Ethan Sirhal

Students: Speak together before you speak out

Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrators face off near the Tulane University campus in New Orleans on October 26, 2023. [Brett Duke, The Times-Picayune]

Three weeks after Hamas’ surprise attack on southern Israel, the IDF’s shaping operations above the Gaza strip have concluded, and its large-scale ground assault has begun. As Israel and Hamas pledge destruction on one another, neutrality among their people is not an option, whether for advocates of peace, or war. A world away, however, life on an American college campus does not preclude neutrality, and centrist voices should not be suffocated.

Last week in Haaretz, Hebrew University graduate student, Roey Porat, posed a critique of the American progressive left in response to many university students’ sudden and somewhat ill- defined support of the Palestinian cause. In four points, he attempted to cement basic truths antithetical to ongoing pro-Palestine demonstrations across U.S. campuses. While I appreciate the opinion aspect of an op-ed and share Mr. Porat’s alarm at the current social climate, I believe his counterpoints are misplaced. Respectively, the pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian fervor, although perhaps impulsive among students, is not lacking in facts, it is lacking in perspective.

Since his remarks last Tuesday regarding the ongoing Gaza conflict, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres seems to have placed himself at odds with Israel, or so the Israelis say. His key remark that, “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” is the subject of published ridicule among conservative spaces and has spurred Israel to demand Mr. Guterres’ resignation alongside its threat to revoke and refuse visas to UN officials in-country. Yet, the most disconcerting aspect of the backlash is that the Secretary-General’s speech, albeit controversial, was decidedly centrist.

Mr. Guterres’ remarks were not aimed at vilifying Israel or diminishing its right to self-defense, nor were they aimed at enabling Hamas’ terrorist ideology. His remarks were a clear comment on law and ethics during conflict, as well as the responsibility of all parties to uphold them, regardless of victimization. Regrettably, it seems this sentiment was lost, and the polarization of support for either Palestine or Israel is strikingly clear within student bodies.

The experiences of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror speak to the causation of conflict on radicalization. Do attacks on a nation’s people or homeland excuse war crimes in retaliation? No. Does oppression excuse terrorism as a means of resistance? No. Irrespective, there is empathy to be practiced when evaluating the causes of conflict, and an important distinction between impetus and justification that accompanies it. In that way, the Secretary-General’s point is well made.

Although radicalization among Arabs and Israelis may be understood, not excused, I will counter Mr. Porat to say that if the American left is so certainly indecent toward the lives of Jews and the importance of Israel, so called “basic truths” will not dent that. More likely, students’ frantic compulsion to speak out on the conflict stems from an overestimation of their own involvement in the suffering, as well as the solution.

Without understating students’ importance to modern politics—see Kent, Tiananmen, and Anpo—students attend a university to study. They are not world leaders; most are not combatants, or consultants; and they don’t make policy, even if they influence it as a group. That is the great benefit of academia, that a student is not bound to action by responsibility or outrage by radicalization. They can express their demands as a collective, yes, but they have the freedom to deliberate before they exert them.

If America’s pro-Israel community is troubled by students’ recent outcry against Israel and Israelis, they should stop harping on narratives and facts that can be reiterated or dismissed by any given infographic on social media. Instead—and for the benefit of all academia—students should be encouraged to remember their privilege as learners and engage each other’s passion before roleplaying Zionists and fedayeen. Ignoring armchair radicals espousing hate from the shelter of American forums, students can form a strong, centrist dialogue that considers all realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including those less-advertised and, to that end, less fashionable.

About the Author
Ethan Sirhal is a graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans and native of Massachusetts. His research focus is US civil-military cooperation, anti-base movements, and inter-communal mediation in split nations. Ethan is also of Lebanese-Druze heritage and an avid travel photographer.
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