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WSU Foley Institute Hosted Scholars to Encourage Dialogue, not Debate, about Palestine-Israel


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WSU Foley Institute Hosted Scholars to Encourage Dialogue, not Debate, about Palestine-Israel

News Story by Cassy Benefield | FāVS News

The Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service gave Washington State University students an opportunity Thursday (Feb. 1) to learn from two scholars on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in an open dialogue rather than a debate.

This was in response to the rising interest on campus after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the Israeli government’s military reaction in Gaza.

“Unfortunately, in those types of events, you get people who very quickly devolve into selecting facts and evidence that support only their own ideological predispositions,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute and professor in WSU’s School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs.

The organizers wanted to create an event on campus that educates rather than creates more heat than light and encourages dialogue rather than polemic, Clayton said.

“We wanted to have an event that tried to get at the issue as the complex and historically situated issue that it is,” he said.

Needing a Wider View

WSU freshman Maria Duffy came for just that kind of event, as all she had learned about the conflict up until that point came from primary sources who were emotionally-driven, hurt and oppressed on social media.

She wanted a wider view, she said.

“I’m not seeing both sides. I’m seeing one or the other, and I’m not really seeing a middle ground,” she said. “And my purpose of coming to this event was to be more well informed on both sides.”

When introducing the event that evening, Clayton said to the over 100 attendees the Institute wanted to encourage curiosity over certainty and openness over cynicism. He wanted the event to move the conflict out of the continued polarization of our own politics.

“On campus, at least one should feel free to support the Israeli people, yet argue that the Israeli government may have prosecuted the conflict too far. Or feel free to support the aspirations of the Palestinian people, yet be willing to condemn, unequivocally, the attacks on Oct. 7,” Clayton said.

After his opening, he then introduced Jacob Lewis, assistant professor in the School of Politics whose work focuses on peace and conflict studies. He moderated the event and Clayton also thanked him for choosing the scholars: Dana El Kurd and Avishay Ben-Sasson-Gordis.

The Scholars

El Kurd, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Richmond, studies authoritarianism and resistance to authoritarianism, such as protests and contentious politics. She also authored “Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine.” She represented the Palestinian perspective.

Ben-Sasson-Gordis is a lecturer in the Department of Government at Harvard University and a postdoctoral fellow at Hebrew University. He’s also a fellow at Molad, which is the center for the renewal of Israeli democracy. His research focuses on civil military relations with a specialty in Israeli politics. He represented the Israeli perspective.

The speakers opened the event by explaining their own research before answering questions Lewis asked them directly.

One of Lewis’ questions to El Kurd was how Hamas gained governmental authority in Gaza. He asked Ben-Sasson-Gordis the background and costs of the near universal Israeli military draft.

The scholars answered the same question: how did each side interpret and experience Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s reaction.

Israelis’ Interpretation of Oct. 7

Ben-Sasson-Gordis answered the question first on behalf of the Israelis, and he started by saying he would be speaking with a broad brush. He said that the majority of Israelis saw Oct. 7 as earth shattering.

“The sense of personal security was just gone. People were locking doors in cities in places that were very far away from border areas,” he said.

He added they were also in a state of rage, which encouraged people to violence. This then encouraged states and governments to violence to maintain their legitimacy in the region.

However, he emphasized their reactions came out of the lens of their generational trauma as a people group, especially informed by the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

“Often you will hear the statistics cited that this is the largest killing of Jews in a single day, since the Holocaust. That is not just a random point in time chosen, or the most recent point in time chosen. It is also a profound reference to a point in time, where Jews were industrially exterminated by Nazi Germany,” Ben-Sasson-Gordis said. “And for many Israelis that is the point of reference for such an event. That again triggers strong response in terms of the need to act out.”

Palestinians’ Interpretation of Oct. 7

Then, El Kurd gave a Palestinian view.

“The scope of the destruction in Gaza since Oct. 7 is unprecedented and really difficult for Palestinians wherever they are to even absorb the level of destruction in their own understanding,” El Kurd said.

She went on to explain the context through which Palestinians see Oct. 7 is a continuation of the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) of 1948, when they were forced out of their homes when Israel declared statehood.

She added that there is also fear among Palestinians. They believe Gaza is the first step of Israel’s use of the military against Palestinians in the occupied territories.

“The fact that 90% of Gazans right now are displaced. The fact that 70% of homes have been destroyed. The fact that there’s famine, there’s the destruction of universities and cultural sites,” El Kurd said. “People are really afraid that this is the beginning of what might also happen in the West Bank or what might also happen in communities within Jerusalem.”

As for the larger Palestinian diaspora all over the world, she does see a unifying theme.

“I think something that’s unified in everyone’s kind of perception is the threat of this moment that if this conflict is allowed to take place in the way that it has and there’s a sense of impunity for the actors involved, that this is going to have spillover effects,” she said.

A ‘Breath of Fresh Air’

Hussain Akoum, a WSU freshman, was pleasantly surprised the event was more like a conversation. He originally thought it was going to be a debate. He also learned a lot more about the Israeli citizen perspective, which he had heard little about, he said.

“I’ve seen a lot of the Palestinian view of this conflict. It’s very enlightening to see the experts elaborate on the response of the Israeli citizens themselves because that’s usually glossed over,” Akoum said.

He added that it was also nice to not experience a discussion and not a screaming match.

“Seeing a scholarly discussion rather than a full on heated ‘I hate you’ argument was so refreshing. And it was a breath of fresh air,” Akoum said.

At the end of the event, when asked what she ultimately learned at the talk, Duffy said, “I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to learn.”

On Thursday, Feb. 29, the Institute will host its next talk about this conflict. It will be held at noon in the Foley Speaker’s Room located in 308 Byran Hall. The talk, “Lessons (un)learned: The roots of Middle East violence,” will be by Lawrence Pintak, journalist, author and founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

Cassy Benefield
Cassy Benefield
Cassy (pronounced like Cassie but spelled with a 'y') Benefield is a wife and mother, a writer and photographer and a huge fan of non-fiction. She has traveled all her life, first as an Army brat. She is a returned Peace Corps volunteer (2004-2006) to Romania where she mainly taught Conversational English. She received her bachelor’s in journalism from Cal Poly Technical University in San Luis Obispo, California. She finds much comfort in her Savior, Jesus Christ, and considers herself a religion nerd who is prone to buy more books, on nearly any topic, than she is ever able to read. She is the associate editor of FāVS.News.

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