While sitting at the talk by Dr. Marc Lamont Hill this past Sunday, I found myself wondering, “How could someone who balances the struggles of different groups so well cause such a controversy?” Admittedly, like many other students, I was not familiar with Dr. Hill’s work before he arrived on our campus. I was, however, aware of the raging debate that had occurred between different student groups over the content of his previous remarks. His talk was everything that our conversation on campus could have been, but wasn’t.
The safety and security of Jewish people in Israel cannot and should not come at the expense of Palestinians. Full stop. “Justice” given to one community at the expense of another is nothing but injustice. Israelis themselves can never really be safe and secure because injustice breeds instability. None of us who claim to be advocates for equality or justice should settle for any less.
What impressed me both about Dr. Hill’s speech was his ability to hold this claim in tension with the global history of anti-Semitism. What most disappointed me about the campus conversation preceding it was the inability of its participants to be both courageous and compassionate to one another.
At no point should the burden of the conversation, or education, on Israel and Palestine be borne solely by Palestinian students. Each of us as proponents of social justice has a responsibility to educate ourselves about the attrocities committed against the Palestinian people and the denial of rights to ethnic and religious minorities living within the state of Israel. But, students without direct experience of this conflict need to be able to treat each other with compassion. The attempted demonstration of solidarity that occurred last week left many students, Jewish or otherwise, feeling confused and isolated. By focusing on semantics in an email exchange between student groups, rather than the real issue at hand, we all failed to view and treat each other with compassion.
As children of the Internet age, we should all be aware that battling things out online is not productive. It serves to prove to your community that you “care” or are “awake” to the issue, while doing nothing to actually support the group you’re trying to help. Assuming best intentions is not always possible or necessary, but that is no excuse for failing to approach difficult conversations with compassion. As Dr. Hill pointed out in his talk, engaging in difficult conversations requires each of us to check our egos at the door and let go of being right.
None of us have the right answers or all the information. We are young and fallible. We have a responsibility to each other to hold one another accountable and bring up challenging topics to push each other towards becoming the best versions of ourselves. But we also have a responsibility to be kind as often as we can. If we hold a free and just society to be our true aim, we need to hold ourselves accountable for harms that we create or perpetuate in the course of our own activism. Jewish students, regardless of what social groups they affiliate with, may have very real concerns about current and past threats to their community. It is foolish and disrespectful for American student organizations to overlook this point, given the prevalence of anti-Semitism and hate crimes against Jewish people occurring in our country today.
It is also foolish and disrespectful for Jewish students to expect to be heard by Palestinian students if they are unable to put their past trauma aside and recognize that other groups are experiencing a more clear and present threat.
Anti-Semitism is alive and well, but not every criticism of Jewish people or the state of Israel reflects that concern. Part of growing is learning when to cede the floor to others. We all could have been better at that this past week. I hope that in the future, when debating difficult issues on campus, each of us is able to be a little more courageous and a little more compassionate. In order to achieve change, we need to be able to do both at the same time.