Guest Column by Akiva Sanders | A shift in the conversation




When I first heard that Clarissa O’Conor would be writing a column about her experiences during her semester in East Jerusalem, I was excited. I looked forward to hearing the voices of ordinary Palestinians living in the middle of a century-long conflict, something often forgotten at Penn. However, I was disappointed to find condemnations of respectful dialogue and nuance in the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I know how tough it can be to transcend anger and rhetoric. When any empathetic person views the perpetual fear of living in the West Bank — or Intifada Israel, for that matter — pure outrage is difficult to suppress. The simplest response is to direct this outrage against those perceived as the perpetrators. This is the sentiment that came through to me upon reading Clarissa’s impassioned columns.

In a situation where the greatest obstacle to reaching a political solution to this conflict is overwhelming lack of trust, this kind of rhetoric is simply irresponsible. Much of the response to Clarissa’s column has been no better.

I lived with my family in Israel at the height of the Second Intifada. We watched as the Israeli news was filled with reports of bus bombings and Palestinian cities turned into literal battlegrounds.

I knew that this way of living was unacceptable, and the only apparent solution was to blame the other side. All of my facts clearly showed that Israelis wanted peace and the Palestinians prevented it.

In high school, I used to coax my Afghan friend to debate me on “Israel vs. Palestine.” His only response was: “It’s a shame that two peoples cannot live together in peace.” At the time, I thought he was avoiding the issue.

Eventually, I discovered that I was the one avoiding the issue. We are too involved in our color war to realize that what the other side wants long-term is not so different from what we want.

And the more we focus on rhetoric, the more we characterize our enemies as unworthy of our ears and our empathy, the more obscured that truth becomes and the further we get from a resolution.

By the time I was a freshman, I was tired of so-called “dialogue” — often just name-calling — and so-called “nuance” — where we admit that our side is imperfect, but of course it is worlds better than the other side. After experiencing the extreme violence on the other side of the broken Israel-Palestine conversation, I was motivated to help found J Street U Penn, part of a nationwide student movement to create an atmosphere for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I discovered almost immediately that we were not alone in our fatigue. At every step in our chapter’s rapid growth over the last three years, we found a large constituency of similarly disenchanted students coming from many sides of the conflict encouraging us in our work.

The fact is, respectful dialogue does have the power to change the reality of this situation. Our recent panel on the main obstacles to peace featured Israeli and Palestinian public opinion analysts, including Khalil Shikaki, a political science professor and the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. He reported that over 60 percent of Palestinians and similar numbers of Jewish Israelis would agree to the same package of compromises to end the conflict, but only about 20 percent of each side believes that the other side would agree.

If Israelis and Palestinians knew the most basic things about one another, the political will would be there to end this cycle of violence and oppression. The only way to spread this knowledge is to see those who argue for the other side of the conflict as thinking human beings with legitimate needs and opinions formed through real-life experiences — not as terrorists, colonists or bald-faced liars.

However, if we, on our college campuses in America — far from the fear of attacks and the constraint of occupation — are content to settle for polarized finger-pointing instead of constructive and respectful discussion, there will be no way to end this conflict.

Akiva Sanders is a College senior studying anthropology, NELC and biology. He currently serves as the co-chair of J Street U Penn. You can email him at sandersa@sas.upenn.edu.

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