Robert Eisen is a professor of religion and Judaic studies, and chair of the religion department.
There is no shortage of opinion on the recent hostilities between Israel and Gaza. Consult any article on the conflict in a major news outlet online, and you will find it accompanied by an endless string of comments from readers voicing strong views.
Yet, these comments exhibit a disturbing pattern one always sees in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The vast majority of opinions are firmly on one side or the other. They tend to focus on the atrocities that the other side has committed, and they usually deal with recent events to prove their point.
Thus, in response to the latest flare-up, those who support the Palestinian side will talk only about the loss of civilian life in Gaza from Israeli air-strikes, while those on the Israeli side will focus only on what it’s like to live under incessant rocket fire.
What is true about these armchair critics is true about the protagonists themselves. The debates between Israelis and Palestinians are much the same.
What is lost in these bitter exchanges is what the conflict is really about. It’s about two peoples who claim the same land on the basis of two very different national narratives. These narratives cannot be easily summarized here, but suffice it to say that each one is complex, makes selective use of history and leaves no room for the narrative of the other side.
The discussion should really be about these narratives. There will never be peace unless both sides make a genuine attempt to educate themselves about and understand each other’s story – and that is hard work. One must study the history of the conflict, how religion has played a role in it and the social psychology that underlies it, to name just a few issues.
What I’m saying may seem painfully obvious. But, remarkably, it’s not. The arguments online are proof of that. Ignorance abounds. Few seem interested in learning about the complex narratives that lie behind the conflict, but only in pointing fingers about the latest atrocity that the other side has committed.
And amazingly enough, the politicians attempting to make peace have made the same error. In my mind, one of the major reasons that the Oslo Accords failed in the 1990s is that both sides agreed the negotiations would not include discussion of historical issues. Hence, no attempt was made to grapple with the two narratives. A similar attitude has characterized negotiations between the two sides ever since.
Students at GW have an opportunity to do better. If you really want to understand the conflict, study the two narratives in all their facets. You will discover just how complex the conflict is, that it is very difficult to assign blame solely to one side and that much is being missed not just by the commentators but by the politicians who are supposed to be making peace.
And armed with this knowledge, you may even get your own chance to solve the conflict. It is likely to be with us for years to come.