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What to talk about when no one is innocent

As the Stanford community debates divestment from occupied Palestine, two camps dominate the debate: Pro-Palestine students—represented by Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine (SOOP)—and pro-Israel students (represented by organizations like the Stanford Israel Alliance, J Street U, and—if one judges by its opinion pieces—the Stanford Review).

While this ideological split seems simple, it’s actually baffling—and quite worrisome. As we discuss divestment, an issue that relates to the larger conflict of peace in the Middle East, we do not split into sides that believe divestment is good or bad for peace. Instead, we split into pro-Palestine and pro-Israel parties.

Rather than debating the merits of divestment, we are battling over who is more innocent—Israel or Palestine. For instance, when SOOP published an op-ed advocating divestment in October, it spent the majority of its argument opining on the oppressive nature of the Israeli state, rather than on the how divestment will rectify wrongs. After the piece was published, it was met by unnecessarily bombastic opinion pieces by pro-Israel supporters: Miriam Pollock, writing for the Stanford Review, called the op-ed a “smear campaign” that represented a “malicious anti-intellectual tactic not befitting a Stanford University student group.” Her column made few mentions as to the merits of divestment, and instead spent the majority of its space lambasting pro-Palestine supporters and Palestine in general.

This exchange is typical of the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine sides of the ongoing debate on campus: Rather than propose actual solutions, or advocate for achievable change, they persist in making ideological attacks against each other. While both sides seem to have accomplished little demonstrable change, they have succeeded overwhelmingly in one area: demonizing the other. Pro-Palestine has convinced us that pro-Israel seeks to oppress an entire nation, and pro-Israel has us thinking that pro-Palestine seeks to destroy an entire state.

While this may be a fair assessment of the fighting parties elsewhere in the world, it is simply not true here at Stanford. Pro-Palestine students do not seek an end to Israel, or advocate violence. Likewise, pro-Israel students are not in favor of oppression. But both sides seem to earnestly believe that their opposition represents its party’s most insupportable positions. And, because of this mutual demonization, it has become impossible for them to cooperate in productive debate. Rather than enter discussions on how to advance their many mutual goals—like peace and security in the region—they continue to fight over who is more at fault for the current situation.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “The conservatives who say, ‘Let us not move so fast,’ and the extremists who say, ‘Let us go out and whip the world,’ would tell you that they are as far apart as the poles. But there is a striking parallel: They accomplish nothing; for they do not reach the people who have a crying need to be free.”

Dr. King conveyed something powerful in those words: When working towards change, we do not need to argue which side is better—we just need to argue whose idea is better. It really does not matter who is worse in this debate. Indeed, both Israel and Palestine are guilty. Both sides have done horrible things to each other; both sides have killed children.

But at Stanford, we are removed from the hatred that exists in the stones of that Old World land on the Mediterranean.  We have the opportunity to look away from the past, and into the future. Let’s start looking at how to solve problems, instead of arguing about who started them.

Contact Jack Herrera at herreraj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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