Conference Creates Middle Ground in Israel-Palestine Debate

Ruby Saha, Contributing Writer

I’ve identified as pro-Palestine for most of my life. Despite my passion for Middle Eastern art, history and politics, I’ve been reluctant to join any of the various Israel-Palestine advocacy groups on campus, feeling unqualified to enter such a contentious and complex debate. Sometime in my sophomore year, I heard someone mention Oberlin’s J Street chapter. J Street’s slogan indicates itself as “The Political Home for Pro-Israel, Pro-peace Americans.” The words “pro-Israel” instilled no desire in me to find out about the organization or to attend meetings throughout the last three years I’ve been at Oberlin, and that probably would have been the end of that. And yet, to my surprise, I found myself attending the national J Street Conference in D.C. earlier this month.

Being a senior, I’ve found, is a bit of a paradigm shift. My time left at college feels like a rapidly dwindling hourglass, with opportunities rushing past me before I have time to blink. I signed myself up for the conference without really thinking about it, attracted by the words “Israel,” “Palestine” and “the Middle East” without paying much attention to the fine print. Later, having toexplainmyselftofriends and family, I started to look deeper into J Street’s platform. I became curious to see what a pro-Israel two-state solution could look like, and whether that could be a viable solution to the conflict. I saw this as an opportunity to challenge my opinions and viewed my discomfort as a potentially constructive learning process.

Until quite recently, my knowledge of the conflict was peripheral and vague. For most of my education, I attended an international school that champions several human rights causes and is part of a global movement that participated in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and attempts to foster dialogue in conflict areas like the Balkans. Our focus often found its roots in the social rather than the political, helping grassroots foun- dations raise funds and awareness and building infrastructures for smaller communities in problem areas around the world. As such, the narrative I was exposed to regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict focused on Palestinian victimhood, pointing to the ways in which the Israeli government continues to encroach on Palestinian sovereignty through the settlements, its military presence in Palestinian territory and its policies of racial segregation, which have been compared to the South African apartheid. When I attended the conference, however, I was surprised to hear the opposite story from many of the Jewish students present. Most of the students I talked to had grown up hearing a very different narrative of Israeli-Jewish victimhood, emphasizing the constant threats to Israel’s existence, its encirclement by Muslim countries that seek to destroy it, the Palestinian campaign of terror and the Palestinian Authority’s repeated rejections of Israeli peace offers.

This “pro-Israel or pro- Palestine” binary of victimhood has framed the way people view and talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict for so long, defining it in zero-sum terms. There’s never a middle ground; no matter how distant your allegiances are to the conflict, you’re either in one camp or the other. (I am neither Jewish nor Palestinian; as an Indian, my only tenuous connection lies in its many parallels with the India-Pakistan divide.) Although I wasn’t here to see it because I was studying abroad, the Oberlin Divest campaign last spring made the dichotomy on this campus more visible and visceral than ever. In May, the Student Senate endorsed Students for a Free Palestine’s proposal calling for the College to divest from six multinational companies who profit from Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The campaign, while well-intentioned, divided the Oberlin community into camps, obscuring the wider social justice issues and alienating many students who would otherwise sup- port Palestinian sovereignty but felt uncomfortable with the broader goals and definitions of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Attending the conference, I saw for the first time the possibility of an open dialogue that prioritizes peace over ideology. J Street’s approach to a two-state solution views the future of a secure state of Israel as being inextricably intertwined with the foundation of a Palestinian state. In doing so, we move away from the dichotomy that has paralyzed any possibility of a constructive conversation into nuanced debate that looks critically at both parties’ demands and attempts to broker a real and viable peace. One can, and should, support Israel’s right to a safe and secure state while being critical of the policies that threaten or encroach on Palestinian sovereignty.

I don’t mean to imply that the conference was perfect or that J Street’s platform is unproblematic. While it was fascinating and challenging to hear from the many Israeli Parliament members that attended the conference, the Palestinian contingent was frustratingly small. Nevertheless, to have the opportunity to hear from prominent Palestinian leaders like Fatah’s Husam Zomlot at a pro-Israel conference in D.C. indicates a genuine turning of the tides; I doubt this would have been possible even 10 years ago. But there’s a subtle slippage that occurs in J Street’s platform, which proclaims it “pro- Israel” and “pro-Palestinian,” not “pro-Palestine.” While I understand that J Street’s political focus is to address the American- Jewish constituency, I think there needs to be a more visible focus on the recognition of Palestinian sovereignty.

This was only one of many challenges that I faced during the conference, which I had expected. What I didn’t anticipate, however, were the supportive and open discussions I had with other students — both from Oberlin and not — after these sessions that helped me come to terms with my discomfort and challenged me to engage with these issues in a more nuanced way. The diversity of opinions displayed by both the speakers at the conference as well as the people who attended startled and delighted me.

What I want is for this to be the case at Oberlin. We as a community need to be more willing to engage in critical and constructive dialogue over key Israel-Palestine issues in a way that does not divide us. There can and must be a more unified open forum that allows us to bring peace and justice to the region and ensure the sovereignty of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. We need to change the way we view and speak about the conflict, not as a dichotomy but as a challenging and nuanced process toward a viable and sustainable future in the Middle East.