity, and despite the hot temperatures, many people stopped by the tent to nibble on pastries and to talk.

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ben Katz, 21, a Cal junior. “[The tent project] is literally asking for a space for argument and minimizing the negative aspects. It’s a structure with no walls.”

Not everyone was polite. One female student hissed “Israel does not exist!” and then extended her middle finger as she bolted away. But most people, even critics of Israel, were ready to try civil discourse on for size.

Gina Waldman and Donny Inbar lead discussion in Hillel tent.

Donny Inbar, director of arts and culture for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center, was on hand to help out. He started up a conversation with the Lebanese-born Arab student, who at first refused to enter the tent.

“He said, ‘It’s ironic that you call this a tent, because so many Palestinian refugees live in tents,’ ” Inbar recalled. “For him the sole solution was that Israel cease to exist as a Jewish state.”

Eventually, the young man (who declined to give his name or be interviewed by j.) did enter the tent. He got into a spirited but ultimately friendly conversation with Waldman, who fled her native Libya as a teen during anti-Jewish violence in the late 1960s. She went on to help found and direct JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), an agency based in San Francisco.

“Although he felt the [Palestinian] right of return was a big thing, I told him Arab anti-Semitism is alive and well,” Waldman recalled of the conversation. “He felt there was a great injustice in [Arab nations] expelling the Jews. I told him my heart goes out to Palestinian refugees.”

With a hug and the invite to share couscous, Waldman told the young man she hoped he would return to be “a politician in Lebanon and change things.”

After a few hours in the tent, Naftalin-Kelman was more than pleased with the project.

“This is only one day,” he said. “We won’t solve years of incivility overnight. But some people passionately against coming into our tent in the end came in, and did so in a civil manner. No personal attacks, no slurs, no outbursts.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.