February 28, 2013

GERSON: Civility or Bust: Making the First Steps Toward Peace

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This weekend, I will be in Washington D.C. attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s conference to discuss the conflict going on in the Middle East. Maybe you’ve heard of it. I’ll be the first to admit that I know relatively little about Israel and the conflict, but I do have some perceptions about the event.

First, I feel like any American who cares about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should care about AIPAC, which is the largest pro-Israel lobby in the country and the most important organization affecting American-Israeli relations. Second, I believe people attending the conference will have a wide-range of perspectives on Israeli politics. Lastly, I believe people attending with hardened opinions and debate-seeking attitudes will be there to engage in a charged duel rather than an open dialogue.

Last semester, I witnessed a savage screaming match take place on Ho Plaza between members of groups who seem to fall under this latter category of people. Seemingly civil and respectable students in any other context used Middle Eastern politics to flex their vocal chords in support of their dear friends struggling on the other side of the globe. Then, Hillel and the Students for Justice in Palestine both returned to their separate corners and haven’t interacted publically since, only via anonymous posters and poorly advertised, uninviting events. While SJP refuses to program with any group with beliefs outside of their narrow definition of “justice,” Hillel failed equally in making a public attempt to reach across to the other side. After the dust settled, both groups did not address the shock and frustration felt by those outside of these protesting groups, and many, including myself, still have a sour taste in our mouths from that initial exposure on Ho Plaza.

These student groups often turn off the students who want to engage in constructive and nuanced dialogue. Currently, it may appear to many people that only polarizing avenues to participate, that frequently cater to more extreme voices, exist. Students who disagree often do not feel comfortable engaging within the current structures found on campus. Perhaps this is a selection bias, where students very passionate on either end are the only ones with the drive to participate. However, I am skeptical; there are many students who want to engage more productively and do not feel there is a place to do so.

I am guilty for categorizing all students into one of three camps — pro-Israel, pro-Palestine or neutral — and I am aware that this is the root cause inhibiting a space for dialogue and compromise. In many other contexts, Cornell students manage to complicate the simplified rhetoric of black versus white in order to attempt an honest navigation of the gray, yet when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the gray is often forgotten.

Not all pro-Israel students are against Palestine, and not all students for a Palestinian state are opposed to the existence of Israel. No one wants to see more people injured and killed. However, the situation in Israel and the occupied territories is simply unsustainable, and if Israeli leaders fail to begin peace talks with Abbas and the moderate Palestinians in Ramallah, a Third Intifada will surely break out. Palestinians enjoy neither security, comfort nor stability, and while Israelis living in Israel “proper” experience a rather normal daily existence, Palestinians do not. Something has got to give.

I am both pro-Israel and pro-Pales­tine in the broadest sense, believing a stable homeland for the Jewish people needs to exist and a Palestinian nation with rights of self-determination for all is equally as important. As an idealist believer in equality and justice, I understand the demography of Israel is shifting dramatically, and a Pales­tinian state is the only long-term democratic solution to the growing Palestinian-Arab population within Israel.

I know I don’t want to join any group with members who equate pro-Palestine to anti-Semitism or pro-Israel to a colonial conspiracy. However, I live in Ithaca, N.Y., and while I care about the people threatened by a conflict with no resolution in sight, yelling at my classmates over something far out of my immediate existence would only ruin my day and leave both me and my partner frustrated and exhausted.

I want to find the truth on both sides. Sadly, my criticism of Israeli settlements is often equated to an attempt to delegitimize Israel. There needs to be a better medium to engage in this issue on campus, and while I understand these groups have an open-door policy, I do not feel comfortable engaging within them.

I hope I can be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine in college, the time when we should be able to maintain our optimistic view of the world. I would be lying if I told you exactly how peace should be achieved or what it will look like, but I sure know a charged battle of force is the way not to make peace.

I am thrilled to see that students on campus are making strides to foster this pro-peace attitude on campus. Students are currently working to bring a new peace-seeking voice on campus. I will be attending the conference this weekend keeping this attitude in mind. I plan to learn more about the conflict, myself and others along the way. I hope I can return to Cornell and continue my journey with you all.

Rudy Gerson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached a rgerson@cornellsun.com. Rooting Around column runs alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Rudy Gerson