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  • samchris51

Holding space for Peace

Many campuses in the United States have become the sites of pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Some University administrations have responded by calling the police to clear the demonstrators, while others are trying to negotiate with the students.  Most demonstrators are peaceful, but others have erupted in violence when police have shown up to try to disperse them.  Some Jewish students have been among the leadership of the demonstrations, and they have been arrested, suspended, and expelled from their colleges.  Other Jewish students have complained of feeling unsafe because of the demonstrations and the slogans being chanted.  I have been trying to understand these demonstrations and the motivation of those demonstrating.

I am old enough to have participated in my fair share of campus demonstrations. I participated in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, protests demanding more significant student input on the University's governing boards, and even demonstrations on the streets of Paris in 1968. In all of these demonstrations, the goals were clear, and the parties against whom we were demonstrating had the power to deliver on our demands.

Today, many of the demonstrators are focusing on demanding that their specific colleges divest from investing in companies that can be linked to Israel and its war efforts against Hamas and for an end to the fighting in Gaza.  Without getting into an analysis of the efficacy of disinvestment strategies as tools for change, these goals seem to be embedded in support for Palestine at the expense of Israel.  I find that troubling.

It makes me sad that these demonstrators, all of whom are privileged to be physically far from the conflict, are unable or unwilling to use this privilege to hold a space for both the suffering of Israelis and of Palestinians.  I recognize that a percentage of the demonstrators are likely Palestinians with families in Gaza who are mourning the loss of numerous family members.  Their suffering may be too great to be able to do what I suggest.   But I suspect that most of these demonstrators are neither of Palestinian or Israeli origin and have no familial connection to either place.  I am addressing my comments to that large group of demonstrators who, despite the geographic and emotional distance, don't seem to be able to make space for the suffering of all people caught in this savage conflict.  There is no room in their thoughts, hearts, or spoken words for the pain of Israeli families of the hostages still being held in Gaza.  They have no compassion for the suffering of the Israeli survivors of the carnage perpetrated by Hamas along the Gaza border.   These are people who are facing the tough choice between returning to the place where they sustained their trauma or creating new lives in new places.  Nor do the demonstrators acknowledge the thousands who are internally displaced in Israel after being evacuated from the communities along the Lebanese border. I intentionally refrain from asking for compassion for the families of Israeli soldiers who have been killed and wounded, to say nothing of the thousands who will suffer from some level of PTSD when they return home.  In the name of full disclosure, I acknowledge that among them are members of my family, some of whom are deployed in Gaza and others who are reservists on the Lebanese border.  

I want to be very clear: I do not support the way Israel is waging its war against Hamas.  The high death rate is indefensible, the restrictions on humanitarian aid are inexcusable, and allowing a famine to develop in Gaza is unpardonable, as is the deterioration of public health so that disease is now spreading in Gaza.  The suffering of Gazans is heartbreaking.   Israel certainly bears the responsibility for their suffering, but so does Hamas, an apocalyptic, fanatical organization with a political agenda focused on the annihilation of Israel.  

Hamas was indeed born from the righteous anger and pain of millions of Palestinians who were victims of the Nakba and the subsequent failure to find a political solution to the plight of the refugees it created.  It is also true that the conflict on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea in which so much blood has been spilled, most of it Palestinian blood, will not stop as long as the solution is defined as a zero-sum game for one side or the other.  

It makes me sad that these demonstrators, most of whom I believe are well-meaning, have accepted the binary view of the conflict, which demands a good guy and a bad guy.  A view that only legitimizes the suffering of one group.  Humans suffer regardless of their ethnicity or religious or political affiliations, and when they can not find a way to heal their suffering, they inflict more misery on others.   This is true on an individual level, on a global level and everything in between.

I am curious how these student demonstrators would be received if, instead of labeling themselves as "pro-Palestinian," they  defined themselves as "pro-peace." Instead of displaying signs calling for a free Palestine, they would display signs calling for the freeing of the remaining hostages. Instead of chanting, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," they chanted, "From the river to the sea, let all people be free."

On October 16th, Time Magazine published a column by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian, philosopher, and the bestselling author of Sapiens, Homo Deus, and Unstoppable Us.  In that column, he expressed his very personal response to the Hamas attack on Israeli communities along the Gaza border.  He ended his column by asking, "… outsiders who are not themselves immersed in pain should make an effort to empathize with all suffering humans, rather than lazily seeing only part of the terrible reality. It is the job of outsiders to help maintain a space for peace. We deposit this peaceful space with you because we cannot hold it right now. Take good care of it for us so that one day, when the pain begins to heal, both Israelis and Palestinians might inhabit that space." 

What if the student demonstrations now spreading across the campuses of US universities could fulfill this request?

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