On the Diag a few weeks ago, I enjoyed a piece of delicious birthday cake in honor of the formation of the Israeli state 63 years ago. The next day in the same place was a demonstration commemorating Al-Nakba, the Palestinian tragedy that was a result of Israel’s formation. According to the flier I received, over 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes to make space for Israeli immigrants coming from around the world.
An outsider to both sides of the issue, I am not one to properly judge it. Rather, I commend the student body at the University for presenting such distinct, differing views on events such as this. Our political and ideological pluralism is something to be celebrated and encouraged.
Had there only been a celebration for Israel’s birthday, many Arab as well as non-Arab students may have felt attacked or underrepresented. I suppose that this is comparable to the way much of history is taught in schools: from the perspective of one (usually dominant) side. Having two opposing events in honor of the same historical occurrence can be risky. Had the events taken place together and on the same day, there would have been much antagonism. It seems ideal then to hold them consecutively.
What if we were to use this model in celebrating or commemorating other historical events? Columbus Day, for instance, could be followed by a day to honor the American Indians who died or had their culture exterminated as a result of the continent’s colonization. Labor Day could be both a celebration of US labor history, but also a day to honor and remember those lost in mining, factory, and other labor-related disasters. And International Talk Like a Pirate Day could be followed by a day to remember all of the casualties of pirate raids throughout history — OK, maybe not.
The point here is that even though it might not seem ideal to discuss the tragedies that resulted from events that we celebrate, it may be the best way to address complex issues. What makes the Al-Nakba and Israeli birthday events on the Diag so unique is that the two sides represent opposing ends of a conflict that is still very heated. One of the purposes of celebrating historical events is to cultivate a cultural community. Another is to keep important events in our memory so that we can continue to learn from them. In this case particularly, when the event commemorated is still so relevant and controversial, it is important to know the context of the views people have and express regarding both sides.
Celebrating dualism seems to be a trend at the University, where we hold events like “Is Eating Meat Ethical?” (3/25/11, Hatcher Graduate Library). The difference with this topic is that people are unlikely to have been personally affected by meat consumption, as they may have been by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Issues that are personal are controversial to bring up in most social spheres because people tend to hold such highly polarized views. Thus, general discussions like the issue of eating meat are more acceptable and more common. Cultural identities are called into question with the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a whole network of historical oppression is associated with it, but does that mark the discussion of it off limits, or does it instead further necessitate its discussion?
As a general policy, I believe that controversial issues should be discussed. If our democracy is to function effectively, it is crucial that citizens not only participate in public discussion, but that they also take initiative to draw attention to both sides of issues that need to be addressed. Words can hurt, but it is not easy to kill with them. Open discussion would take away the need to express frustration through violence. If the status quo affirms one side of a controversial issue, people should be free to celebrate it — just not object if the opposing side is brought to light and publicly acknowledged. This is the nature of a culture that embraces free speech, and polarized demonstrations like this should be both commended and made more common.