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Toward a Better Israel-Palestine Conversation

By Jacob A. Fortinsky

It is commonly accepted that discussions about Israel and Palestine always turn sour. Time and again, I am warned not to engage in these sorts of discussions, whether on Facebook or in-person, because “nothing good ever comes out of them.” It seems that people think compromise, civil discourse, and mutual understanding are impossible when it comes to the issue of Israel-Palestine, perhaps more than any other topic. Even on campus, one seldom can find a group of students participating in a fruitful and intellectually honest conversation regarding Israel-Palestine.

The conflict is too often painted as black and white, or a zero-sum game. People ask what side you are on as though they are asking if you root for the Red Sox or Yankees. Painting the conflict in such a light is not only simplistic but is highly damaging to the prospect of a peaceful solution. How can anyone who is emotionally connected to either the Zionist or Palestinian causes show any sort of sympathy to the other side when it is categorically portrayed as negative and harmful? A more peaceful Middle East and coexistence between the Israeli and Palestinian people must begin by acknowledging the legitimacy of each side’s narrative.

Yet I don’t think it has to be this way. Cara J. Kupferman ’20 and I, along with over a dozen other students, are forming a new group on campus dedicated to promoting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples called the Coalition at Harvard for Israel and Palestine. We seek to provide an alternative space where pro-Israel, pro-peace students can discuss and advocate for justice for both peoples.

We are establishing CHIP because we are deeply committed to ensuring Israel’s future as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people, which can only be secured through a two-state resolution. We will organize as students to act together on behalf of a two-state solution and a more peaceful, secure, and democratic future for both Israelis and Palestinians. In so doing, we strive to bring to our campus and our communities an inclusive, pragmatic, and values-driven conversation able to meet the urgency and seriousness of the challenge that we face.

The current conversation regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both within Harvard’s Jewish and Arab communities and on campus as a whole, lacks nuance—by depicting the other side as complicit in either ethnic cleansing or terrorism—and recognition of the legitimacy of the other group’s narrative. It is crucial for the future generation of leaders to engage in meaningful and honest dialogue, and we believe that we can fill this serious void.

Additionally, it becomes impossible to respond to any contemporary challenge in the region when one views the conflict through a strictly dogmatic lens. For example, regarding the current violence at the Gaza-Israel border, one need not side unequivocally with either the terrorist group Hamas or the often-disproportionate responses of the Israeli army. Regarding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, anyone who cares about peace would be misguided to criticize Israel without recognizing the Palestinian government’s incitement and incentivizing of terrorism; and one would be similarly misguided to attack Palestinian terrorism without condemning the tremendously negative effects of an ever-present and often-brutal military occupation.

When Palestinians’ primary interaction with Israelis is with soldiers who patrol their communities and raid their homes, and when Israelis’ primary contact with Palestinians is with knife-wielding assailants, how can one expect mutual understanding? Similarly, when the conversation in the United States is dominated by extremists like Louis Farrakhan or American ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman, how can one expect nuance and intellectual honesty?

I believe it is important to bring speakers to our community, in order to educate our members and the Harvard community about ongoing issues in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank and to shed light on the injustices of the occupation as we seek to promote a two-state solution, a secure and democratic Israel, and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians.

In a time in which centrist voices are too frequently drowned out, it is important to stake out our position between those who defend the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the current Israeli administration and those who mercilessly slander the only liberal democracy in the region. It is vital to affirm that—just as President Donald Trump does not speak for all Americans and there are many patriots who vehemently oppose his administration and his policies—Hamas and Abbas do not represent all Palestinians and, likewise, one can be both Zionist and anti-Netanyahu.

It is tempting to avoid talking about difficult issues like Israel and Palestine or to dismiss the narrative of one side while unquestioningly adopting the agenda of the other. Yet, as a leader of the newly formed Coalition at Harvard for Israel and Palestine, I urge all students to lean in and engage in the challenging project of promoting mutual understanding and a peaceful solution.

Jacob A. Fortinsky ’21, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.

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