The first thing I did after asking my question at the Son of Hamas event on Thursday was go upstairs, find a secluded area, and cry.
I cried for a variety of reasons. One is my proclivity to cry at any intense emotion that overcomes me. Another is the frustration I felt at having my question, which I had written and re-written several times, go almost completely unanswered. And perhaps the most important reason was that I had finally had something to say, and absolutely nothing productive came of it.
I’ve often avoided conversations about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the past, I’d never felt quite informed enough to join in. Besides, conversations amongst kids at my high school over the conflict weren’t incredibly substantive. Everyone would nod along to the idea of a two-state solution, like all good little liberals. Occasionally, something would come up that gave my half-Palestinian heart a little stab. I grew up in a predominantly white, affluent community with a sizable Jewish minority. My ethnic and racial ambiguity lent me access to some interesting conversations.There was the acquaintance who casually cited Israel’s only flaw as “Those damn Arabs who keep ruining everything.” There was a girl with whom I’d been in plays. She once told me she “looked up to me.” She posted a video on Facebook this summer that stopped just short of calling all Arabs the scum of the earth.
I’d try my best to diffuse situations like these as quickly and simply as possible. “Umm, I’m Palestinian,” I’d say, letting everyone feel briefly uncomfortable and then moving on to another topic. I’d share my opinions, but they were always vague. I wasn’t incredibly informed, and I knew that my leanings were not echoed by many of my peers. I made an effort to become more knowledgeable, trying to find unbiased news sources and a simple overview of the conflict. I wanted to know, that if I did choose to engage, I’d have facts on my side. But everything seemed overwhelmingly complex. Being informed was all too difficult, or took too much time, or was simply inconvenient. I had college applications to worry about. It was difficult and I was afraid.
At Amherst, I have had many more opportunities to talk and think about this issue than I ever had at home. There are panels and talks and cooking classes. I’ve gone to nearly every event. I went out to dinner with a bunch of Arab students. I’ve enjoyed growing to understand both the history of my family’s people and of the region itself. I’ve read countless articles. I’m finally starting to understand what’s happening, not just on an emotional, but an intellectual and factual level.
I went to the event on Thursday with this spirit in mind. I knew there was a large chance I would find it frustrating or even infuriating, considering Amherst College Republican’s fondness for controversial speakers. But I wanted to attend, to both gain another perspective on the conflict and perhaps speak up as small part of the Arab community on campus. I found his speech largely inoffensive, although fairly hypocritical. His primary emphasis on searching for light and truth and avoiding the deaths of innocent people is something I think we can all get behind. In his speech, he used a metaphor of sheep following a shepherd. He said that people often believe our leaders are nurturing us, like sheep, but in reality they are keeping us captive. I asked him if we can “apply this metaphor to the American citizenry, politicians, and news media who refuse to acknowledge and confront the injustice and violence perpetrated against innocent Palestinian civilians by the state of Israel.”
His response and the exchange that followed is basically a blur. I understand that my question was flawed, and its wording may have encouraged him to resist agreeing with me, or even actually responding to my question. But when I urged him to respond, he became upset, claiming, in a way, that no violence against innocent Palestinians had really occurred. Someone shouted down from the balcony in defense of my claim. But doing so did little but anger the speaker and dissolve any semblance of order. I most vividly remember when Mosab Yousef chose to interrogate me, demanding to know whether I’d be willing to go fight in Iraq. I was upset and overwhelmed. This wasn’t a legitimate response to my question. I felt attacked and unheard. But I do believe that we were essentially asking for the same thing. I don’t want people to react to this conflict the way I did for so many years. I want access to unbiased and fair reporting. I want us, as a nation and as young people, to talk about where our money is going. I want to think for myself, and I would like to be provided with the information to do so.
For almost all my life, it has been too difficult and too frightening to actually talk about this conflict. Coming here has made it exponentially easier. I feel better equipped and I am not quite as afraid of losing potential friends. But if we’re going to really discuss an issue that is of such importance to so many people, we need a forum of equals. We need places where people can ask real questions and get real answers. As William Herman commented on Siraj Sindhu’s latest piece, “the context of conversation matters.” These need to be conversations, not speeches with a Q&A sections with little choice but to be fiery. Events concerning the conflict, until this point, have provided this forum. Hopefully, we can continue the conversation productively. Hopefully, I won’t leave the next talk in tears.
(Photo Courtesy of Adam Nieman)