Tyler Jones: Listen to be heard

BY TYLER JONES

Published October 28, 2010

On Oct. 20, two members of the Israeli Defense Force spoke on campus about Israel’s role in the Middle East. This event was sponsored by StandWithUs, an educational group that works to “ensure Israel’s side of the story is told…” according to the group's website. A few minutes into the presentation, members of the audience stood up and removed their jackets, revealing red t-shirts with signs taped onto their chests. On these signs were names of dead Gazan children, the date of their death and the word “Silenced” underneath.

It is safe to say that at this point the two IDF presenters recognized the hostility in the audience. But their presentation continued. After a few minutes, the t-shirt-clad protestors stood again and walked from the room. As they moved to the door, one of the soldiers requested the group stay and ask questions. With the exception of a few confused audience members and the two IDF soldiers, the room was left practically empty.

I suppose if the goal of the protest was to draw shock and awe, the demonstration was a success. But the issues plaguing Arab-Israeli relations today demand more serious action than shock and awe. Dramatics will not solve problems. If real progress is to be made between Arabs and Israelis, understanding must be a priority — an ideal apparently lost on the Oct. 20 protestors.

These demonstrators marched out of the IDF presentation to protest Israel’s actions during Operation Cast Lead, a military offensive carried out on December 27, 2008 to combat rocket attacks from Hamas in Gaza. According to Amnesty International, about 1,400 Palestinians were killed in the assault, as well as 14 Israelis. Regardless of the side you support, it is safe to say neither is truly innocent in this conflict.

To bring light to the protest, a video was taken of the event and uploaded to the Internet. In the video, we see a speaker facing a round of applause at the end of the demonstration as he commends the participants because they “left the room empty,” and sent “a really big message.” But both Arabs and Israelis have lost children in this conflict. Both sides have fallen asleep to the sounds of exploding mortar rounds. Homes are destroyed and children die when opposing sides fail to discuss and listen. This is no time to send big messages with dramatic walkouts — both Arabs and Israelis have tried for too long to communicate with high explosives and ammunition. If there is one thing this conflict has enough of it is big messages.

Ahmad Hasan, one of the student protest coordinators, explained to me in an e-mail interview that the protestors “did not agree that members of a military whose actions have been so overwhelmingly condemned by respected and reputable organizations should even be welcomed on our campus.”

But if any substantial progress is to be made regarding this deep-seated conflict, dialogue is necessary. We can't close the doors of campus to those who hold a controversial view. Until the two sides can acknowledge differences, accept past errors and work to achieve a common good, there will be no peace. If we turn away an individual or an organization simply because they are in the opposition, the conflict will remain the same.

In the e-mail interview, Hasan went on to explain, “For me to stay and simply pose questions would be dishonoring and unjust to the silenced innocent who were, in the end, never given the chance to ask a single question.”

I certainly empathize with the protestors who only sought to do what they thought was right. But this issue is not about honoring the dead or holding firm to past injustices. If tomorrow one Palestinian child still has to fear bombings or one Israeli family must second-guess their trip to the town market, the protest was a failure. Society must stand to support a cause in hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Had the demonstrators stayed, asked legitimate questions and created a dialogue, perhaps progress toward understanding and resolution could have begun.

This is not about supporting Israel or condemning the IDF — in the 62 years of Israel’s existence, both sides have accumulated blood on their hands. More than sending a message through dramatics or illustrating to the other side just how little you value their views, enemies must talk. Understanding is about staying in the room, even if your opponent’s words make your blood boil and your fists clench. It’s about staying in your seat and listening to what the other side has to say. Movements of activism are simply not enough to enact change — protest accompanied by plans of action, dialogue and discussion is how we will save lives. What the protestors need to understand is that discussion — no matter how difficult — is the only way to give your movement a voice.

Tyler Jones can be reached at tylerlj@umich.edu.