I went to an international school with 200 students from over 100 different countries. We were all on full scholarship, and came from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. My classmates came from different cultures and religions, each bringing rich experiences and diverse perspectives to the classroom.
One of my friends, Ali was from Palestine. Another friend, Jacob, was from Israel. One night in the library, as I struggled to print out a last minute assignment, Ali and I spoke about his childhood. He told me about how his father had been imprisoned for the majority of Ali’s childhood because of his political views. He described the nuances and challenges of being Palestinian and of growing up in the West Bank. He told me that when we first started school, he avoided the Israeli students. He couldn’t talk to them. He couldn’t interact with them.
Later in the year I saw Ali warmly put his arm around Jacob’s neck. They were talking and laughing. Jacob had plans to visit Ali over the summer. There was dialogue, friendship and respect. Jacob now serves in the Israeli Army, fulfilling his responsibilities of conscription. Ali is in his final year of his undergraduate degree in the United States. I haven’t spoke to either of them since we graduated high school four years ago.
Sitting in the backbenches of the Burridge Gym during the GA, I wondered how Ali and Jacob could talk about and acknowledge their differences. In the crowd I recognized people who were directly involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict. I also saw people who like me were not directly implicated in the issue, but who identified with a particular message and wanted to learn more.
Both of my friends had lived through and experienced the conflict firsthand, with visceral memories of loss, fear and anger. Ali and Jacob could have a respectful conversation. They listened to each other. Yet at the GA we did the exact opposite. There was no dialogue and no desire to acknowledge and validate another person’s lived experience.
Instead, one speaker named Salah was continually interrupted due to “Points of Information” and “Points of Order” raised by No-to-BDS campaigners. Salah was telling his story of how he and his family had fled Palestine as refugees. The deliberate interruptions, the “I feel uncomfortable”s and the complaints of “emotionally charged language” stung me. Clearly there was no place for Salah’s story. There was no desire, respect or humility for someone else’s experience. Instead, every attempt was made to stifle him from speaking and prevent an understanding of his perspective.
I understand that leaving the GA to break quorum was a politically strategic move. I understand the continuous proposals were meant to shift around agenda items so that there would be no time to talk about BDS. However, I can rationalize that these moves undermined the legitimacy of the General Assembly.
I struggle to understand the unwavering approach to prevent someone from sharing their own personal narrative. If anything, what I learned from the GA was that no genuine dialogue was going to happen on campus. Stories were going to continually be marginalized because they were unpopular, or raised questions that people shouldn’t be asking.
Last week the front cover of the Silhouette covered the story of Providence, a Rwandan student at McMaster. Her experiences were acknowledged and the adversity that she and her family had faced was brought to the attention of the larger community. Yet, there is little space and desire to hear Salah’s story.
I think back to Ali and Jacob and the maturity and compassion that they showed each other. I look to my friends at McMaster who have received manipulative messages on Facebook, who have alienated people with opposing views, who have deliberately shut their ears, minds and hearts to any message that challenges their world view. And I am profoundly disappointed, because if Ali and Jacob can do it, then why can’t we?
I write this article not with the intention to vilify a particular stance or de-legitimize a perspective, but to instead show that respectful, informative and powerful dialogue on this issue can take place in an educational setting.