We live in days of division and pain following Hamas’ October 7th terrorist attack on Israel. The bloodshed has released a vile hatred into the world: there has been a major uptick in antisemitic and islamophobic attacks globally. Today, Jewish students fear attacks as retaliation for problematic Israeli actions in a climate of record high antisemitic hate crimes. Similarly, Arab and Muslim students fear Islamophobic and anti-Arab hate crimes. This climate has cleaved both students and professors into two groups—one pro-Palestine and one pro-Israel—which seek to justify the action of actors in a caustic war.
Ideally, education presents facts that put students into biased boxes while teaching us the skills to break out of them. In university classrooms, we are expected to respectfully juxtapose authors’ arguments without personally attacking each other. We gradually learn to ascertain truth by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of multiple sources. This conversation between experts allows for the advancement of critical thinking.
But, blatant social division has led to the uncritical acceptance of information about the conflict—even the New York Times has become vulnerable to cursory information gathering about this conflict. This environment is contrary to the nuanced academic discussion that we work hard to develop at university.
With so much pain, students lose the ability to think critically about the information they consume. This week’s hospital explosion in Gaza laid bare the acceptance of misinformation on social media. Pro-Palestinian students were quick to blame Israel for the caustic attack based on reports from the Hamas controlled Gaza health ministry. And pro-Israel students were quick to cite the Israel Defense Force’s claim the explosion was misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad warhead. Students resorted to the most biased sources in an attempt to share their relevant opinion. The same students who will critically examine information in almost any other context instantly become Middle East experts during conflict through biased infographics.
Within the Israel-Palestine conflict, confirmation bias has made truth and fact subject to political opinion and the need for reactionary social media messaging. Such engagement often instrumentalizes graphic, tragic images of violence and mass casualty to advance an argument that proclaims to be singular truth. Students attempt to capitalize on suffering to prove they are on the righteous side of a conflict full of moral ambiguity. This dynamic causes people to retreat into silos of information rather than work together to prevent further suffering.
Within the polarized campus environment, students often claim others violate university speech and expression policies and lob ad hominem attacks at those they disagree with instead of engaging in productive academic discussion. For example, after suggesting Georgetown’s Center for Social Justice should add the perspective that Hamas is a terrorist organization to a Gaza syllabus which cited authors who claim it is a liberation organization, students swore at me rather than engaging in an academic discussion about competing perspectives. This experience is a microcosm of the environment on campus today—one where students across the United States are emotionally and physically attacked for academic and political views.
This lack of fundamental respect will leave relationships broken even after a ceasefire. We must be careful to disagree with grace and work towards understanding each other’s agony. Every rocket, airstrike, terrorist attack, and bullet results in a grieving family regardless of their side in the conflict. But, healing from the pain will require university students to regain their skills of respectful academic discourse around the Israel-Palestine conflict.
When this is over we must shift our pain to healing. If these past two weeks have shown me anything it is that another century of conflict between Israelis (formerly Jews in the Yishuv) and Palestinians (formerly Arabs in the Palestinian mandate for Arabs and Jews under British occupation) cannot be allowed to occur. Both sides will need to work together towards well-intentioned, durable peace. And the only way to do so is through the reconciliation of communities on both sides of the conflict. This grassroots healing will be much harder if students continue down a path of violent division.