Israel and Palestine: A Call for Nuance

By David Yedid

The year before I came to Middlebury, I lived in Israel for ten months while studying on a college leadership program for North American Jews. In many ways that year, I was given a single story of what Israel was. I left loving Israel and wanting to move there forever. I still feel very connected to Israel, but my relationship to Israel, Palestine and Zionism has changed since then.

During my first year at Middlebury, I heard fellow students in casual conversation saying: “Well, Israel just shouldn’t exist” and “Israel is trying to take over the entire Middle East.” This saddened and scared me. I thought people here were smart … how could they say that?! Throughout my four years here, I have been extremely disappointed in the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last fall, a burlesque performer named Una Aya Osato performed at Middlebury. Her performance touched on themes of sexuality, gender, carceral power, sex, gentrification and boycott of Israel. Two hours before her performance, I recited the Mourner’s Prayer for four men who were murdered in synagogue in Har Nof, Jerusalem earlier that morning. During her performance, Una put on an Israeli Defense Forces baseball cap, pointed a fake gun and shot it at random to audience members, threw the Israeli flag on the ground and flashed a poster reading “Boycott Israel.” Some audience members snapped in affirmation. These actions were offensive to me, especially considering the events that occurred earlier that day. I was taught to treat the Israeli flag with respect, as Israel is a holy place for many world religions.

The hardest part of the performance was sitting with my discomfort and noticing that the majority of the audience members were not uncomfortable. Why were they not questioning this narrative? Did they know that four men were murdered while in prayer that very morning? I asked Una in the Q&A how she came to her perspective and we spoke afterwards as well. We disagreed, hugged and kept going.

The recent display in Davis Library, sponsored by Justice for Palestine, highlights the inequities of access to resources and rights among Israelis and Palestinians. This is not inherently bad. However, there were many problematic elements of the display. The “Want to Go to the Beach?” infographic depicts a stick figure of a bearded man with payot – curls Orthodox Jewish men wear – and a gun strapped across his chest. This is offensive. The infographics also cite data from Wikipedia, which is not a reputable source.

I have noticed that the lectures and events that seek to criticize Israel or with controversial speakers have been heavily attended by students. Other lectures, like Jay Michaelson’s lecture “Why is Israel-Palestine Discourse so Polarized on Campus?”, which gave strategies for starting productive conversation, had 10 students present. The Rohatyn Center’s Fall 2014 lecture series on Israel had less than five students present at each one. Why are these spaces, which seek to bring nuance and dialogue to this region and this conflict, so void of students? Is it because we are apolitical or is it because we are afraid?

It is wrong to depict Israel as a country, government or army that can do no wrong. It is equally wrong to portray Israel as a country, government or army that can do only wrong. It is sad to me that whether you support or denigrate Israel becomes a barometer of whether or not you stand for social justice. If you support Israel, you must be conservative. If you support boycott of Israel and throw out words like “massacre,” “apartheid,” “genocide” and “Holocaust” freely, you can stay in the liberal camp. I believe you can love Israel and believe in – and work toward – social justice. Indeed, we can and should be using a social justice framework to think, act, learn and teach about this issue with more consciousness.

As “smart, globally minded” students committed to learning and seeking knowledge, we must not let nuance fall when we speak about this conflict. We must not just jump at controversy.  We must try harder to educate ourselves and learn from one another in a nuanced way. If you are trying to learn more about the conflict, I encourage you to admit what perspective you are coming from, acknowledge what you don’t know, take your time to form opinions and learn from a variety of news sources – not just The Electronic Intifada. Also, ask people! Especially those who may have views different from your own.

Similar to how we approach so many other topics and conflicts locally and globally, Middlebury has the potential to have productive dialogue, programming and activism that highlights the nuance and comp complexities that exist in Israel and Palestine

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