IN THE MEDIA

The conflict between Israel and Hamas will continue to divide us, unless we risk face-to-face discussion

Dec 5, 2023 | Ran Porat

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

ABC – Religion and Ethics

 

Ever since I was first given the opportunity to teach about Israel and Middle Eastern politics at Monash University back in 2011, I’ve looked forward to meeting with students, exchanging views and ideas, and engaging in lively discussion.

But when I had to teach classes a few days after the 7 October Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians living next to the Gaza Strip, I did not want to go to the university. I knew people who had lost loved ones — children, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers — in the slaughter. My own sister and her family had to flee their house as hostilities broke out near the northern border with Lebanon. Many members of my family had already enlisted in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) after Israel’s declaration of war, thereby imperilling their own lives.

And I wasn’t alone. Since that dark day in early October, so many members of the Jewish community in Melbourne — family and friends alike — have existed in a state of profound distress and emotional vulnerability.

Why the reluctance? When I was asked by Professor Andrew Markus (who was my doctoral supervisor) and the late Mark Baker (who was then director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation) to teach the history of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians to undergraduates, wasn’t it also to promote mutual understanding at just such a time as this?

From the very beginning, I knew that my job was neither to prejudice, nor to persuade, but rather to present a wide range of opinions and research about disputed topics such as the meaning of Zionism, the right of Israel to exist as a free and democratic state, the plight of the Palestinian Arabs, religion and culture in the Middle East, their encounters with Western societies, and so on. It’s not that I don’t have opinions of my own — after all, I grew up in Israel, served in the IDF, and started a family in the Jewish state. Unsurprisingly, then, I stand with the Israel and defend its right to flourish within safe and secure borders.

At the same time, as a historian of the conflict, I am familiar with the Palestinian narrative, the suffering of Arab refugees since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Palestinian dream of “return” to what they see as their ancestral lands, and their aspirations for freedom and statehood.

Knowing this complex and contentious history, I invariably sought to disabuse my students of the simplifications and slogans that predominate on social media. The truth is never as simple as pundits would have you believe, and blame is never all on one side. And yet on that morning, just days after 7 October, I didn’t know if I should continue to be impartial, committed to truth and balance, and encourage real debate. I did not want to face students armed with pain, anger, and sadness. I wasn’t sure that I could handle direct questions about why this massacre had happened and who was to blame.

I knew some students had families in both Israel and Gaza. Though we did not know the full extent of the atrocities committed on that day — which included the murder of no less than 1,200 men, women, and children, the torture, rape, and desecration of the bodies of civilians, and the kidnapping of 240 men, women, children, and babies — it was already clear that what took place on 7 October was an unprecedented disaster. It was Israel’s 9/11 moment. Within days, the death toll in southern Israel and the Gaza Strip, following Israel’s swift reprisal, began to mount. The young and most vulnerable were caught up in the scenes of devastation, dislocation, and hopelessness.

Make no mistake: I hold Hamas directly responsible for all this pain. But that does not make me impervious to the suffering of Palestinians. Quite the opposite. If Hamas’s functionaries in Gaza are to be believed, close to 15,000 people have been killed in the first 8 weeks of Israel’s ferocious assault on Gaza — although we don’t know how many of this number are terrorists — and 30,000 more have been injured. More than a million people heeded the warnings of the IDF and left their homes in the northern part of the Strip to migrate to the safer southern area. And even there, many still face the threat of falling bombs and “collateral damage”. Vast areas within the Gaza Strip, moreover, have been reduced to rubble, leading many to wonder whether those who have been displaced will have any home to return to.

Some are labelling this event a second Nakba, the Arabic term for “catastrophe”. This is how the Palestinians describe the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which resulted in the violent displacement of 750,000 Arabs living in mandatory Palestine — some forced to leave by Israel and the Arab armies, most fleeing the horrors of war. Since then, homelessness has become central to Palestinian identity, as has the idea of “right of return” — the dream to come back to the towns and villages that were left behind.

As a scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am committed to the complex and often tragic truth. That’s why, when I teach and write about the meaning of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel, I also must acknowledge the high price paid by Palestinians, their ongoing pain and the desperation of their plight.

This time around, as I began to prepare myself for class after 7 October, I did not just feel uncertainty about the obligations of my academic vocation — I felt fear. My mind went back to 2014, when another war between Israel and Palestinians was raging in Gaza (“Operation Protective Edge”). I was teaching the Monash University course on the history of modern Israel. The head of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Mark Baker, called me to his office and warned me that anti-Israel protests may happen on campus and that my class may be targeted.

Nearly a decade on, as I watch wave after wave of fierce anti-Israel — and often openly antisemitic — demonstrations flood the streets of cities in Europe, Australia, and the Arab world, to say nothing of American university campuses, I’ll admit I felt extremely apprehensive about what awaited me in class.

Time to face the music

Eventually, the moment of truth arrived. Despite kind offers from my colleagues to stand in for me in class or to stand with me in support, I was adamant that this was my weight to bear. Moreover, I felt it was an opportunity to show my Australian students that it is possible to be both truthful and respectful in the face of vitriol.

As the lesson began, I was upfront with my students that I did not want to teach that day. I told them my emotions were vacillating between anger and grief. I insisted that the atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October is not Islam. I urged the students to consider what we had learned about the consequences of Western interventions in the Middle East over the previous two centuries, about the emergence of Islamist fundamentalism (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which gave birth to Hamas), and the long, complicated history of the conflict between Jewish nationalism (Zionism) and Arab Palestinians. I then invited everyone to comment and ask questions.

After a brief silence, some students started expressing their thoughts and feeling. Some were afraid for their family and friends in Israel and Gaza. Others made insightful comments about what precipitated the massacre and what it means for the future of these peoples and the possibility of coexistence.

I noticed that a number of students came to class wearing the Palestinian flag, either as a pin or as a wristband. Their questions, even if somewhat confronting, were reasonable. I welcomed the opportunity they gave me to explain why so many scholars reject the claim that the State of Israel is “a colonialist project” or that it practices a form of “apartheid”. The questions were entirely fair, and the subsequent discussion was respectful.

I was not surprised, however, when one student started parroting Hamas propaganda — the kind of disinformation and conspiratorial claims that are currently coursing through social media like acid — in a manner that was both insensitive to the feelings of other students and gave no evidence of critical thinking. “Thank you for your comment”, I said to the person, “but I vehemently disagree with it.” The student seemed taken aback for a moment, but then proceeded to reword their comment such that it could be addressed properly.

“Amen”

One of the brightest and clearest voices in the class was a religious Muslim student. Throughout the semester, I enjoyed the back-and-forth of our interaction and his prior knowledge and wit. He was waiting for me at the end of the lesson. After everyone else left, he gifted me a copy of Islam’s holy book, the Qur’ān, translated into Hebrew. I found the gesture very moving.

At that moment, I thought, a door has opened. I should walk through it. I asked the student to pray the opening verse of the Qur’ān, Surah al-Fatiha, which is a prayer for guidance and mercy. The text says that there is no god other than Allah and praises him (as the king of judgement day), and pledges to worship only Allah and no other fake gods. The prayer finishes by asking Allah to guide the believers along the straight and blessed path. I listened to him as he sang the words from the Qur’ān and bowed my head, and we said “Amen” together.

Then I reciprocated by teaching him the Jewish prayer based on the verse from the book of Job, addressing God as the power that “makes peace in his heights”. The Jewish prayer is a message of hope, asking God, who can make peace in the heavens, to make peace among us here on earth and among all the people of Israel. It also finishes with an “Amen”, the Hebrew word which is an invitation to believe. The student thanked me, and we parted ways.

Since that day, there have been many more days of sadness, death, and pain. Hostages have been released and a temporary cease-fire has come and gone. I don’t think anything I have done has contributed to world history or geopolitics. I’m not even certain that what I did or said had any lasting effect on that student. Unlike him, I am not a religious person — far from it.

All the same, in that brief interaction, in that exchange of sacred words, was a pinprick of light and hope amid an otherwise overwhelming sea of darkness. If we are to emerge from this night together, I’m convinced we need more of them.

Ran Porat is a lecturer on Israel and Middle Eastern Affairs at Monash University and an affiliate research associate at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. He is also a research associate at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Herzliya.

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