The vanishing middle ground in the Israel-Palestine debate

Like a blast wave traveling 7,000 miles from the rubble of Gaza all the way to the shores of the United States, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is echoing through communities across America and deeply dividing the country.

And nowhere it seems are the tensions running higher than on college campuses.

The divisions around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are distressing.  As a father of four sons, two of whom are still in college, it has been hard to watch this unfold on campuses, which are supposed to be the sacred place where respectful dialogue and the eagerness to learn other perspectives should be flourishing. My concerns are no different than most other parents with a college-age child. So many of us are left wondering what happened to civil discourse? And for our family, the unrest and the intolerance has been hitting close to home.

One of our sons attends UVM and lives in the college town of Burlington, not far from where the shooting of the three Palestinian college students took place. The students were reportedly wearing Palestinian scarves, or kaffiyeh, and speaking in Arabic as they walked together before they were attacked. A suspect has been arrested and police are investigating the case to determine if it is a hate crime. Another son attends Harvard where there are tensions around the Israel-Hamas war amid competing marches – pro-Palestine and pro-Israel – that have shaken the campus. Jewish students have complained of antisemitic harassment and intimidation from pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Pro-Palestinian students have complained of doxing by pro-Israel students.

I teach a seminar at Boston College’s Journalism Program and was recently invited by students to lead a “teach in,” a throwback to the 1960s gatherings around the Vietnam war, and it  was packed. The dialogue was respectful and there was positive feedback from the students about the experience and the need for more dialogue.

The conversations with my students and others show that there is a thirst for historical context and informed analysis around the conflict, and I am jumping at any opportunity to share the knowledge gained through three decades on the ground covering the Middle East as a journalist.

My wife and I began our family in Jerusalem where I was the Middle East bureau chief for The Boston Globe from 1997 to 2001. After 9-11, I reported from Afghanistan and Iraq and later covered the Arab Spring, returning frequently to the region for GroundTruth.

Our family has in many ways been forged by our time in the Middle East. All four of our sons are American citizens, but one was born in an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem in 1998 and has an Israeli birth certificate. Another son was born in a Palestinian hospital in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, in 2000 and has a Palestinian birth certificate. We are a family that has always dwelled in between the two sides of the conflict with dear friends on both sides. We worry about those friends every day and do our best to check in on them during this horrific moment.

Sadly, that space in the middle is shrinking. It feels like a time to remember the best place, maybe the only place, where a journalist covering the conflict should live: In the inbetween. I feel fortunate to have had so much time lingering between the two sides and learning from each of them their history and their narratives of suffering.

We lived in Jerusalem at the height of the peace process when it felt the stated goals of the Oslo Accords were within reach, and we lived there as it all collapsed in the fall of 2000. The scenes we now watch on CNN trigger all the emotions of having lived there, and remind us of the trauma that comes with living amid a conflict. We can’t fathom how difficult life must be for the Israeli families of the hostages and for the Palestinians of Gaza who have suffered such horrendous loss and continued suffering.

We are shocked to see the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians suddenly spilling across America into demonstrations and shouting matches in city streets, small town squares and college campuses.

But just when it feels like despair is setting in, there are some important glimmers of hope. One was a dialogue held at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs this week which featured two extraordinary academics who are old friends and colleagues. One is Palestinian-American and the other is Israeli-American. They are Amaney Jamal, Dean of Princeton’s School of Public Affairs, who grew up in the West Bank, and Keren Yarhi-Milo, Dean of Columbia’s School of Public Affairs, who grew up in Israel. To hear them speak is like being handed a road map for where the dialogue about Israel-Palestine needs to go in terms of talking honestly about the passions and pain of both sides, about the important role the U.S. will need to play in ending the conflict and about finding a point on the horizon that points toward finding a way back to the peace process. They talked about a reverse model of Oslo which would need to begin with the promise of a Palestinian state and then reverse engineer a way to make it happen so that the state of Palestine can live peacefully with promise and freedom beside the state of Israel.

Our Report For America corps members have been documenting the local reactions to the news coming out of the region and highlighting the stories of countless Americans intricately connected to the conflict still unfolding. In the first few weeks, their coverage focused on the immediate effects of the conflict with Jews and Palestinians alike mourning loved ones killed or captured, and communities coming together to grapple with this tragedy. The later coverage focused on the fallout and the ensuing political debates, raising discussions about freedom of speech protections, the role of local politicians and the media, the importance of context, the deadly consequences of rhetoric and propaganda, and both collective and individual efforts to have a tangible impact on a region so far away.

Our colleague Alana Campbell, who is a student herself at St. John’s University in New York, has pulled together the best of the stories over the last few weeks by our corps members in the field.

In her introduction to the StoryMap which features stories from just about every corner of the country, she writes,  “Beyond the geopolitical complexities and the devastating toll on lives and communities, this ongoing saga underscores the importance of global empathy. The stories of loss, resilience, and activism resonate across borders, prompting necessary conversations about responsibility, accountability, and the pursuit of peace. The insights drawn from these narratives not only reflect the tragedy but also serve as a call for concerted efforts toward resolution, compassion, and the collective pursuit of a better world.”