By Assaf Elroy
I’m not sure I know where to start.
Maybe being totally honest with you.
On May 4 I experienced one of the most difficult evenings I have had in my time here in the U.S. so far and perhaps one of the most difficult evenings in my life.
Ironically, I’m not even talking about the 700 rockets fired at my relatives and friends in Israel.
I am talking about an event that I was a witness to, thousands of miles away from Israel, here at the university where I am serving as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, UMass Amherst.
The event was a panel titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, & the Battle for Palestinian Rights.” On paper, the title was intriguing.
A queue of about 1,500 people came from near and far: students and community members.
The panel took place in the largest auditorium in the university, The Center for Fine Arts.
Well-recognized names and individuals with amazing rhetorical skills were welcomed – Linda Sarsour, Roger Waters, Marc Lamont Hill, David Zirin, and a moderator, Vijay Prasha.
When I learned of the event a few weeks ago, I was immediately concerned about whether the current setting of the event would really allow for a deep discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a discussion that will not only include the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank, and the Palestinian narrative but the other narrative: my narrative as an Israeli. Would a panel with such well-known, and fairly one-sided, opinions truly offer the complexity of the situation and put this complexity into the context of conflict between two people, Palestinians and Israelis?
What were initial concerns turned out to be far, far worse than I could ever have imagined.
My students and the campus community which I care so deeply about, were exposed to some of the most extreme and dangerous bias one could bear witness to.
In my work each day, I aim to create platforms for conversations that are complex and nuanced. I, as an Israeli, share critique and work to ensure a brighter future for my society and our conflict, which has affected generations on both sides. I encourage my students to understand how safeguarding Israelis and wanting a better future for both peoples is not conflicting: on the contrary, it is what we all should remain optimistic for.
Sadly, this event was not a mere critique of Israel’s policies.
This event was an extreme demonstration of the dehumanization of one side: Israel. And myself as an Israeli. It questioned the rights and identity of every person in that room with a connection to Israel. It did not take place in a side room or in a remote hall. It was in front of a crowd of intelligent people, in the largest auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, one of the best public universities in the United States.
The panelists tried to portray themselves as “human rights fighters,” of every oppressed minority in the world. “Fighters of justice and freedom,” who are working to be on the “right side of history.” They used loaded terminology such as “racism” and “apartheid” without discussing the facts they presented, simultaneously declaring and insisting on the right of return for all Palestinian people.
On one side, Israeli “terrorism,” and on the other side, “the good people who are fighting for freedom and human rights.” Israel was portrayed as the essence of evil in the world. Full stop.
The 1,500 people in the audience became part of an “uprising” for human rights, one that will be “recorded in the history books.” Fists were raised in the air alongside statements like “Free Palestine” and “From the River to the Sea.” Every few sentences were accompanied by a standing ovation. The hatred that the panelists spread permeated throughout the auditorium and very quickly, one could feel the harsh hostility toward anyone who did not think like them.
It is important to mention that there really was no way to challenge the panel. The only way to raise a question was through a note that you could write and pass on to the moderator, but the moderator chose which questions he would ask the panelists. There was no genuine opportunity to express a different opinion. The moderator himself read the rules of “behavior in the auditorium.” He made fun of the way people would be taken out of the auditorium, for anyone who would break the rules of his “game.” In an American university, free speech and the exchange of ideas was stifled.
Imagine being in such a setting: panelists that fuel the audience and incite hatred towards your side; repeating dangerous and inciteful slogans that negate your very right to exist.
No chance to challenge what is being said.
No opportunity to expose the bias and hatred being promoted.
At one point, one of the speakers, Marc Lamont Hill, spoke about how as a panel, they were producing a dialogue and discourse on issues related to the conflict.
Imagine the internal emotional burst I felt at that moment.
The hypocrisy and outright lies.
Dehumanizing Israelis does not lead to dialogue; it encourages the exact opposite. The hate being spread towards Israel distances people away from one another and produces more hatred. The hatred being disseminated is a part of the dehumanization process that speakers like this panel produce. In the darkest periods in history, we know the dangerous combination of propaganda dehumanization.
Hatred is hatred.
It will never lead to a positive process and end this conflict: neither for the Israelis nor for the Palestinians.
The lack of daring to take responsibility, the insistence on unilateral accusations and the inability to create self-criticism will lead us to exact the same place we are in today; a continuation of the conflict. The truth is not on one side, and the difficult and painful compromises will be required on both sides. But even if these steps are very difficult, they must be taken.
A few years ago, I promised myself that I would do everything I could to help end this conflict. I remember talking to a mother who lost her son because of a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip. She told me she would do anything to bring her son back to life. As we marked Yom HaZikaron, I thought of her. Her son will never be able to come back. But promoting a future where people are safeguarded and free is in our hands.
Are the voices of hatred, polarization, and deflection the ones society is empowering? Are they what anyone believes will bring a lasting solution?
My work has become more poignant than ever: ensuring that voices of reason and genuine intent and dedication to true peace will be heard. Voices of hatred must be stopped.
I will continue to work and believe in the resilience and hope of the people of Israel; wanting them to know that I, along with all emissaries, are here to have our stories be heard. And I will continue to hold optimism for a bright future for our neighbors as well.
I will continue to represent the Israeli people in an honest and unapologetic manner with complexity and willingness to discuss but zero tolerance for hatred and bias. I dare to discuss but also leave you all with the calling to now allow extremism to hijack our discourse.
Assaf Elroy is the Emissary of the Jewish Agency at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.