How we Stopped Caring About the Middle East

JACK RIVLIN: Pro-Israelers and Pro-Palestiners both claim neutrals are rooting for the other side. They haven’t realised that we long since turned our backs on them both.

daniel zeichner Israel israel soc journalism Palestine palestine soc politics the tab

I like to think I’m a conscientious individual. I watch the news, I donate money to charity and occasionally I insist The Tab takes time out from publishing articles on reality TV and confessionals to cover something ‘serious.’ But this week had me doubting my ability to empathise: as much as I tried I couldn’t bring myself to care about the (now defunct) Israel-Palestine Awareness Week. Am I a heartless individual? At first I thought I was, but the truth is that I – like thousands of others – am not too selfish to get involved in discussions over the ‘Middle East peace process.’ There’s just no point.

Writing an article on Israel/Palestine is a time-consuming process. You spend hours fact-checking and interviewing only to discover that the issue – as ever – boils down to two irreconcilable points of view. Once you’ve written it, you feel obliged to send it for rubber stamping by the heads of various societies, as if they possess a magical way of measuring legitimacy. Then once you’ve published it, you spend hours answering the barrage of emails from people called Sam Steinzenberg and Zaman El-Fawaz who tell you that you 'have a Zionist agenda' or you 'are looking through the prism of anti-Semitism.' By the end you find yourself wondering why you bothered. The article has 38 comments but they’re all from people who now hate you, and no one else bothered to read it.

A Palestinian student recently sent an open letter to Cambridge’s student papers. In the letter he argues that 'anyone who opens there [sic] mouths against Israel is immediately targeted as ‘anti-Semitic.’' This point is immediately followed by a claim that 'Zionist-surveillance/security groups based in the UK' are able to pressure Cambridge’s University officials. The double standards in this letter are appalling. It is totally ridiculous to object to blind accusations and then commit the same crime. This is exactly the behaviour which turns off neutral observers from caring about the grievances (however legitimate) of either side.

Israel/Palestine might just be the most pressing political issue we face today. In a dispute where most people’s positions are determined by loyalties they never chose, there are going to be irreconcilable and entrenched points of view. But the debate has become so polarized that there is no room for reasonable comment. You can’t expect people living under the conditions of the crisis to express a detached, reasoned opinion. But, in Cambridge, where we are far-removed from the conflict, students should be able to – and want to – express an opinion. I can’t remember ever seeing a comment on the subject from someone who wasn’t Jewish or Muslim. No neutral dares to enter the debate because neither side can accept even the most minor criticism. Every progressive suggestion is met with a barrage of insults and threats, punctuated by meaningless claims about ‘agendas’ and ‘outside influence.’ There’s simply no room for discussion.

In a recent interview, Labour parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner, was asked if he supported Israel. He answered that he didn’t think they were football teams. They might as well be, for all the wisdom on display in the debate. Politics is about making concessions to achieve the best-possible outcome. It’s funny when football fans can’t take criticism, but it’s tragic when people behave in the same way over a crisis as serious as the Middle East.

So here’s what I propose. People should be able to enter the debate and have their arguments challenged properly, not through meaningless slogans and conspiracy theories. Israel Soc and Palestine Soc should agree to hold debates where the speakers are chosen independently (the Union surely fits this purpose). And both sides should recognise that Cambridge student journalists do not write according to any pre-determined bias, but rather a fear that expressing an opinion will bring them unnecessary distress. Pro-Israelers and Pro-Palestiners have spent so long telling us that we’re either with them or against them they haven’t realized that we long since turned against them both.