Jewish, Palestinian students at Middlebury College maintain friendship during Israel-Hamas war

Published: Nov. 20, 2023 at 4:07 PM EST
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MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - With a rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents on college campuses across the U.S., students at Middlebury College are trying to find common ground when it comes to discussing the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Two Middlebury students-- one Jewish and one Palestinian-- have strengthened their friendship through their similar family histories and views on the war.

Zachary Okaylu Masaryk is a Palestinian-American student and a dancer at Middlebury College.

“Jews and Palestinians can live in peace,” he said. “We are compatible, but the narratives in media and around the world try to keep that from happening. Even in the worst of times were are able to inspire each other artistically.”

The brother and father of Okaylu Masaryk’s grandmother were murdered in a politically motivated terrorist attack in Palestine. Okaylu Masaryk grew up in Texas learning about his heritage from his mother and started learning Hebrew at 13.

“Having grown up with these ideas that Jews and Arabs were polar opposites, I was really shocked to discover how similar Hebrew sounded to my mom’s native language. So learning Hebrew, it brought me together with a lot of the Jewish community,” he said.

Since the war started on Oct. 7, Gen Z has taken to social media to express their dismay at the violence on both sides of the conflict. Okaylu Masaryk says he was surprised by the reaction of his friends back in Texas after he shared videos of the attacks in Gaza.

“My friends growing up who supported Zionism, a lot of those [friendships] have actually ended. It’s very dehumanizing to know that someone who has seen so much of me from a vulnerable and human perspective would block me based off of politics that we never even talked about in our friendship,” he said.

Okaylu Masaryk says on the other hand, at Middlebury College his Jewish peers aren’t afraid to have conversations with him where they learn about each others’ heritage and teach each other about their history. Okaylu Masaryk’s friendship with Joshua Glucksman has grown from these discussions.

“I think what may be hard for a lot of non-Jews to understand, is that for us this isn’t a political issue like any other, Israel and Palestine really tugs at the heart of what it means to be Jewish,” Glucksman said.

Glucksman grew up close to his Jewish community outside Chicago. He spent years in Jewish institutions. During this, he learned extensively about why Israel is important to the Jewish community.

“I first really learned about Palestine when I was 16 years old,” Glucksman said.

He says his newfound stance on the fate of the land has brought backlash. He says he has trouble talking about this with his family in Israel and in the States. Their pain from the Holocaust and thousands of years of oppression still lingers.

“There’s such a generational divide between us, and my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. And so I think a lot of it is familial, so a lot of the challenges are speaking to family members and justifying to the Jewish community, to the synagogues we grew up in, why we believe,” Glucksman said.

Glucksman and Okaylu Masaryk both love to dance and have taken classes at Middlebury. They say it’s one of the ways they connect to each other and are able to process the generational trauma now that the conflict has resurfaced.

“My friendship with Zach, and the incredible and beautiful connections that many Jews are having with Palestinians on this campus, is a perfect example that our two communities can be in solidarity with each other,” Glucksman said.

The two are perhaps unique since they hold such similar beliefs on the war. While their story may not be a reality for all Jewish and Palestinian students on campus, they hope their friendship can be a model. Through conversations and artistic expression-- maybe human connection can overcome our differences.

“Dance is a language that requires words that can’t be propagandized. Words that can’t be taken out of context and shaped to dehumanize someone,” Okaylu Masaryk said. “Dance is an expression of the body. That’s one way of communicating that you can’t take away from me.”