In an effort to address the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the University of Cincinnati hosted a forum on November 15 that brought together six faculty members for a discussion aimed at fostering understanding and education.
Rather than it being an advocacy panel, it was presentations from members of the History Department, the School of Public and International Affairs, Judaic Studies, and the Department of Journalism.
The event, moderated by Professor Rob Haug, featured Professors Jeff Blevins, Ari Finkelstein, Elizabeth Frierson, Rebecca Sanders, and Alex Thurston, who collectively presented a scholarly perspective amidst a climate of rising antisemitism and extremism.
“There may be a lot of different emotions in the room, a lot of people feeling upset or angry or scared,” said Thurston. “And many people can be feeling that way at the same time. One thing I want to say is that multiple things can be true all at once, and multiple people can have pain all at once.”
A version of that was repeated throughout the forum; all of the professors reminded the students and members of the public in attendance that there were multiple truths to hold. And that the people involved in this conflict were fellow human beings who were suffering.
“Let me begin like my colleagues in acknowledging the fear, pain, suffering, and anxiety of both Israelis and Palestinians and the concentric circles of people around the world who care about them. And even when we disagree, hopefully, we can respect and acknowledge each other’s humanity,” said Sanders.
Each professor focused on a different aspect of Israel and Palestine: The history of the region, background on Hamas, the legal rules of war, and how to discern misinformation and disinformation.
With only 10 minutes per presentation, it was difficult for many of the professors to delve as deeply as they would’ve liked into their subject.
“This is going to be very painful because I’m trying to condense many courses for you into 10 minutes,” said Frierson.
Frierson and Finklestein gave a historical context to Israel and Palestine. Frierson focused on the history of the region up until the modern era, noting the multi-ethnic past of the region, beginning her lecture by greeting the lecture hall in 4 languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish.
“In the long 19th century, that started in 1789 with the French Revolution, we see a number of developments that change the world dramatically into the one in which we live now, with the development of scientific racism, with antisemitism,” said Frierson.
Finklestein, who is teaching a course in the spring, ‘Saving the past, saving the present: new paradigms for peace in Israel, Palestine,’ gave a history of Israel and peace attempts since 1967.
“You could start this story from the 1800s or the 1948/49,” said Finklestein. “I’m going to start with June 4, 1967. The West Bank was under the control of the Jordanians, and Gaza was ruled by Egypt. And the Six-Day War changed that. And that’s what Israel became an occupying power.”
Sanders gave a presentation on international law. Her focus was on explaining that while war is terrible, the rules around war are relatively permissive. Sanders ended her brief lecture by refocusing on solutions.
“If we care about civilians, we need to choose a politics that does not inevitably lead to war and that, hopefully, may even one day promote meaningful peace,” Sanders said. “This means rejecting a politics of reductionism and insisting that parties recognize the mutual existence, humanity, and rights [of] the other.”
Blevins, from the Journalism department, was the last presenter and spoke about spotting misinformation and disinformation on social media. Noting that most sources of misinformation or disinformation usually are attempting to outrage the viewer.
Blevins said the importance of recognizing sources is a way of discerning if something was a legitimate source and questions to ask yourself.
“Do you recognize this news outlet? Did you find a link on a social media account? Or did you go directly, for instance, to their their web page? That is how a lot of fake news gets out there,” said Blevins.
College campuses are becoming flashpoints for heated debates on the issue. The professors aimed to provide a balanced and historically informed viewpoint, carefully navigating the sensitive terrain.
While the presentations were an attempt by the faculty to promote understanding the Q and A showed that many of the students were looking for justification of their beliefs.
Several questions asked by students revolved around the idea of whether all forms of resistance were justified when resisting oppression, alluding to the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7. Sanders, who gave the lecture on International Law, responded.
“I think it’s pretty clear that what happened on October 7, would not fall into any bucket of an act of legitimate resistance to anything,” said Sanders. “It was a massacre on a massive scale of men, women, and children carried out with great strategic planning.”
The professors also acknowledged the plight of Palestinians during the Q and A.
“There’s no question that Palestinians are oppressed by all standards,” said Finklestein. “I think the focus should be on what we can do, or what the two sides can do, to get towards a solution.”
One of the most poignant questions came from a student who prefaced their question by noting how much pain people on both sides were in and how they could navigate that in person and online.
“Radical empathy for each side,” said Finklestein. “It would be more ideal, rather than attacking each other, to actually find ways of figuring out where we can come together to push for something positive.”
The forum came at a difficult time for Jewish students on campus; a recent survey conducted by Hillel International found that 1 in 3 students felt the need to hide their identity on campus. The same number has reported seeing hate crimes against Jews on campus, while 43% of students say campus feels unsafe.
The professors, throughout the evening kept reminding the students that looking for solutions was the best way to move forward.
“I think it’s important, as we move forward to recognize the other side’s legitimacy,” said Finklestein.