“Before we make bombs, before we make walls, we make ideas. What goes on in colleges and universities is fundamental. It is the origination of ideas and values.”—Bill Jersey
Universities and colleges are a haven for the cultivation of ideas and dialogue from every perspective. Whether they be political, philosophical, fundamental, or creative—opinions and beliefs flow liberally and fervently like water throughout college campuses, and mold easily influenced and intelligent youth into passionate activists. As Bill Jersey, the director of the documentary, Campus Battleground, insightfully stated before the pre-screening of his movie at the Pacific Film Archive  (PFA), “it is the origination of ideas and values.”
Campus Battleground mirrors a semester in the lives of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian student activists at the University of California (UC), Berkeley and Columbia University. With a touching veracity and tenderness toward these eager students, we observe them struggle to discover themselves and their place in the midst of the Israel-Palestine conflict that fervently ensues on their campus and in the very foundation of their being.
What is most engaging about the film was the growth and change of these students, which manifested itself as they were forced to examine themselves and their beliefs. This documentary is not necessarily so much about the Israel-Palestine conflict at large, as it is about the struggle of college-aged youth grappling to define themselves during a time and place where identity and self is lost in the midst of violence and uncertainty. Not only are they at a painfully sensitive age where their entire purpose is to learn, discover themselves, and form a path for their future—the Israel-Palestine conflict develops into as much an internal battle for these students as it is external.
Meet Avi Criden, a UC Berkeley student from Israel, who underwent mandatory military service in Israel at the age of eighteen. Now in his mid twenties, he attends UC Berkeley and is the sole Israeli in his Palestine-Israel conflict class with Professor Beshara Doumani. Apprehensive to speak up in class—because of the trepidation that he would have to wear the weight of Israel on his shoulders, as the only representative of his country—his confidence in reconciliation between the dueling nations wanes and his passion about the conflict borders on indifference, and appears more contemplative and quiet than the other students in the film. In the beginning of the movie, he glances at the camera and says, “You can’t force people to care.”
His apathy speaks volumes about his negative expectations for any hope of appeasement between these battling nations, whose outcome will occur regardless of his optimism, despair, or efforts of revolution. He asks professor Doumani in the beginning of the quarter, “is there hope?” and waits patiently for his answer all semester. Though it is never resolved, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, at least for Avi. After a semester of silence in class he speaks, and eloquently expresses his pride as an Israeli, for the first time.
Bari Weis, an opinionated and eloquent young Jewish woman, plays a passionate and zealous role as a pro-Israel leader on the Columbia University Campus. She leads rallies upon rallies with confidence, and helps speed the pro-Israel movement on the Columbia University campus. After masses of rallies, and myriad assemblies with speakers, dialogue groups, and pro-Israel activities, she begins to write. Her transition from speech to words on paper was an intense and deliberate evolution as she becomes the Editor-in-Chief of Current Magazine, a pro-Israel magazine at Columbia. It probes the interesting dichotomy of what is more powerful, or perhaps how both can be powerful in conjunction with one another—the written word and word of mouth.
The pro-Palestinian voice on campus appears to exist as zealously as their pro-Israel counterparts.Yaman Salahi , a Palestinian-American, is a pro-Palestinian activist at UC Berkeley who fits the passionate mold of activism. Yaman’s family escaped to America because of political persecution in Syria, and through the milieu of the film, he undergoes a religious transformation, in which the context of his past became exceedingly clearer as the Israel-Palestine conflict evolved. Yaman arrived at UC Berkeley as an agnostic, and within a few short months, converted to the Islam faith. The film shadows his life for a semester, starting with a prayer at a peaceful Muslim prayer room on campus, and extending to political anti-Israel protests where he devotedly supports and defends Palestine. Nearing the end of the film, Yaman expresses yet another transformation of religious beliefs towards his Muslim and Palestinian identity. As he reflects on the exploitation of Islam for political gain, he finds himself beginning to feel apathetic about religion again, and disappointment about the manipulation of Islam and all religions because of political agendas.
Khadija, a young Iraqi-American student attending Columbia University, is upset by the constant feeling of isolation from the outside because of her Muslim heritage. She recalls her realization of her Muslim and Arab identity after September 11, 2001, when the weightiness of her heritage became unpredictably clear. An active member in the Arab Student’s Association, Khadija struggles, like many of these other students, to find a place of belonging within her Muslim and Arab heritage and within the walls of Columbia’s campus. She eloquently states in regards to pro-Israelis—“I don’t hate you, I disagree with you. When was that ever wrong?” Her growth and strength is apparent as we watch her transform from an American college student clad in typical dorm wear—jeans and t-shirts—into a young woman wearing a hijab (head scarf) and attending religious services at a Mosque in the heart of New York City. Through the evolution of a semester, she has learned to not only embrace her heritage, but to embrace herself.
These are just a few of the many young students whose lives are documented throughout the course of a semester at Columbia and UC Berkeley. Campus Battleground examines important themes such as writing vs. talking and protest vs. dialogue. Perhaps what is most compelling is how profoundly each and every one of these students is affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is hard to imagine the actuality of life in the midst of chaos on the actual battleground in Israel and Palestine. These passionate young students are merely interlopers who are deeply affected by a battle occurring thousands of miles away. It is an internal battle housed in the protected walls of college campuses around the nation. They rally, they debate, they protest, they speak their minds, they write, and at the end of the day, they are left with only their own thoughts to contemplate. Perhaps this is why the actual battle is much deeper, much more profound, and much more earnest than what meets the eye. In the midst of rallies and assemblies, some may grasp the meatiness of their internal battle to understand their heritage—and to come to terms with the truth they are battling to discover.