Dear Mr. President,
A few days ago my class was visited by an Israeli guest lecturer. I tried to go in with an open mind, especially because I knew the professor places a huge importance on human rights and is sympathetic to the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. Throughout the lecture, I found myself getting angrier and angrier. His attempts at objectivity were so obviously colored with the comfortable, academic detachment that I find so frustrating. Reducing events and issues that represent tangible suffering, blood, death and disenfranchisement to abstractions might lead to calmer discourse, but it doesn't do justice to the people not lucky enough to pretend it's all just an academic exercise. At the end of the lecture, he opened it up for questions and was gracious, if a bit dismissive, about my views on the unsettling rise of the radical Israeli right wing.
I fully admit that, for all of my academic energies devoted to Palestinian issues, I have a much deeper and much more immediate emotional reaction. I don't apologize for or regret this; witnessing injustice against real people is an emotional and not an academic experience. But I also recognize that my emotional reactions may not be as useful to those who are struggling with that injustice as some one else's more detached and rational response. It makes it difficult for me to listen to people like this professor make statements about his optimism for the peace process, so long as people let go of the "irrational" idea of a right of return. I've been to Dheisheh refugee camp and seen the way that refugee status still affects the day to day lives of my friends who grew up there. The idea that they have no claim to the homes their ancestors were forced out of, that their future aspirations can be swept aside and dismissed as irrational gives me a visceral reaction to the callousness of this detachment.
I also have to constantly question my role in all of this. Can I help, at all? I have to question how much of my desire to work in Palestine is fulfilling a selfish need to belong and feel useful, and how much is actually a desire to be part of the solution, an honest desire to fight injustice. Do I have the skills necessary? Is it enough just to bear witness, or do I have a responsibility to do more? I ask myself these things every day, as I discuss, explain, argue or learn more. And I don't have any answers; continuing the peace talks without a settlement freeze seems like political suicide for Abbas. A unilateral bid for recognition from the UN seems like it would lead to war. Discussing a one-state solution is tantamount to anti-semitism in modern American discourse, and even mentioning the role that Hamas might play in the peace process is enough to undermine one's credibility with so-called moderates from Israel and America.
I can't discuss these options without thinking about the tangible, personal way they will affect Palestinian people. Maybe that makes me a poor academic. I think that losing sight of the human cost of political decisions costs us our humanity, and I would rather keep mine than perfect a more dispassionate debate style. I think that the academic and political spheres need more compassion and more empathy, not less. Even if it makes certain lectures more difficult to sit through, and certain articles more difficult to read. That difficulty is nothing compared to the struggle of actually living with the bleak reality of the facts on the ground. You're well-known for your calm, cool approach to heated situations. I appreciate this about you, even if it at times frustrates me. I'm certain that, no matter how cool your exterior reactions may seem, these issues must affect you on an emotional level as well. Do you feel like the sheer number of problems around the world, the overwhelming amount of suffering causes you to become desensitized to it all? Or do you keep your emotions in check in order to keep every one else calmer?