Among people concerned about the quality and tenor of campus discourse, there may be no subject as radioactive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When it comes to this tangled, violent, long standing controversy, even the most intrepid are sometimes wary of stepping into the morass. For example, I teach a course called Bigots & Snowflakes about political polarization and ideological divides. In that class, we talk about challenges to communication on sensitive and controversial topics, including the assumptions that underlie our judgments of other people — based on the arguments they make and the positions they take. We focus on humility, moral complexity, and the question of what exactly it is we think we know with certainty. We haven’t shied away from discussing the pros and cons of affirmative action, the question of trans women’s participation in women’s-category sports, definitions of racism and their implications, and the different ways we think about identity. Yet, even in this class, in theory a space dedicated to learning how to have open discussions on difficult topics, I am reluctant to put the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the syllabus.
In The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, Kenneth Stern takes the reader deep into the details of this impasse in an attempt to illuminate where and why the conversation breaks down. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, an organization that “works to increase the serious study of human hatred, and ways to combat it.” Prior to holding his current position, he worked for 25 years at the American Jewish Committee, including serving as its director. Along the way, he has established himself as someone who highly values free speech and free expression.
Early on in the book, Stern minces no words when describing his motivation for tackling this topic. “The complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should make it an ideal subject to teach critical thinking and how to have difficult conversations,” he writes. “Instead, it is being used as a toxin that threatens the entire academic enterprise. How did we get here? What can be done?”
Stern is a keen observer of the ways in which the debate has unfolded and the dysfunction in which it is mired. For instance, he deftly highlights the way both the pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian sides contrive excuses to avoid engagement altogether — usually through over-the-top demonization. “If the other side is as detestable as if it were made up of Nazis, the logical conclusion is that you should have nothing to do with it,” he writes. “To have a conversation with a student who has a diametrically opposed point of view becomes impossible, because you are conceding, by merely having the conversation, that their point of view might have the slightest bit of merit.”
If the other side consists of Nazis, or close to it, the only reasonable solution people see — at least in the current climate — is censorship. As Stern points out, each side has different strategies when it comes to preventing the other from speaking: “Pro-Palestinian students might try to censor by shouting, disrupting, and heckling; Jewish organizations tend to work through connections to administrators and donors, with phone calls and emails.” At the end of the day, though, “the goal — diminishing the other side’s ability to speak — is the same.” Yet, this is a doubly-flawed strategy. First, equating the opposing side with Nazis is an overly simplistic framing of a complex issue. Second, this approach assumes that one can silence the other side out of existence, despite no evidence suggesting that’s actually the case. In fact, the act of silencing can even amplify precisely the viewpoint that those seeking its censorship find so distasteful, since stories about censorship tend to travel far and wide online.
In the course of his discussion of derailing techniques, Stern points to what may be the biggest show-stopping invocation used by both sides: Your position denies my right to exist. This is a powerful claim because there’s no way to respond to it. If you disagree with my very right to exist, what is there to debate? With the stakes this high, it’s no wonder that both sides claim to be in favor of free speech in theory, only to come up with excuses for censorship in practice: “Yes, pro-Israel groups will say, we support academic freedom — but opposing antisemitism and/or anti-Israel animus is more important,” notes Stern “Yes, pro-Palestinian groups will say, we support academic freedom — but fighting for the rights of Palestinians is more important.”
After Stern’s careful analysis of the state of this debate, it’s easy to feel a bit of despair. Fortunately for the reader, however, he provides a list of recommendations for how to proceed. The first, and perhaps most crucial, is: “Don’t confuse feeling good with being smart.” Stern explains that the instinct to suppress speech comes from the argument that “words of course have consequences, and ignoring them is dangerous.” But such efforts to censor, in addition to being ineffectual, prevent any sort of reflection on where the boundaries should be drawn and by whom.
Two additional recommendations Stern makes are “Take risks, show leadership, demonstrate what debate looks like” and “Instead of trying to curtail speech on campus, invest in promoting critical thinking about Israel/Palestine, and the subjects (hatred, identities, free speech, etc.) that inform our ability to discuss this difficult issue.” In other words, academic institutions — from classroom instructors up to the top of the administrative hierarchy — need to move modeling open communication to a higher position on the list of priorities.
It did feel like one chapter was missing from this otherwise very smart book. Many of the problems Stern points to in the Israel / Palestine debate appear in other conversations as well — particularly the endless invocation of “I will not debate my right to exist.” For example, if an argument favoring immigration restrictions or, to use an example from earlier, against allowing trans women to compete in women’s category sports, is framed as a denial of immigrants’ or trans women’s humanity, there is no path forward that doesn’t put the person making the original argument immediately in a defensive crouch.
In some cases, this might accomplish the short-term goal of ending the conversation and suppressing the viewpoint in question. But it doesn’t change anyone’s mind and it comes at great cost to students’ ability to communicate more broadly. Being able to understand and converse with people who don’t share the progressive viewpoint that dominates on most campuses should be a priority for student learning, given that campus politics generally do not reflect the sensibilities of broader society.
Universities have the power and the moral obligation to facilitate and model uncomfortable but important conversations. In The Conflict Over the Conflict, Stern brings us closer to that goal by treating a sensitive topic with the nuance it deserves and by encouraging us to think carefully about the right and wrong ways to disagree with one another.
Stern, Kenneth (2020). The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate. Toronto, ON: New Jewish Press.