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Debating the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Demands Empathy, Not Just History

Like most other young academics, I’m always agonizing about tenure and job security. “Peace? Who wants peace?” I often jokingly respond when people ask me for my opinion about the Arab-Israeli conflict. “As a professor of Israel Studies, instability is good for my career!” Unfortunately, thanks to recent weeks of war and crisis, it seems like my employment prospects are bright. The line between the personal and professional is liminal in this so-called Holy Land.

I’m writing from Jerusalem, where I’ve left the library for the classroom of lived experience this summer. I arrived for a few months of research on my book only days into the national drama of the kidnapping of three teenagers in the West Bank (at a hitchhiking post I myself have stood at, no less), later found murdered by rogue terrorists from Hebron. Later that week, while running errands in the center of town, I was quite shaken when I unintentionally found myself in the midst of a mob protest by radical right-wing Israelis screaming “Kahane was right,” and “Arabs are sons of bitches,” as they ran past me toward a fast-food restaurant looking for a Palestinian employee to lynch.

A few days later, a splinter group seemingly inspired by these riots brutally tortured and immolated Muhammed al-Kheidr, an innocent teenager from East Jerusalem. As Israelis and Palestinians began to reckon with these dual tragedies, the Hamas rocket campaign and corresponding Israeli retaliatory bombings of Gaza started in earnest, with the conversation soon shifting from searching our souls to searching for the nearest bomb shelter. There has been no refuge for the tumult in our collective consciousness over the past month. (On the bright side, I did get to meet all my new neighbors without proper underwear, as the first rocket siren caught me in the shower with less than a minute to throw on a sundress and seek shelter.)

Last week, Israel initiated a ground invasion to uncertain ends. So much for that relaxing summer sabbatical on the beach and sipping cappuccinos in the Old City, I thought to myself. Here we go again.

Every day I turn on my laptop to more bad news. How have we not hit bottom, I wonder, how can it possibly be getting worse? I’ve probably read every major book written on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the past few decades—I skimmed them all for my doctoral exams so you don’t have to!—and feel that scholarship has failed us completely. How can I feel so ill-equipped respond to the current crisis, when understanding the Israel-Palestinian conflict is my day job?

Perhaps because years of reading, researching, writing, and thinking about the conflict have deprived me of simple, easy dichotomies: good vs. evil, Israel vs. Palestine, winners vs. losers, peace vs. war, past vs. future. How I long to luxuriate in the realm of intellectual, emotional, and moral certitude! I sometimes wish for a world of black and white, when all I see is complexity in shades of grey.

Despite this—or perhaps because of it—I feel an obligation to explain, to dialogue, to argue, to share my expertise, for whatever it’s worth. With campuses empty on summer vacation, I’ve traded lecture halls for social media, which has become my classroom, my battlefield (since I am privileged not to have to experience the real one), and even my (Jewish) cross to bear. Whether it’s fighting open-heartedly with a Gazan friend on Facebook, trading quips on Twitter, or writing blog posts, I feel compelled to contribute my knowledge and continue the conversation.  I sometimes feel like I should receive danger pay in this business: moderating between right-wingers and left-wingers, challenging conventional dogma, trying (sometimes unsuccessfully) to bring new voices and keep old faces involved in a discussion can be emotionally taxing and ego-bruising. But I see my job as much as a calling as a career, so tuning out isn’t really a choice.

Engaging in a “war” online, however,  prompts big questions. How can academics best contribute to public debate in times of crisis?  Switching my scholar’s tweed cap for my pundit hat blurs the boundary between the personal and the professional, the private and the political. Online discourse is a challenge to “that noble dream” of academic objectivity, but it’s also some of the most important work a historian can do these days. I do not hide my proud affiliation as a liberal Zionist, but my primary agenda is to bring my knowledge and historical perspective to contemporary issues, helping to put them in context.  Mostly, I try to mediate between multiple narratives. I doubt I’ll be winning a Nobel Peace Prize anytime soon. Truth be told, it can sometimes feel futile—when earnest efforts at engagement, analysis, and dialogue devolve into name-calling and uncritical ranting; when you just can’t get people to see eye-to-eye late at night on Facebook. It’s intellectually and emotionally exhausting work — I don’t blame many of my colleagues for giving up, taking a break, or avoiding this work entirely, since not every academic feels it is part of their job description.  Sometimes, I feel like tuning out and going back to writing that obscure book or journal article that only four people in the universe will read, including my Mom.

But in those few moments when people—especially those who are perhaps not involved or ideologically committed—plead with you to proceed, to continue the authentic multi-dimensional discussion, or even to begin to redefine what Israel and Zionism mean to our generation, how can I give up? Online engagement is one important component of that precious opportunity to be a Jewish and Zionist leader—it’s a mission I won’t pass up.

Mostly, being a historian in a time of crisis is a heart-breaking business, especially when one becomes a historical witness to the profound lack of empathy on both sides of the conflict. Dehumanization is our worst enemy. How we can ever have peace without acknowledging the “other” as a person; without acknowledging the basic truth that they are human beings with human rights? How can we co-exist without compassion in the present? Perhaps it would be useful to reinvent the role of historian as a kind of ‘empatharian,’ one who teaches others how to empathize with the lived past, so that we can be encouraged to contemplate our future together.

Unfortunately, professors don’t have all the answers about how to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the most important thing is to ask the right questions. Since I began teaching in England, I am often reminded of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

If we can continue to remind ourselves that both Israelis and Palestinians are people deserving of human rights—and also capable of acts of vengeance—historical empathy may lead us one step closer to an enduring peace.

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is the University Research Lecturer/Sidney Brichto fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford (UK), where she’s working on a forthcoming book (from Harvard University Press) entitled “City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967.” Her twitter handle is @SaraHirschhorn1

Image: Sukharevskyy Dmytro (nevodka) /

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