Why Is It So Tough to Talk About Israel-Palestine at Georgetown?

My junior year at Georgetown saw the 60th anniversary of Israeli independence; it was also the 60th anniversary of the nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, as Arabs remember the events of that year. The Georgetown Israel Alliance threw a birthday party for the country on Copley Lawn, with hookah and falafel. A group of Arab Studies masters students surrounded the party with a silent protest. What I remember most about this episode was not the politics of the events themselves, but the effect they had on my conversations with other people I knew who studied the Middle East. After one ‘discussion’ devolved unintentionally into a near shouting match, I refused to deal with the matter at all.

This incident was in many ways emblematic of the difficulties of trying to learn and honestly engage with debates about Israel/Palestine both inside and outside of a university environment. It’s emotional. For many, it’s very personal. You must be for one thing and against another thing. There are enough people who feel very strongly about the situation that those people who are still figuring things out, who just want to try to know more, feel accosted if they venture the wrong opinion in the wrong company. People with strongly held opinions on both sides of the conflict can be guilty of stifling debate and name-calling—whether the charge be anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, fanaticism, or just simply ignorance.

Many decide not to engage at all. I’ve certainly found myself avoiding debates on Israel/Palestine out of a sense that if I have not read every book there is to read on the subject, come up with a solid stance, and then memorized “my side’s” rebuttals to common debating points, I really shouldn’t say anything at all. In part, this reflects the general trend toward sharp polarization in political discussions. But disagreements seem to turn especially nasty when it comes to Israel/Palestine.

Sometimes saying nothing is fine. A lot of people could do with a little less holding forth and a lot more listening and learning, especially when there is such complexity involved. At the same time, if disengagement means that the issues aren’t being discussed at all, that’s a problem too. A liberal arts education is supposed to encourage exploration of difficult moral and social issues, recognition of complexity, and critical approaches to received narratives of all kinds.

In addition, the U.S. alliance with Israel and Congress’ unyielding financial support for Israel mean that Israel, Palestine, and the broader Middle East are very much implicated in U.S. politics. While it may be easier to disengage from a topic that divides families, friends, and academic departments, it would be irresponsible to ignore an issue in which our elected government has such a large impact.

We need to find a way to speak with less rancor and more patience, and let each other learn about Israel/Palestine the way we learn about anything: gradually, critically, and with open minds. It can be difficult when the stakes are so high, but the genuine difficulties of reconciling history, faith, identity, and competing narratives must be allowed to work themselves out. Positions must be allowed to evolve. Minds must be allowed to be as yet not made up — without calling names.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Carolyn Barnett

Carolyn Barnett is studying for an MA in Islamic Studies and MSc in Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2009 and studied at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Cairo, Egypt in 2009-2010. Her interests are in Middle East politics, Islam, gender, and the causes and consequences of the Arab uprisings.

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