Asking Hard Questions about Conflict in the Middle East

A new series hosted by Tufts Hillel this spring seeks to bring critical thinking and civil discussion to bear on current events

Following the October 7 attack on Israel, and the subsequent war, having conversations on campus about the Middle East was difficult: everything was seen in stark, black-and-white terms, says Naftali Brawer, Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel and the university’s Jewish chaplain. “There was a complete and utter lack of conversation last fall. Everything was reduced to angry slogans and accusations,” he says.

As the spring semester approached, he wanted to take the lead on a different approach. “Our role is to be educators and to model what constructive dialogue can look like on campus,” Brawer says. “We had to do something that was going to be impactful, that was going to speak to hopefully the broadest cross section of students.”

One of the slogans being batted about was that the Israel-Palestinian conflict “is not complicated.” That struck Brawer powerfully. “This is one of the most complicated conflicts in the world, and has been going on for more than 100 years. There are two peoples with irreconcilable stories. To reduce it on either side to a soundbite or a caricature is absurd. The goal is to deal in complication.” 

The result has been Critical Conversations: An Israel Education Series, hosted by Tufts Hillel, which began in late January. Tufts students, faculty, and staff—Jewish and non-Jewish—are invited to share a meal, hear speakers talk, and participate in discussions. Three conversations have been held and two more are scheduled, in March and April.

“It’s not a comprehensive treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—we could never do that,” says Brawer. “But we wanted to lift up certain topics, which are complex and need unpacking.” 

On February 1, for example, U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross and Ghaith al-Omari, former executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, talked about peace initiatives and possibilities for the future. “That was a rich, complicated conversation,” says Brawer. “They did not agree, but they modeled constructive disagreement.” 

Another conversation focused on the question of how Zionism is defined. “Zionism has become a caricature in many circles,” Brawer says. “That’s a misrepresentation of the many different strands and shades of Zionism and how it continues to evolve.”

Coming up on March 4 is a talk and Q&A with Ashager Araro, an Israeli feminist activist of Ethiopian heritage, about who makes up the people of Israel. “For many who’ve never visited the region and don’t know much about Israel other than what they’re seeing on social media, there’s a trope that Israelis are white European colonizers, but that’s not the reality on the ground,” Brawer says. 

Israelis come from all over, he notes. “My wife’s family, who live in Israel, are from North Africa. My brother-in-law comes from Yemen. They’re from all over. Some are recent immigrants, and some families have lived there for hundreds of years. It’s a noisy, messy, multicolored society—Jews and Arabs and Christians.”

The last event in the Critical Conversations series is April 1, with Gershon Baskin and potentially another speaker. Baskin is the founder of the think tank Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, and a founding member of the All of the Citizens political party in Israel.

A Time for Critical Thinking

The talks have generated a good deal of interest on campus, drawing between 120 and 150 participants for each session. “The students have been fantastic, sitting in deep concentration and asking thoughtful—and hard—questions,” says Brawer. He has heard from students that they find the series very helpful.

Brawer emphasizes both words in the series title. “We use ‘critical’ both in the sense of important issues and for the conversations to be critical—it’s not a propaganda exercise. We want the speakers to be critical. We want the Q&A to be critical. We want students and listeners to be critical,” he says. “Conversation is extremely important, too—it means listening at least as much as speaking. I often say a good conversationalist listens more than they speak, and that’s been totally absent around this topic.”

Brawer is hoping that the Critical Conversations series models a positive way forward for the people who’ve attended—“seeing another way of doing things,” he says. “If you really care about something, you’ve got to do the cognitive work. There’s no shortcut.” He plans to keep the series or something like it alive in the coming academic year, too. 

A point Brawer emphasizes is the need to not reduce the current circumstances into binaries. He spoke with someone recently, he says, who argued that “being in the middle is a cop out, that you have to take a stand. And I said, no, being in the middle is the hardest position to hold. It’s painful, it can be confusing, but it’s also the most honest place to be. That’s what we’re trying to model to students.”

He notes that one can be “profoundly concerned about Israeli security and fear a Hamas on its doorstep that vows to attack again, and at the same time, be profoundly concerned for the plight of innocent Gazans. There is misery and suffering on the Palestinian side that is undeniable, and there is terrible suffering on the Israeli side—the families of hostages, it’s unimaginable. You can hold both,” he says. “I think we could all use a little more humility, a little less certainty.”

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