Holding Dialogue Hostage
The most depressing thing about the recent violence in the Middle East is that no one wants to talk about it. Where is the open dialogue, Harvard? What happened to our search for veritas? Instead of seeking the truth regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict the school has divided itself into three groups: on one side those who are pro-Israel (not anti-Arab), on the other those who support Palestine (not anti-Jew) and in the middle lie the rest--held hostage by the conflicting viewpoints flying around them. The result? People just don't want to talk about it anymore. Our campus has fallen victim to a virus fatal to an institution of higher learning: fear of speaking one's mind.
In these past few weeks over 100 people have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The cause of the violence is debatable. The blame for the violence is debatable. The party who is most able to stop the violence is also debatable. But students aren't debating anything. Newspaper coverage has been sparse. The Harvard Independent, ostensibly a commentary magazine, published a provocative-looking issue last week. The cover story was called "Hillel's face off against the Society of Arab Students." The actual article, however, was less than two pages and was nothing more than a summary of the circumstances surrounding the separate rallies.
The Undergraduate Council, which has not hesitated to jut its moral yardstick into national issues such as police brutality, has not issued any kind of statement regarding this conflict. The council, indeed the school, is quick to pass resolutions of sentiment condemning contentious issues like homophobia. And it is quick to sponsor panels on difficult questions like diversity. But the moment the campus actually could use a body to provide a forum for free discussion, the council doesn't say a word.
The only kind of public treatment of this issue since the outbreak of violence over a month ago has been a series of highly partisan rallies/vigils sponsored by Harvard Students for Israel (HSI) and the Society of Arab Students (SAS). While these groups might pretend that they encourage open dialogue, their behavior suggests they want anything but. Rather than solicit other opinions they have polarized the issues. By holding separate vigils to mourn the dead and organizing competing rallies to assert their own opinions, these two groups have drawn a bold line between their two sides. Debate consists of yelling back and forth between the two. The average student, with murky, undecided opinions, is afraid to join.
Dialogue between SAS and HSI was a closed-door, moderated discussion involving approximately 15 members on each side. People who organized the event have informed me that the lack of press at the discussion facilitated "open dialogue." The assurance that what was said would not leave the room certainly made things more comfortable for the 30 to 40 lucky participants. However, the secrecy of the dialogue only reinforced the prevailing sentiment that this issue can only be confronted privately.
There remains hope, however. Immediately following the rallies, the Multicultural Issues Forum sponsored two open dialogues on this subject despite concern from some quarters that they should wait until the situation was less "tense." Additionally, dialogue has been occurring among friends, in dining halls and on House e-mail lists.
The Adams-Schmooze list in particular had a very lively debate on this subject. While there is no replacement for in-person dialogue, perhaps e-mail chains can provide a useful outlet for discussion that is too intense for face to face contact.
Yet, even the facelessness of cyberspace cannot prevent hurt feelings. As long as this issue remains behind closed doors and written between the margins, some students will continue to choose silence rather than face continued hostility. One of the more vocal participants in the schmooze discussion, Daniel B. Garcia-Pedrosa '02, in reply to a friend's e-mail that questioned his views, summarized in this way: "I really don't know why you would think what I said was mean. And I'd like for you to understand where I'm coming from, because I'm trying to be very fair. I have not said a single thing against the Palestinians. Trying to stay on the moral high-ground is exhausting. I'm not writing to the schmooze any more on this."
As an institution of higher learning, discussion is vital to our campus's mission. We can't just discuss the safe issues. We must be willing to confront the difficult ones. Say that Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount is directly responsible for the recent outbreak of violence. Say that Israel has the right to use all powers at its disposal to defend its soldiers and citizens against mob violence. Say you support a Palestinian state. Say you oppose any kind of Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem. But don't say that you don't want to talk about it. Those whose lives are in the balance deserve more than that.
Christina S.N. Lewis '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.