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Embracing Uncomfortable Conversations: The Y&S Nazarian Center's Unique Role at UCLA

June 28, 2024: The Center's former Goldstine Undergraduate Fellow, Simon Thorpe, reflects on the importance of the Y&S Nazarian Center's role at UCLA and the lasting impact it has had on him.

–Written by Simon Thorpe the Center's 2022-23 Goldstine Undergraduate Fellow


In January 2023, I found myself in a conversation with a UCLA graduate student from one of the Gulf states in front of Melnitz Hall. I was an Undergraduate Fellow of the Nazarian Center, and we were preparing to host a film screening on campus. Out of curiosity, I asked him why he chose to attend our event. It was mainly out of curiosity—growing up in the Middle East, Israel wasn’t viewed favorably by most people around him. As a result, he admitted he did not know much about how the country operated. UCLA was his first opportunity to learn about Israel in an academic and personal way.

His experience was unique, but those words were ones I had heard before and would continue to hear many times again from both Arab and Jewish students. As a Nazarian Center fellow, I had the opportunity to speak with a variety of people from different backgrounds, each of whom understood Israel in a different way. Without fail, I saw at least one person’s perspective be challenged during every event I took part in. I was excited to see what this event was going to teach me, and the graduate student I was speaking with, about Israeli society.

It was interesting, then, when the film we watched that day wasn’t centered on Israel’s Jews, but on Israel’s Arab/Palestinian citizens.

Let it Be Morning is a film directed by Israeli Eran Kolirin, based on a novel by Palestinian-Israeli author Sayed Kashua, co-produced by an Israeli production company, and featured a majority Palestinian cast. It tells the story of Sami, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who visits his home village for a wedding and is then barred from leaving because of a seemingly arbitrary Israeli military blockade on the village. The film was due to compete in the Cannes Film Festival, but the Palestinian cast protested its inclusion because it was labeled as Israeli. As a result, it was withdrawn. Much about this film was controversial—which is why it’s important that the Nazarian Center decided to screen it nevertheless.

Under the leadership of its Director Dov Waxman, the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center has not shied away from making its attendees uncomfortable. It opened as a way to provide UCLA students with information about Israel that was not colored by any ulterior motives. Its mission is to portray a non-partisan and holistic view of Israel that strives to educate its students over all else, often when—especially when—the reality on the ground is not pretty. During my fellowship, the Center hosted events ranging from a lecture defending the US–Israel relationship and denouncing the myth of the “Israel Lobby” to a film screening criticizing the relevance of Israel in American Judaism altogether. UCLA students had the opportunity to attend both events in a single year, allowing their previous conceptions of the country to be disrupted in meaningful and constructive ways. 

On campus, there is a noticeable gap in these kinds of discussions. Student groups that focus on Israel or Palestine rarely host events encouraging dissenting opinions, making dialogue and outreach between the two communities difficult. At the Nazarian Center, I often saw pro-Palestine students—such as the person I spoke to at the Let it Be Morning event—attend events and voice their opinions alongside pro-Israel students. Although the atmosphere on campus this year has undoubtedly changed, the fact that a current Nazarian Center fellow successfully organized a joint vigil for both Israeli and Palestinian lives that have been lost in the ongoing conflict demonstrates that the Center continues to cultivate a constructive and reconciliatory atmosphere for the students it educates. 

Correspondingly, my most meaningful experience as a Fellow was when the Nazarian Center hosted a delegation from the organization Sharaka in late 2022, a Middle Eastern peace initiative aimed to build upon the Abraham Accords and promote people-to-people dialogue between Israel and its neighbors. The speakers were quite frank in their presentation: they did not pretend that decades-old misgivings could be overcome easily, nor did they put aside the Palestinian cause in their attempt to build a lasting peace. They simply stressed that before all else, conversation comes first. Humanization comes first. I will not forget the lessons I learned from Sharaka, and I have carried their ideas with me ever since. It has often been difficult to keep a level head regarding Israel and Palestine following the events of October 7th, but my experiences at the Nazarian Center have allowed me to believe that it is possible for the situation to improve, even if it be through one conversation at a time.

Throughout my year as a fellow, I progressively uncovered the outlooks of a wider variety of people in Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East. Even when Nazarian Center events did not change my beliefs, they strengthened my ability to defend my principles. Most of all, experiences such as the Let It Be Morning film screening brought me to understand that the well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians are inextricably linked, and that the only way forward is through accepting the differences of one another. As a current graduate student, I have frequently been faced with well-educated scholars who completely disagree with my opinions. Where I would have previously struggled to find common ground, I now feel comfortable engaging in difficult conversations. In a world where ideological division is at unprecedented highs, that is a valuable skill to have.

It is okay if you do not agree with everything the Nazarian Center has to say. I do not agree with everything they have to say. But we can agree on enough: that discussion is important, that peace is a priority, and that all Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in safety. And although most of us can come together on the basics, figuring out where to go from there is a daunting task. But that is what the Nazarian Center is trying to do, and that is why it is an absolutely crucial part of UCLA’s International Institute. 

There are no easy answers—there are still many things I do not know. But I have learned how to listen, how to find common ground, and how to better humanize others I disagree with. And I have learned that anybody who tries to tell you that the answer to this conflict is simple is lying to you.

A year from now, I expect to begin my career in the field of international relations. I may not be focusing on the Middle East anymore, but the skills I obtained at the Nazarian Center have become indispensable to the way I approach the world. The truth is, I needed something like this. For my entire life, the information I had been fed about Israel and Palestine was backed by an agenda. I was never given the chance to discuss the Middle East with people like the pro-Palestine attendees of Let It Be Morning or the Sharaka delegates. My fellowship at the Center let me engage with the Middle East in a way that would not have been possible without its presence. It will not be the last time I will need to know how to talk to others or to parse facts from propaganda.

The Nazarian Center for Israel Studies gives UCLA students a chance to embrace discomfort, begin discussion, enable critical thinking, and pursue change. I cannot thank its scholars and staff enough for the gifts they have given me.