Elijah Demetrios Kahlenberg: Building Israeli-Palestinian bridges

Billy Cotsis speaks with 21-year-old Elijah, of Jewish and Greek heritage, from the University of Texas, working to connect Israelis and Palestinians

Billy Cotsis, a regular contributor to Neos Kosmos and an intrepid traveler in search of Greeks worldwide, has also studied Middle East politics at post-graduate level. Here he talks with Elijah Demetrios Kahlenberg, a student at the University of Texas. Kahlenberg, of Judeo-Hellenic descent.

Elijah shares his mission to foster connections between Israelis and Palestinians through a peace initiatives, Atidna. Cotsis, whose own great uncle Andonis survived a Nazi concentration camp, emphasises the importance of positive voices in bridging divides during times of conflict.

Bill Cotsis (BC): Elijah, I want to touch on your heritage; you have a fantastic mix.

Elijah Demetrios Kahlenberg (EDK): Yes, via my yia yia and mother. I am going to Greece this year. We are going to Athens, where my yia yia was born. Her non-Jewish side is from Santorini. The Greek Jewish side is from Thessaloniki; at its peak, 60 per cent of Thessaloniki was Jewish.

BC: The Holocaust sadly changed the identity of Thessaloniki. I came across your big heart in trying to bring Jews and Palestinians together via a piece in Al Jazeera. Why is it essential to get the two sides together?

Atidna in action on campus. Photo: Billy Cotsis

EDK: At the age of 12 years, in 2014, I began to understand the geopolitical ramifications of what was happening. Israel has a tactic of “mowing the lawn”, where Israel has a policy of going in to destroy infrastructure.

To see the destruction on TV was visceral. I had been going to Hebrew School for years. I had been fed a narrative that Palestinians and Gaza were not the best. Sometimes, the narrative was dehumanising. I was being fed in the USA a rationale about Palestinians that was nefarious.

I was able to make a connection at this age that what Israel was doing was wrong.

I became involved in peace activism when I was in High School, and the reason was that I was able to learn more about Palestinians. I finally got to talk to Palestinians and learn about them, their aspirations, and their culture. I could view them not as another but as a brother.

Palestinians are closer to Jewish people than other communities. I found that if we can talk with each other, we can break down a world of hate. In Israel and Palestine, there is a division in the lands. Hard to break down the hatred without joint spaces, so bringing people together to talk in joint spaces can help break the segregation.

BC: You are the president of Atidna International, which brings Jews and Arabs together. Tell me more about Atidna and how hard it must be to bring Arabs and Jews together, especially in the wake of what has been happening in Gaza now and in the West Bank with encroaching illegal Israeli settlements.

EDK: Billy, you are the first person in the last few interviews who has pronounced the name right on the first try. Atid is the Hebrew word for ‘future’, and na means ‘our.’ If you put the two words together, it means our future. That name underscores the reality that these people are not going anywhere else in the land, so we must unite and find a family consensus.

I created Atidna two years ago at the University of Texas. I recognised that there was no joint space on college campuses to unite the two people as one family, break bread, and build peace. I wanted to create a space where we could meet as a family. Two primary goals are to solidify that Jews and Arabs are cousins and hold peace events together and to bring the two peoples together for dialogue.

We have had some pushback from either community members, but it won’t stop us –we are going strong. Since October, our work has grown as people have realised that our work is more important than ever.

We have expanded across several colleges and universities, with 12 requests since the Al Jazeera article. We are up and up, including UPenn, Columbia, Harvard, and Williams College.

Atidna born through the efforts of Elijah Demetrios Kahlenberg a Greek Jew and Jadd Hashem a Palestinian , both students at the University of Texas, an organisation that seeks to unite. Photo: Billy Cotsis

BC: Is it an indictment on the USA that your presidential candidates are so old? Trump, Biden, RFK, and Jill Stein keep young candidates at bay. How do we get more young people like you involved with American decision-making?

EDK: My Palestinian counterpart, Jadd Hashem, and I, both believe we need to reach audiences, even the far-right outlets. We need to get their audiences to show our work and voices matter.

Jadd says we should speak to the highest of highest echelons of politics to show them the necessity of our work and students’ work on campuses.

My mother, who is Greek, said that after October 7, the media only came to speak to Atidna when the students began protesting. The media wasn’t talking to the young people before then. We need to be in a position where the media covers us.

America, as a two-party system, prefers the same common faces. Trump says he is “draining the swamp,” yet he is a bastion of the old white American dream; a lot of Americans resonate with that. Biden is someone that Democrats see with a kind face, and he is mainstream; he won’t stir the pot. That is why Bernie Sanders was not selected.

Grassroots initiatives are needed, as we saw in Michigan (Democrat Primaries) with the “uncommitted” vote to push for changes. I believe that through bottom-up grassroots efforts, we could see real change in the Democratic Party to move them in the right direction. I do not have faith that the Republican Party can make changes.

BC: Bernie Sanders, Jon Stewart, New York Rabbis, and several Holocaust survivors have been vocal in condemning Hamas for the October 7 attacks and in denouncing the man-made famine and destruction of Gaza, as well as the illegal settlements in West Bank. Why do some label Jews such as Senator Sanders or yourself as “self-loathing Jews”?

EDK: I am a proud Jew. I know my identity well, and I descend from a family who survived the Holocaust. My family on the Greek-Jewish side fought the Nazis. The highest position and value in Judaism is to preserve life. To save a life is to save the whole world. To take a life is to destroy the entire world.

The position I am taking for my Palestinian brothers and sisters in Gaza is to preserve life, a Jewish value. Calling out the atrocities, and I condemn October 7, any massacre of civilians, whether they be Jewish, Palestinian, or other, should be condemned. It does not give Israel the justification to commit an even greater injustice.

BC: Many people who stand up for Palestine are called anti-Semitic. We hear on CNN that some of the US protests have contained racism towards Jews. Conversely, is there a growing trend of racism against Arabs in the US, too? What do you think?

EDK: Whenever there is a mass outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestinians, there is typically a flare-up against Jews. The same goes for Arabs. It’s usually nefarious actors such as far-right groups and white nationalists rather than from within our communities. Data on crimes shows this trend. Deep down, America does have a race problem – racists love that Jews and Arabs are killing each other.

BC: Are democracy and free speech currently under attack by university administrators and state governors?

EDK: On campus, we have a divestment campaign. Our protest at the University of Texas Austin was a sit-in, not an encampment. We had a program of arts, culture, and talks (as part of the protest).

Governor Abbott wanted to make a political statement from the outset, arresting peaceful protesters. Police were slamming students onto the ground. Brutal. One of the troopers was on horseback and injured me, spraining my ankle.

BC: When I studied the conflict, I was in awe of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Israel has shifted to the far right under Netanyahu. I saw how he stonewalled President Obama and John Kerry as they worked to generate peace. Do you think that peace can be made and one that helps Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Bedouins?

EDK: In the short term, it is bleak. What happened on October 7 was a complete catastrophe. As you said, the most far right-wing government in the history of Israel – fascist figures. Sadly, October 7 creates more Ben-Gvir’s, impacting the peace agenda.

Elijah Demetrios Kahlenberg a Greek Jew and Jadd Hashem a Palestinian- both American, looking for peace. Photo: B. Cotsis

Every time a Palestinian has a family member killed, it creates more Hamas members, a cyclical pattern of violence. That’s why a ceasefire is vital for Israel and Palestine, especially for future peace.

If you destroy Hamas, something more radical will take its place. PLO was once seen as the Hamas equivalent. The Oslo process normalised them, leading to a moderate organisation. The same approach is needed with Hamas for future peacebuilding.

I worked an entire summer in the West Bank for an organisation called Roots, where I saw the legally enshrined division of the lands, which was segregated lands. The checkpoint system is meant to degrade Arabs.

Roots hosts a summer camp for 40 Jewish and 40 Arab kids. I was a counsellor for the camp. I built a basketball court for the kids, the only one that brings Jews and Arabs together in the West Bank. Efforts like Roots need to be expanded. Peaceful interventions.

We need to expand these programs if you don’t want the next Ben-Gvir or Yahya Sinwar. We don’t have to hate each other; we have more in common, and hopefully, we can build a future together.

BC: Thank you for talking with me. Young voices like you can help us bridge the divide.

Information on the dialogue and peace initiatives of Atidna https://www.atidnainternational.com/team-4

Billy Cotsis is the author of The Aegean Seven: Take Back The Stolen Marbles.