19-year-old undergrads can’t solve the Middle East

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After the Israeli ambassador's excursion to the Union this week, MARTHA SAUNDERS debates the necessity of 'taking sides'

You’ll all know by now that the Israeli Ambassador’s visit was the most recent in a series of explosive debates about No Platform, free speech, and the Union’s political balance.

Those angles have been thoroughly exhausted, and I honestly find them arbitrary. I love protestors; I love their passion, I love their blunt, relentless commitment, I love their pure and completely unstoppable rage.

Similarly, I love the once in a lifetime opportunity to listen to a speech and ask questions of an established and successful international Ambassador with decades of experience in one of the most important conflicts of the era. To me, these loves are fully reconcilable.

Protestor's outside the Union this monday

Protestors outside the Union this monday

What I hated wasn’t the hoarse voices of the Free Palestine movement or the measured positivity of the Ambassador. What I really hated was the endless question “Are you pro-Palestine or pro-Israel?”

The answer is that I’m neither. This always gets me surprised and slightly awkward looks. Particularly here, at Cambridge, I know people think it means I’m uninterested, uninformed or worse unintelligent. I am the football fan at the rugby game, unable to distinguish between the two sides and confused about why they keep piling on top of each other.

Ironically it’s pretty much the opposite. My A Level year was spent memorising every detail of the history and defining moment of the Israeli-Palestine conflict and an ongoing interest in Middle Eastern politics has nurtured a continued passionate interest in it’s development. I’ve had plenty of time and information with which to choose my team and buy my strip.

The reason I haven’t is because it isn’t a football match. It isn’t a black and white dichotomy for you suit up for and debate in the Union, This House Is Pro-Palestine.

It’s hundreds of thousands of people’s lives being played out by men around tables across this pitch of scorched earth, rubble, and burnt remains. Countless broken promises, historical doctrines, fucked up Western interventions, manipulative media content, religious beliefs, government brainwashing, international terrorist organisations, ignored peace treaties, failed ceasefires, destructive wars and devastating bombings have led to the ultimate political enigma that the world’s finest international diplomats have failed to resolve for decades.

Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub

Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub

Of course I don’t have the answer – I am, comparatively, a 19 year old undergraduate student. That’s okay.

Even Taub, the Ambassador some of you were so virulently despising and accusing of spewing genocidal propaganda knows this. “You don’t have to be anti-Israel to be pro-Palestine, or vice versa,” he told us. “It’s not a binary.”

In that room, listening to him talk about the decades of diplomatic work both Israel and Palestine had put in for the smallest olive branches, for the shortest hours without the scream of shells, I felt ashamed of our persistent simplification. “We have enough negative energy” he said, “you need to think about what YOU have to offer.”

The saddest thing is watching a lot of people, ill-rehearsed in the nature of the conflict other than a few viral Facebook posts, requisitioning the situation to supplement their own personal politically savvy image – slipping on their pro-Palestine stance one morning with a pair of Doc Martens and an unconventional hair colour.


“What we can offer is to listen and understand”

Daniel Taub, or indeed the Palestinian Ambassador last term, didn’t come to the Union to help us affirm our side on an artificially created binary and provide an interesting thing for you to get drunkenly enraged about in the College bar later; they came to speak to some of the, allegedly, brightest and most independent young minds in the world.

They came to do that because every day, they watch people in their own countries die needlessly. People who don’t have our astonishing privilege.

What we can offer is to listen and to understand. What we can do is not take sides in an inherently tribal conflict; the kind which survive and thrive off this kind of primitive “them-against-us” attitude.

What we can do is do our bit to foster good relations and diplomacy here, and thus stop trivialising the equally sad, desperate deaths of so many people caught on the two wrong sides of a double-booked Jerusalem.

Not every issue is two sides of a coin, simple, clean cut for your convenience and prepared to debate over in Formal Hall. As Cambridge students, we need to find the courage to sometimes admit “I don’t know.”

  • Best

    Tab article I’ve read in ages.

  • Haze

    “Taking sides” really annoys me as well. I can see the sense in both sides’ approaches: Palestine have the right to be annoyed because Israel aren’t letting them exercise full sovereignty and like to bombard them from time to time; Israel have the right to be annoyed because the Palestinians also like tossing missiles in their direction. The question of “who started it” might resolve this sort of problem in other cases, but this particular issue goes back far too long. The only end to all this I can see is for both sides to attempt to embrace a peaceful resolution – and as long as both sides continue to work against this by bombarding each other I don’t particularly want to support either.

  • North London Jew

    I’ve felt this way for a very long time. but you try telling that to my family…

    • Glaswegian Arab.

      I know right? People just need to chill….

  • Pro-Palestinian Zionist Jew

    I’ve read a lot of shit about this conflict in my time, from both sides, especially in the last couple of months. This is the most mature article I have read about the conflict for a while, probably ever.

  • Tab Reader

    There are too many long words and I don’t understand.
    Is this TCS?

  • this is really fantastic

    I am so sick of people who are themselves unaffected by this fraught and painful conflict picking a side, and then dogmatically failing to understand the humanity on the other – I find it tragic that someone outside of the conflict’s realm of impact can fail to provide the one thing that both sides so desperately need: empathy.

  • I


    Having said that, the fact that certain sections of both parties genuinely seem to think that eliminating the other lot is basically holy writ doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves.

  • reader

    There’s no such thing as a “Palestinian”. Arabs started calling themselves that in the 60’s after trying rejecting every peace treaty and trying to destroy Israel time and again.
    I’ve come to accept that Europeans will never stop trying to find any veiled excuse to express their inherited anti-Semitism.

    • wtf

      what about this article is antisemitic
      or any of the comments

    • Jew too.

      Historically speaking, you are correct.
      but look at facts on the ground, in gaza and the WBank: never has the notion of palestinian arab identity been more fraughtly defended and proclaimed. try telling the inhabitants of Shejaiya they’re not palestinians. well then, what are they?

  • So it’s not

    A binary trade off: Very good.

    But then what? We can recognise the stupidity of the usual binary, without resorting to simply reserving any judgement at all (because we’re 19-21?)

  • Ow this fence is now hurting

    I think this is a very good piece, and thanks for writing it Martha. I completely agree, but I also feel like there’s a middle ground between the take-a-side binary and the I-don’t-know-enough-to-solve-this/let’s-just-understand-the-sides position (hope that’s not too much of a caricature of the article, I respect and second the point it’s making).

    If you’re interested in this issue, you should definitely strive to inform yourself, work out what the key sub-issues are, and figure out what you think on each of them. That opinion should be held very humbly – it absolutely should be open to change as you’re exposed to more information! But it’s worth the time and effort.

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