Speak your peace

The Israel–Palestine conflict requires honesty and moderation in the rhetoric of its combatants

By Marshall Knudson

Fresh blood has been spilt in Palestine, but the wound is old and getting deeper. Conflict still flickers in the present tense, but the script was written so long ago that nobody seems to remember the authors. No one can recall how the lines were drawn and paved over, how promises were made and broken, for memory is hazy and history is an interminable argument, especially when authoritative sources cannot be agreed upon.

It is so fraught an issue that “objective” views do not exist to anyone’s satisfaction, and none, I think, can be sought. Though we are flooded with reports of flaring violence and fulgent promises, our consciences find no balance sheet by which to sway our sympathies. Does the magnitude of casualties or the margin of woes between Israelis and Palestinians make any difference in our hearts? Do all the passionate persuasions and blistering contradictions sway the calculus of our rational minds?

Our convictions about Palestine and Israel weren’t molded by a panel discussion or shaped by a weighty textbook. They were crafted by long exposure and close experience, by our friends who spent their summers living and praying in Jerusalem, or our neighbors who spent the winter blocking bulldozers in the West Bank.

American activists on either side, like the people of Palestine and Israel themselves, live a bellicose coexistence. Strong convictions and durable antipathies make it hard to speak freely, and victory seems to love the boisterous and self righteous; I gave up shouting long ago, promising myself never to broach the taboo subject and so to avoid calumny and contempt.

For those familiar with the issue, this is stale news. Indeed, so too are the lines of argument and the fruitful reserve of ad hominem epithets employed by either side.

Undoubtedly, these problems arise in part because the two camps do not meet each other halfway. It is the responsibility of each party not only to make clear its concerns and goals, but to articulate these things with humanist sincerity. But rarely are more than cursory remarks exchanged before they are muffled by criticism or distorted by malicious insinuation.

It’s easy to see how a potential venue for honest discussion can degenerate into a corrosive crossfire. Whatever the merit of its speakers’ comments, the panel discussion on January 8 was doomed to excite tempers. The inflammatory sign juxtaposing a Star of David and a Swastika was not the equipment of a person prepared to break new grounds and shatter barriers, nor was the accusation of “Nazi” the tactic of a peacemaker. The vulgar and distasteful analogy these sought to make, between Nazi Germany and Israel, sheds no light on the issues at stake, particularly when they are certain to be received as an offensive spectacle. Most importantly, they pervert the meaning of those who criticize Israel with serious intent.

The tactics used by pro-Israel partisans were equally dispiriting. Challenging the credentials of speakers to stand at the podium and spinning their personal histories to make them look inept and unsavory is a highbrow low blow. Attaching the label of “anti-Semitic” to views expressed in opposition to the policy of the Israeli state and the practices of its military confounds and confuses the nature of the debate, and I sincerely doubt it is honestly applied. It is a condemnation used often by Israel to silence human rights organizations concerned with humanitarian disasters and shocked by war crimes, and it obscures the primary political questions under the scornful heading of a religious or racial agenda.

So long as these farcical tactics have their day, we will look only like partisans to each other. What we need is a candid discussion that starts only when FOX News–style obscurantism ceases, and people come together to explain—without fear of being labeled or libeled—what it is they truly care about. Do pro-Israel students mean to defend and promote the policy of the state of Israel without question? Do pro-Palestinian students mean to promote the stateless Palestinian peoples by criticizing that Israeli state in all circumstances?

I think the intelligent people on each side have more to say than some party line, more to fight for than a dogma, and more to hope for than the cynical persistence of human misery. We are all human beings and we share tangible concerns about human dignity, peace, and well-being. Let’s start there.