Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

How to Talk About Palestine

Why discussions on the Palestine-Israel conflict invariably involve emotion, and how to better engage in dialogue on the topic.

Sep 25, 2016

Last week, a conversation about ideological diversity started on campus. The core of the debate, to my understanding, was not that of the Palestinian conflict, but of tolerance. Before delving into the details of my discontent, I first feel the need to disclaim the following: I am not writing this article because of any politico-religious affiliations. I neither mean to narrate the history of the Palestinian struggle nor to situate myself within a rhetoric of blame. I am writing this piece of my own accord; I am representing my personal views, communicating how the conversation has affected me; I am not and do not intend to represent any formal group or institution. I also do not mean to offend anyone — the contents of this article may strike some as outrageous or insensitive, maybe even illogical, but I view this as a medium for self-expression and hope that my expression does not hinder that of another.
Last week, talk of intolerance motivated a discussion. One of the questions posed was that of comfort: how much freedom do students have to express their ideas? Do we, as a community, dismiss certain points of view? It is to this question that I give not an answer, but a nudge — a twofold nudge, if I may.
First and foremost, I feel the need to affirm my love for discourse. I have always been, and hope to always be, generally open to discussion. I find fruit in conversations, especially those that transcend the everyday. This university has paved the way for various late-night conversations, long-lasting debates and opportunities to explore differences. Discourse thrives off of our diversity as a student population. Opinions and beliefs are bounced off and onto the concrete white walls, cold grey benches and gooey red shisha tobacco, day and night.
Here’s the kicker, though: as intelligent and cosmopolitan as we get, sometimes our opinions offend. This offense can be motivated by a number of different things: narrow and fragmented responses, outright ignorant interpretations and repugnantly racist commentary. It’s a little outrageous, isn’t it? Emotional reactions within an academic debate! How dare they allow feelings to stand in the way of logic? But it happens. Sometimes humans cannot — and in some cases should not — restrain their emotions. There comes a point when statistics and word limits are not enough, especially when the topic of contention has influenced and impacted the emotional party for a long time, and with great force. Palestine and Palestinians, having been written out of history and refused their right of formal recognition, must resort to all they have left — emotion. If you are fond of debating or are interested in a certain controversial topic, you need to accept this and thereby you should neither correlate justified emotional responses with hate nor dismiss words mustered in between tears or rants as being illegitimate.
Second, and in relation to the Palestinian question, there are a few key points that need to be taken into account before delving into a discussion. Mainly it is that the two sides, Israel and Palestine, are not equal. The relationship between Israel and Palestine is that of colonialism; it is a relationship of forced expulsion, intimidation, military reign, confiscation, mistrust, theft, rape, deprivation and disgrace. These are not two equal parties at war, fighting one another for a piece of land: they are occupier and occupied, oppressor and oppressed, colonizer and colonized. It is imperative that one understands this; to pretend that the two are equal is ignorant and insensitive.
I am not trying to draw a comparison of better and worse; I merely feel obligated to express the importance of this inequality. There is a difference in power that one must be aware of; Israel is economically dominant and politically more powerful. This is not to say that Israel does or does not have a better government or political regime; what I am saying is that Israel, as a state, is able to better utilize entrenched international superstructures to its benefit. Their position within this power dynamic of colonizer and colonized enables Israel to market itself as a safe haven within a war-torn Middle East, a victim of Arab extremism. Israel is able to invest in infrastructure, education, technology and luxurious beach-side pools. Israel is able to advertise the hardships of existing near the Palestinian state, while limiting coverage on the brutalities that it commits against the Palestinian people.
I took a course titled Israeli Politics and Society in NYU New York. My professor was quite an understanding teacher and tried, to the best of his abilities, to be objective. I was bombarded by ignorant, insensitive comments throughout the entire semester, but I took it with an open mind and an aim to converse. It wasn’t until one day when a fellow classmate stood up and said that the matter was simple. She asked me to Google Israeli children and then do the same for Palestinian children. The Palestinian ones are always carrying guns and rocks, and have their flag plastered across their face — this is proof that the Arabs raise their children to hate. I was in awe — literal awe. I didn’t know what to say, nor did I want to say anything. Thank you for simplifying the 70-year-long conflict so well. Thank you for showing me how to best educate myself on the complexities of this matter. Thank you, fellow classmate, for proving my point. The pedagogical production of knowledge is tainted with the biases of power structures and international corruption. It was then that I realized that she, not unlike the majority of the students taking that class, did not know of the brutality of the Israeli state. They did not recognize the massacre of the Palestinian people, not because they did not care, not because they were supporters of the Israeli state, but because a simple Google image search is skewed towards political agendas.
This is my twofold nudge: be aware and be considerate. There is nothing wrong with asking questions and challenging answers. I am not alone when I say that I welcome conversation. I am willing to sit with you, to talk to you. I will not judge you for having a different opinion, but you have to recognize the dynamics of the topic that you are addressing, the inequality of both sides and you have to accept that I might respond with emotion; anything less would be disrespectful to the grievances of the voiceless. Before I end this article, I want to ask a favor of you: please, do not be politically correct. Do not constrain yourself to the socially accepted, institutionally construed vocabulary. This is an important, sensitive issue, and it deserves to be discussed with empathy.
Jood Shiquem is a contributing writer. Email her at
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