Holding Firm in the Middle

A few days ago, a girl who I knew peripherally through Hillel, a prominent Jewish student organization on campus, friended me on Facebook. Out of curiosity, I took a few minutes to glance through her groups’ pages before replying. She had many of the standard ones that you would expect a third-year economics major to have: “Stop the genocide in Darfur,” “Bring back the old Facebook layout” and the obligatory “Jenny lost her phone and needs your number!” What I didn’t expect to find were groups entitled “The Palestinian identity is a propaganda device” and “Palestine=Jordan.” These groups assert, “The Palestinian people do not exist.” Their basic thesis is that there is not and never was such a thing as a Palestinian ethnicity and that those who claim to be Palestinian have little or no claim to any of the disputed areas in or around Israel. Finding such intolerance in someone who I thought of as a typical student, someone who was essentially just like me, left me horrified. Unfortunately, it did not leave me surprised.
On some level, I had known that these beliefs were out there. I am Jewish. I bake Challah. I kvetch. I eat – and occasionally enjoy – Gefilte fish. It’s impossible to be a part of this culture and not be exposed to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On one end of the spectrum, the end that we as Jews hear about the most, there are the pro-Palestinians who, we are told, hate us and want to permanently destroy Israel. On the other side are the extreme Jewish groups who believe that we have a mandate from G-d to control all of Israel. These are the people who get ink and column space. They are the ones that we hear about on the news.
If this is all that is out there, then it is fairly clear that we are destined to witness a long and bloody war. Two peoples cannot each exclusively own the same small piece of land. With both sides possessing such uncompromising views, they are left with no option but to kill everyone on the other side. Some people believe that this solution is okay. But do these views really represent the majority of those involved?
As I scanned through profiles and phoned up friends, I took a deep breath and remembered that, luckily, the extremists’ numbers are few. Although the extreme ends of this struggle are the ones who always get the ink, when questioned about their beliefs, most people fall into the middle.
So why is the middle group so quiet? Sometimes it is a question of loyalty. We know that people on both sides are suffering. To tell an Israeli woman who just lost her son in a suicide bombing that she needs to learn to live with the very people who applauded the martyr who killed her child seems cruel. To explain to a Palestinian child that she has to make peace with the country that bombed the university where her father worked, killing him and his colleagues, seems heartless. Who are we – removed from the conflict by an ocean, a continent and a culture – to be giving morality lessons?
In other cases, it’s a question of fear. As a Jew, I am always worried about being labeled as “self-hating” or “overly-assimilated” if I say that I can see the Palestinian point of view. I imagine that it is the same in the Muslim community.
In other situations, there is the concern of being misunderstood. If we admit to one weakness in our own people, will anyone listen to us when they know that we are right? Sometimes the messages coming at us are so vitriolic that we feel that to acknowledge just one part of their argument is too high of a price to pay. Can we admit that some of the targets hit by Israeli bombs really do house terrorists without minimizing the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians? Can we really acknowledge the deaths of civilians without undermining the right of a country to defend itself from a seemingly endless onslaught of terrorists?
While it is difficult and the reasons to take the hard-line stance are seemingly endless, those of us who fall into the middle must maintain the courage of our convictions. We must remember the simple truth that without concessions on both sides, there can be no peace for anyone. There is no victory if everyone is dead.
There’s not a lot that we can do about what gets said on the evening news. Conflict and fury make a good story and this is what will always be reported. We can, however, make a difference in what is heard on our own campus. We can take the time to get to know the other side, be it Jewish or Palestinian, as people rather than as adversaries. We can create a community that works together to support human rights and that is brave enough to tell both sides when they are out of line. We can speak up and let the world know that most of us aren’t filled with hate, aren’t filled with anger, that most of us are moderates and that what we want above all else is to see peace for our friends and relatives in the Middle East.

Hillary Green is a third-year mechanical engineering major at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at hillgreen@berkeley.edu.