If there’s any university in this country where you’d expect to find students engaged in a productive discussion about the Arab-Israeli conflict, it would be here. Our university has a large Jewish student population, a heritage dating back to the days when Jews barred from of Ivy League institutions by discriminatory quotas chose to come to Michigan instead. Ann Arbor’s proximity to metro Detroit’s Arab-American population, the largest in the nation, ensures that a sizable contingent of students will be concerned with advancing Palestinian causes.
Yet listening to what passes for dialogue about Israel and Palestine on campus over the past few years, I’ve grown cynical about the prospect of any rational discourse on the issue. Here, the attacks, accusations, indictments and defamations that typically characterize the debate mirror a similarly depressing cycle of violence in the Middle East. One suspects there’s a continuous chain of retaliation for the response for the reaction for the reprisal for the retribution . and so on, quite literally ad nauseam, going back at least until 1948.
My first experiences on campus with discussion of the conflict were uniformly negative. A Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference in the fall of 2002 advocating divestment from Israel brought to campus speakers who many Jewish students saw as anti-Semitic, including one who had probably provided support to terrorists. Advertisements purchased in this newspaper to publicize a pro-Israel website tried to propagate the dubious belief that all Israelis are upstanding moral citizens deeply committed to the tenets of liberal democracy, while all Palestinians are would-be suicide bombers whose thirst for Jewish blood could never be quenched, no blood libel pun intended.
Those extreme instances could perhaps be blamed on agitators – the conference organizers and those who bought the ads – from outside the University community. Watching years of animosity between students on both sides of the issue, though, has left me with little doubt that these students generally view their ideological counterparts with disdain, distrust and disgust.
The gap in understanding is perhaps most striking in the viewpoint pieces pro-Israel or pro-Palestine groups seek to have published in The Michigan Daily. Regardless of which side a viewpoint promotes, it takes one of two approaches. Many viewpoint authors simply argue that the other side’s immoral actions are entirely to blame for the conflict, neglecting to consider their own side’s failures and atrocities. Others take a more nuanced approach, arguing deceptively for the importance of dialogue. The general argument in those viewpoints can be summarized as follows: “We must have dialogue. Both sides should move past unproductive rhetoric. The other side is a bunch of genocidal maniacs hell-bent on the destruction of my people. We ought to sit down and talk responsibly.”
As an editor whose duties include choosing and editing viewpoints, I’m routinely told by both sides that I’m biased. It so happens that I don’t really have a favorite between the two sides. I have no religious or ethnic ties to either side of the conflict. I’m appalled at the oppression and violence Israel inflicts on innocent Palestinians, and I’m disgusted at terrorist attacks that kill innocent Israeli civilians. I would like to see people there stop killing each other, but just about everyone professes to believe that.
Nevertheless, it seems there are student leaders on both sides of the issue who are convinced that the Daily is out to advance one agenda and suppress the other. If I believed everything in my e-mail inbox, I’d come to the conclusion that I must be both a Zionist and an anti-Semite.
These accusations of bias smack of a dangerous contemporary definition of “media bias” as “anything with which you do not agree.” There might be an argument, however, that I am indeed biased – against both sides. Having read countless pages of the unproductive, unhelpful things students on both sides of the issue routinely say, I’m inclined not to talk about the conflict at all. Let the Daily discuss issues more directly relevant to campus – Proposal 2, the Michigan Student Assembly, heck, even University President Mary Sue Coleman’s wardrobe – just let’s not deal with Israel and Palestine. That whole Enlightenment ideal of a rational discourse between open-minded parties sincerely searching for the truth breaks down when one adds in the ultimately irrational factors of blood, religion and revenge.
But if more interested participants in the discussion have their irrational flaws, I too have mine. I believe, against much of my experience in nine semesters at the University, that there are moderate students on both sides who genuinely want to improve dialogue and understanding. I suspect, however, that these moderates are too busy defending themselves against criticism from more extreme members of their communities to make much progress.
A colleague of mine tried last week in her column (Tongue tied on the Middle East, 11/22/2006) to argue that students here obsess over the particular words used to describe the Arab-Israeli conflict at the expense of any meaningful conversation. She’s Jewish, and that alone was enough for some students to criticize her otherwise neutral plea for dialogue. Meanwhile, a Jewish student e-mailed her to lament that she described herself as “pro-Israel” instead of “Zionist,” proving her point about semantics displacing substance. The online responses on the Daily’s website to nearly any article that touches on Palestine or Israel frequently devolve into crude attacks, though I’d hope some of the more offensive comments come from bigoted bozos with no University ties. Yesterday’s viewpoint (A flawed democracy, 11/27/2006) and today’s letter to the editor are one more round in this same endless and endlessly unproductive debate.
The animosity we see here, mind you, is at a university thousands of miles removed from the Middle East, where there are no language barriers between the two sides, where violence is not a daily threat. As an American without a horse in this race, I at least have the luxury, if I choose, to decide a rational discourse on this issue is impossible and to ignore the whole mess as I go about my life. Those who live in Israel or Palestine, and those with close ties to the region, can’t do that. Their choices, essentially, are a productive dialogue or an endless violent conflict. I pray that they don’t find the discussion as useless as I have.
Christopher Zbrozek is a Daily editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.