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Israeli-Arab discussions need more centrism

Bret Stephens attempted to connect with the entire political spectrum.

When I opened up the Collegian last week, I anticipated a discussion on the visit of Bret Stephens, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whom the Center for the Study of American Democracy and Kenyon Israel Club brought to campus. (Full disclosure, I am a member of the Kenyon Israel Club.) I expected to read praise of him for being a centrist in a time when moderates are an endangered species. I also fully expected a critique from the left about his somewhat neoconservative leanings. I saw neither.

I was able to watch the entirety of Bret Stephens’s talk via Facebook Live and was thoroughly impressed. He seemed able to connect with the entire political spectrum and was not inflammatory. I was most impressed with his analysis of the crisis in Syria. Stephens offered numerous options that the Obama administration could have pursued — solutions that could have largely satisfied a Democratic party base that is, on one hand, tired of military intervention, and on the other hand, sympathetic towards all those affected by the Assad regime and refugee crisis.

Listening to Stephens allowed me to reflect on how the Israeli-Arab conflict is discussed on this campus. So often the rhetoric around the issue devolves into a battle of who can name more instances in which one side has murdered people on the other side. This is not a constructive way to engage, because the fact of the matter is that neither side of the actual conflict can be completely absolved. Israelis probably shouldn’t be building settlements, but Palestinians probably shouldn’t be building terror tunnels. Our goal, as thoughtful students, should be to try to dig through the misinformation and irresponsible ad hominem arguments made on this issue.

It is for this reason that I took issue with Megan Carr’s ’18 assessment of Stephens in her submission (“Bret Stephens’ visit to campus normalizes hateful rhetoric,” 2/9) to the Collegian last week. Carr called Bret Stephens someone who espouses hate speech and compared the language he uses in a Wall Street Journal column to discuss Palestinians to Trump’s vilification of Muslims, saying it “echoes the rhetoric of fascist regimes.” Labeling him as such is nonsense. Painting moderates like Stephens in this way devalues terms like “hate speech” and “fascist” in times when we actually face them.   

Among Carr’s allegations against Stephens is that he has a history of “degrading” Arabs. She says that Stephens has done so when he claims that the “Arab mindset” has halted intellectual development in the region. But she leaves out an important fact: His diagnosis of the “Arab mindset” is that it is one of rampant anti-Semitism. Stephens argues that this anti-Semitism has led to a development-halting brain drain. The facts here, one would think, are beyond question, given the expulsion of about 900,000 Jews from Arab nations in the past 70 years.

Was Stephens calling all Arabs anti-Semitic? Absolutely not. However, anti-Semitism is still a problem that seems to persist in much of the leadership in the Arab world, and I’m not sure how constructive dialogue on this issue is possible if it is “degrading” to label anti-Semitism as such. 

Stephens was one of the most moderate, nuanced speakers that any group on any side of the Israeli-Arab debate has brought to speak at Kenyon. As well-intentioned Kenyon students, we need to combat right-wing populism, not concoct a new brand of left-wing populism. In a word, what we need is moderation.

While it may be oxymoronic to say so, I encourage everyone to become passionate about moderation. It’s hard. It takes commitment to listening, negotiating ideas with an open mind, and rejecting appeals to passion. Because contrary to what Carr believes, facts are not just for liberals — they’re for reasonable humans.

Evan Cree Gee ’18 is a political science major from Norfolk, MA. Contact him at geee@kenyon.edu

Evan Cree Gee

Evan Cree Gee ’18 is a political science major from Norfolk, Mass. He probably disagrees with you. Contact him at geee@kenyon.edu.

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