The Miller Forum was buzzing with energy and conversation right up until the minute the clock hit 7 p.m. When the evening’s speaker, Dr. Sa’ed Atshan, was introduced, the talk, billed ‘Palestinian Christians: Past, Present, and Future,‘ had the packed audience fixated. I was deeply interested in the talk because I have been passionate and educated on issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 6th grade and the opportunity to learn more was exciting. While this talk was described in the title to be more historically oriented, I did anticipate and that there would be a discussion of controversial topics like the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. With Dr. Atshan’s impressive track record and reputation of academic excellence (being a Harvard Phd. and Swarthmore Professor), I expected his talk would foster a balanced and productive conversation.
The first few slides fit the description by describing Dr. Atshan’s Church in the West Bank, pictures of his family, friends, and teachers from the Quaker High School he attended in Ramallah, and a brief historical outline of the Palestinian Christian traditions and the community’s ties to the land historically known as Palestine and presently Israel. This was all new information to me, and to hear the story of his people was fascinating.
But within a few minutes, the narrative transitioned from historical and informational to a highly politically-charged, nationalist and one-sided presentation of the humanitarian struggle that “all” of the Palestinian people face living in the occupied territory, and an examination of the atrocities that are allegedly being committed by the State of Israel. Dr. Atshan showed distressing maps, charts, and even graphic images of suffering Palestinian individuals in numerous areas of the West Bank and Gaza. He rattled off fact after fact that describes the many human rights violations committed by Israel against these people, and painted a picture of Israel as a monstrous colonial oppressor that is brutalizing an indigenous population through unimaginable tactics. Any person with a moral and ethical conscious would have been moved by his words, which were presented in an articulate, relatable, and methodical way with even doses of comic relief.
But within a few minutes, the narrative transitioned from historical and informational to a highly politically-charged, nationalist and one-sided presentation
As uncomfortable and emotionally provoking as his perspective was to the Pro-Zionist one I was taught my whole life in Jewish education, I felt duped of learning about the Palestinian history and eager to challenge him with questions that referenced my understanding of the very complicated geo-political situation. I have lived in Israel and read extensively on the topic, so I felt comfortable enough to engage in a meaningful way with him. I expected that he would at least have the courtesy to talk in a professional way about mine and others questions from a different angle.
Dr. Atshan, however, seemed to have no interest in a dialogue or acknowledgement of the Israeli side, where millions of citizens live in constant fear of terrorism and violence. When one student after me asked him about the possible benefits of lives saved from the Security Fence around the border, he belittled her with a joke that drew laughs and painted her as uneducated. On the final question, another student asked for at least recognition for the uninformed students and faculty in the room that there is another side, but his response was that this question was “dehumanizing.”
It is important that each side is given the opportunity to present their reality candidly and openly, which is why I maintain that Dr. Atshan’s speech was valuable.
As a result of the biased nature and structure of the talk on arguably one of the most complex political conflicts in the world, many students and faculty attending that came in uninformed and with a blank canvas of knowledge on the topic were stripped of the ability to make an informed opinion. If we are going to talk about something like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus it is essential to provide a holistic lens. If there is not a ‘panel’ like setting, where each side is given a voice, that is okay, but having a speaker that refuses to recognize any other side than his own lead the conversation (to an impressionable audience) is irresponsible.
It is important that each side is given the opportunity to present their reality candidly and openly, which is why I maintain that Dr. Atshan’s speech was valuable. However, it is only valuable on a subject this complex with context. Another issue is that the series in which this presentation was sponsored is titled ‘Troubling Truths,’ which inherently implies that the words spoken must be factual and uncontested. After all, they are about “truths,” right? No! To categorically assume that everything Dr. Atshan said is true without doing fact-checking and thorough due diligence is a damaging approach because the audience is not offered a counter-argument to the explosive allegations against Israel. Without Dr. Atshan even recognizing that the Israeli side has grounds in their perspective, students may leave without even knowing it is a contested subject.
Overall, I am grateful that the conversation about this subject is being had at Muhlenberg, it is an important one. But for in the spirit of intellectual curiosity and the mission of Muhlenberg college, let’s talk about it in the liberal arts way. In the days since the talk, the administration has been helpful and receptive to this, which I appreciate and shows that they care about the dialogue too. This is to be expected since the Muhlenberg mission statement says that the College “aims to develop independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile, characterized by a zest for reasoned and civil debate, committed to understanding the diversity of the human experience, able to express ideas with clarity and grace, committed to life-long learning, equipped with ethical and civic values, and prepared for lives of leadership and service.” These objectives will only be accomplished on the topic of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict if more speakers continue to come that are willing to present other angles of this multifaceted subject.
Updated, 2/9: At the author’s request, two sentences were removed from the initial version of this article.