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Only Ourselves to Blame

By Alixandra E. Smith

Fear not: This column will in no way attempt to lend significance to the sound and fury currently emanating from the Sunshine State. For while the nation and Harvard alike focus our attention on the two battle-weary candidates as they duke it out over the Presidency (Will Gore back down? How many counties have been recounted? And who told Katherine Harris, that it was O.K. to wear a suit reminiscent of Napolean's battle duds on national TV?), the world beyond the American ballot box does indeed march on, uninterrupted. We need only look to the Middle East, where a bloody status quo holds on in a particularly tenacious fashion, to know that the international community is only minimally impacted by our domestic squabbles.

The question is, should we be paying more attention to theirs?

In the past six weeks, tensions have steadily mounted between Israelis and Palestinians; as of yesterday, 207 lives had been lost in this latest surge of violence, many of them civilians. The Oslo peace process, so promising until late September, teeters on the edge of an abyss; at any moment, the careful work of the last seven years crashing down.

At Harvard, we have witnessed the incredible significance that this situation holds for many students on campus; this sentiment was nowhere strongest and more public than at the concurrent Harvard Students for Israel and Harvard Society of Arab Students rallies which took place in Tercentenary Theater last month. But there are a host of reasons why even those of us without a purely personal interest in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should be concerned about the escalating violence overseas; the fact that the United States sends more foreign aid to Israel than any other nation, the central negotiating role that President Clinton has attempted to assume since Oslo process, and the very real threat of a war which will require the mediation of, at the very least, the United Nations.

And yet the Harvard community at large has been rightly accused of remaining silent on the issue. In fact, the stink over a lack of discussion (or how to go about that discussion) has been larger than the conversation about the actual situation. As my fellow columnist, Christina S.N. Lewis '02, queried on the subject: "Where is the open dialogue, Harvard?"

In response, I would answer: it's everywhere but among undergraduates. And I would further postulate that the reason for this is due to the terrible single-mindedness of College students, who tend to focus inward much more than outward. In order to explain why, let me first dispel two common myths about "the free flow of discourse at Harvard." The first commonly propounded myth is that the undergraduate community constitutes a reflection of the Harvard as a whole; that if we're not observing "open dialogue" about the Middle East among our peers, then it's not happening on campus at all. This couldn't be further from the truth. While undergraduates have dilly-dallied, the larger Harvard community is doing anything but remaining mute; open debate about the conflict and its implications has been literally shouted from the rooftops. In the past few weeks alone, there have been more than a dozen University-sanctioned events dealing with the Israel/Palestine issue, including a six-part seminar on the Middle East co-sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Each of these events constitutes an integral part of the "open forum" that exists at Harvard, places where honest, unfettered discussion on the issues surrounding the current and past violence can occur. The fact that these forums are largely ignored as channels of communication by the undergraduate community is basis for concern; it is important that students realize the possibilities for intellectual engagement on the subject outside those limited number of activities organized by undergraduate groups.

The second, more pervasive myth is that Harvard undergraduates are somehow restrained from expressing our views about controversial issues like the situation in the Middle East by a fear of offending our neighbors. This viewpoint has a certain validity; in recent years, concern about speech codes and a general trend towards "political correctness" has led to increased sensitivity, and some would argue censorship, on campus. Reduced to its essence, however, this argument seems more of a cop-out and less of an actual explanation as to why public dialogue about the Middle East situation is absent on the average undergraduate's radar screen.

As an example, I would offer my "academic" experience with discussing the conflict in my government seminar on the Israel/Palestine struggle. There are fourteen of us, all of whom began the semester with a different set of well-entrenched prejudices which have proven difficult to reconcile. Our group discussion is as one would expect; heated, emotional, frustrating. There is some shouting, some banging of fists, the occasional eye-roll. The questions we grapple with are terribly divisive: Is the Palestinian movement fundamentally anti-Semitic? Was the removal of Arabs within the green line after 1948 a form of ethnic cleansing?

Yet despite the explosive nature of the material, not once has anyone hesitated to express a view, no matter how radical or revolutionary. Our only "discussion" stumbling block reared its head Tuesday, when someone questioned the snobbish futility of a bunch of elitist Harvard students sitting around a table halfway across the globe and attempting to "pretend we know what it's like." To which someone else shot back that America was the "last hegemonic power on earth" and that we "screw with a lot of countries we might as well know who we're screwing with." As usual, no holds barred.

Think about it on a broader scale; consider how often in your own course sections does the person next to you restrain him or herself from enlightening the group with a supposedly innovative and grade-boosting theory? Probably never.

The bottom line is that undergraduates within the University community tend to be just plain lazy when it comes to discussion of international events, especially those which don't have a direct impact on our lives. It's a shame that a pool of highly articulate individuals seem to have the time and effort to learn only the information we need to know to pass our classes, run our clubs or ace the recruiting process. And while this is by no means a new phenomenon, it is extremely disappointing that we feel the need to perpetuate "myths" about why the situation in the Middle East isn't getting the attention it deserves. The responsibility for the quantity of discussion on campus about the Middle East, or any other topic, lies squarely on our shoulders. Should we choose to accept it or not, it's high time we stopped fooling ourselves that someone or something else is to blame for our silence.

Alixandra E. Smith '02 is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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