A lesson from campus protests over Gaza: ‘One-sidedness’ only makes hate worse

As a faculty member at an American university, I have become painfully aware that divisions over campus protests regarding Gaza will not be resolved as long as people are attuned to the hate directed at one group while shrugging off the hate directed to the other. Such one-sided empathy serves to inflame rather than to resolve disturbing outbreaks of vitriol.

I grew up in New York exposed only to one side of the issue. I was raised ethnically, if not observantly, Jewish. So many of the other students in school were Jewish that the graffiti near my high school read, “You don’t have to be Jewish to stay out on Shevuot.” “Jewish,” for me and most of my friends, was a default identity.

Still, as Jews, we were all intensely aware of the Holocaust. My parents had emigrated from France in 1938. My father had been a reserve officer in French military intelligence. A native of Strasbourg who spoke German as fluently as French, he conducted spy missions in Germany to observe army maneuvers. He correctly concluded, though none of his family or friends would believe him, that the German army was poised to invade France and that the French army was unequipped to put up an effective resistance. My parents came here to seek asylum prematurely. Though no close relatives were murdered by the Nazis during the occupation, we viscerally understood the menace of antisemitism.

Opinion bug


My maternal uncle and paternal aunt both moved to Israel, as did my father’s best friend, a French Russian Jewish archaeologist. In my circles, at home or in school, the existence of Israel was axiomatic and unproblematic. Any challenges were few, far between, and readily dismissed. For example, in grade school, one of my hobbies was to visit consulates and collect any literature they might have on hand. At the Saudi consulate, I was given a reprint of an article by Arnold Toynbee supporting Arab opposition to Israel. At the time, Toynbee, whose star has since waned, was a prominent public intellectual. I still remember how I was totally perplexed. How could such an intelligent and well-informed person even question the existence of Israel? The absolute need for a refuge from the horrors of the Holocaust seemed so self-evident to me that I could not envision any other sensible moral stance. In my defense, I was 10 at the time.

Contemporary American popular culture reinforced my attitude. The blockbuster film “Exodus,” which also came out when I was 10, unsubtly linked the Holocaust to armed conflict between Israelis and Arabs. Arabs were depicted as Hollywood Indians with turbans, whose moral depravity was second only to Nazis.

A turning point on ‘moral certainty’

My certitudes were challenged when I was in high school. My mother worked at the School of International Affairs at Columbia University and would often invite international students. One evening, we hosted a young man whose passport was Jordanian but who was Palestinian. (Before the 1967 war, the West Bank was under Jordanian control.)

My mother gave strict orders. Under no circumstances were we to mention Israel, out of politeness to our guest. Conversation was understandably stilted. Desperately searching for an uncontroversial topic, my father asked the young man what he thought of the Druze, an Arabic-speaking religious minority. Our guest misheard the question. “What do I think of the Jews?” he began. He proceeded to tell us how his family had been forcefully evicted from their home; how they were chased down by Israelis, having to hide as they fled, sometimes in caves; how they had to remake their lives as refugees in Jordan. This was really what he wanted to tell us all along.

It was hard to remain unmoved. This was a story of real suffering, not a series of ideological talking points. Suddenly, it became clear that the establishment of the state of Israel came at a moral cost. Was it possible to obtain justice for one people at the expense of justice for another?

My moral certainties were irrevocably challenged, as evidenced by the fact that I still vividly remember that evening some 60 years later.

Now more than ever, with the crisis in Gaza, we need to beware of the self-righteousness that makes us deaf to the suffering of anyone who is not on “our” side. It is a sad reality that many Jewish and Arab (especially Palestinian) students feel increasingly insecure on campuses in the wake of protests and counter-protests. Jews and Arabs have both been subjected to disgustingly hateful rhetoric. Only a tiny minority of students are guilty of such outrages. Alas, too many are so acutely aware of the hate directed at them that they remain deaf to the slurs hurled at others. Such one-sidedness makes the situation worse, not better. This is a time when we all need to call into question our moral certitudes.

Robert Launay is a professor of anthropology at Northwestern whose research focuses on West African Muslims.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *