It all started with cake. Well, almost. The truth is, the cake was just one of the early signs of distress.

This year, as in past years, in celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut, Jewish students at Williams College in western Massachusetts passed out cake to fellow students on the college common. But this year, a newly formed group called Students for Palestinian Awareness also had a table, and it displayed an empty cake pan with a message: “We would serve you cake if they had a country.”

The no-cake staging was intended as an affront; on this otherwise un-politicized campus, Yom HaAtzmaut for the first time met Nakba, “the disaster” — the Arab name for the events surrounding Israel’s independence.

Leading the Palestinian support group was a freshman named Abdullah Awad, whose anti-Israel screed had been published in the school’s paper just days before. In his op-ed, he repeatedly called Israel an “oppressor” that employs “Machiavellian measures … to dehumanize and destroy the Palestinian people.”

Abdullah wrote that his grandfather left Jerusalem in 1948, forced out, he said, of the home his family had lived in for hundreds of years. So now, this Jordanian native, raised in part in the United States, has brought his anger to a school with a large Jewish population and a strong Jewish students’ association.

Williams College is not big and diverse like UC Irvine; it’s an elite private college with about 2,000 undergraduate students. People got to talking, taking sides. Rhetoric flew. And one Jewish girl from Los Angeles, Elizabeth Hecht, shot into action.

I’ve known Elizabeth since she was about 8. She was the one reading “Pride and Prejudice” on the playground at Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School when most other kids were running around. She was the quiet intellectual, the A-plus student, whom I lost track of several years ago.

But the other day, I got an e-mail from Elizabeth, now a freshman at Williams like Abdullah. She wrote as part of a mass plea to family, friends and acquaintances for assistance. This daughter of Reform parents, who has many relatives living in Israel, would not sit idly by as her college campus became enmeshed in hatred and cross-accusations. She wanted to do something to bridge the gap. So she’d reached out to Abraham’s Vision, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes education and healing among Jewish American, Palestinian American, Israeli and Palestinian university students.

Elizabeth was quickly invited to participate in a 10-month fellowship program that begins this week with one month of study in the Balkans, to see how conflict resolution has worked in Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Vision fellows are required to follow up their summer studies by blogging, and, among other things, by attending two four-day conferences, and by organizing their own presentations on their own campuses and in their own home communities.

To participate, each Jewish or Palestinian student has to have a partner from the other group. Elizabeth reached out to the Williams’ Palestinian Awareness group for hers. And she got Abdullah Awad.

It costs $13,000 for the two to participate, and even with a $5,000 immediate scholarship from Abraham’s Vision, as well as some support from their college and other donors, the pair still needed $4,000. Which is how, last Sunday, I came to be sitting in Elizabeth’s parents’ living room, listening to her ask for money to help her — and Abdullah — study together. And there was Abdullah at her side, thanks to Skype beamed in while he was on a family visit to Turkey.

To see them — two articulate young people, explaining their shared goal to travel and learn together — you’d think they were friends. And indeed, they seem to be now, and that’s the first important step that’s been achieved.

“We both share the same goal of attempting to improve society,” Abdullah told us.

But they agreed they both need a “foundational understanding” of what is happening in Israel and with the Palestinians. Elizabeth admitted that before college, she’d “come from a community that all felt the way I do aboutIsrael.” She wants to learn more.

Together, the pair will study their differing narratives. They will examine the Balkan wars alongside the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They will be in a group with 12 other students — six other Jews and six other Palestinians.

Four previous cohorts have gone through the program, and Abraham’s Vision co-executive director and founder Aaron Hahn Tapper reports that the program to date has graduated a total of 70 Palestinian and Jewish students.

I worried that these two young voices I was hearing might not be able to achieve much. So I asked Tapper how it’s worked out so far for the program’s graduates, and he listed some of the success stories:

• “A student spending the first two years out of university working with impoverished migrant communities in the Middle East;
• A student moving to Africa after graduation to work toward eradicating malaria;
• A student working with PBS and HBO on a number of important films and television series, including PBS’ ‘God in America,’ which examines the sensitive relationship between religion and politics and HBO’s soon-to-be released documentary film about an international Quran reading competition in Dubai;
• A student going onto rabbinical school and integrating intercommunal work into his theology and halachic lens …”

To us, Abdullah did not speak rhetorically. He explained that he lived in the United States during middle school, while his mother was studying for a doctorate. That he’d had a friend who invited him to a bar mitzvah, which he’d enjoyed, and that as a practicing Muslim he found that he shared many common values with Jewish friends, particularly the observant, as he is “very conservative,” doesn’t eat pork and observes religious holy days.

He also said he speaks out “against oppression, not against religious groups.” And so, as Jews, those of us who had gathered to support Elizabeth also found ourselves supporting this boy from Jordan, hoping that he will gain a better understanding of Israel, and also learn from Elizabeth, even as she learns from him. So maybe, someday, they will both eat cake together.

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