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Conflict over the conflict


When my daughter was applying to college ten years ago, she asked if she should choose a school based on how it might affect her future employment. I told her, if that’s why she was thinking of college, perhaps she’d rather go to a trade school. Thankfully, she chose a liberal arts college.

The purpose of higher education is to open the minds of young adults, to make them ponder the world around them and their place in it, to think deeply about ideas, in fact to be made uncomfortable by ideas. After all, they are going to be disturbed by ideas for the rest of their lives. They have to figure out how to navigate ideas if they are to become critical thinkers, an important skill for any profession.

How do we navigate difficult issues? I first started thinking about this question when I was a young lawyer in Portland, Oregon, working on progressive cases (American Indian activists, the homeless, etc.), and then the 1982 war in Lebanon occurred. I joined the protests against Israel’s actions, but saw antisemitism expressed by some of my compatriots (claims about Jewish power, control of the media, and the like). And when I pushed back, it was impossible to have a reasoned conversation. I was, it was said, harming the Palestinian cause by referring to any antisemitism, even if I had a point.

What exactly makes having difficult discussions on third-rail issues, like this one, so difficult?

The answer, I believe, has a lot to do with how we as human beings think when our identity is challenged, particularly by things related to social justice or injustice, and most especially when there is conflict.

For the last twenty-five years I have been working to build the academic field of ‘hate studies.’ Hate studies is defined as ‘Inquiries into the human capacity to define, and then dehumanize or demonize, an ‘other,’ and the processes which inform and give expression to, or can curtail, control, or combat, that capacity.’


'I was concerned that each side was using the campus as a battlefield, where the goal was to chill, if not outright suppress, speech on the other side.'


This interdisciplinary field suggests that as human beings we are primed to see an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ Our brains were formed millennia ago, when the group over the hill might be a danger. Evolutionary psychology, brain science, social psychology, and other fields tell us that our thinking changes when we see an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ Flip a coin and divide a group into two, everyone knowing their selection was totally random. After each group forms an identity, it will think its members are brighter and more attractive. Our brains also crave simplicity, and binary thinking makes things simple — black and white, good and evil. Complexity can be exhausting, confusing, hard work.

When I teach a course on antisemitism, I start with readings about hate, because while antisemitism has its unique aspects, it isn’t as though it’s the only hatred in the world. Understanding how we see an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ and how we crave simple answers, especially when we perceive things going wrong in our lives, help my students understand how antisemitism works.

I found these lessons useful in other venues too. I’ve worked with Gonzaga University — a Jesuit school in Washington State — to establish a hate studies center there. A few years ago some friends from Gonzaga called me, perplexed. They were part of a community peace and justice group, and the local Jewish community was calling them antisemites, largely because the peace group’s website had a static page supporting the boycott/divestment/sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. My friends wanted a way forward, so I helped both sides get together and spend a day studying, first about hate, then about antisemitism, then about the ‘conflict over the conflict.’ They emerged from that meeting with a vocabulary to speak across differences, and to find a way to work together in a community where Jews, progressives, and people of color are too often threatened by the white supremacists. They are still talking and learning from each other.

About the same time as that meeting in Spokane, I decided to write a book on the campus wars over Israel. I was concerned that each side was using the campus as a battlefield, where the goal was to chill, if not outright suppress, speech on the other side. Each side, at times, compared the other to Nazis. You wouldn’t have a conversation with Nazis, would you? So there were instances of trying to stop speakers coming to campus, for boycotts of Israeli academics, for use of law to stop teaching pro-Palestinian perspectives that some Israel supporters believed were antisemitic, but pro-Palestinian people saw as simple calls for equal rights and justice.

So I started out the book, before getting into the ‘conflict over the conflict,’ with a chapter drawn from hate studies, based in part on the successful discussion in Spokane. I called it ‘thinking about thinking,’ because I wanted the readers to be aware of how their thinking is informed by identity, views of ‘us and them,’ ideas of justice.  

The main point of the book is that the campus is really the ideal place to tackle such thorny issues. It is a safe place to examine all ideas, even — or perhaps especially — those that people find offensive or disturbing. The sad fact, though, is that there is a push these days to send the opposite message to students — that they should be shielded from intellectual discomfort. A college has an obligation to prevent its students from being harassed, intimidated, bullied, or discriminated against. But it must not shield its students from examining ideas, even clearly hateful ones. After all, if thousands or millions of people believe certain ideas, how do we learn how to combat them if we don’t study them?


'A college has an obligation to prevent its students from being harassed, intimidated, bullied, or discriminated against. But it must not shield its students from examining ideas, even clearly hateful ones.'


In my book I also highlight model courses that invite students to have the intellectual approach and emotional empathy to engage the different narratives around Israel/Palestine. One is a simulation class about the Peel commission in the 1930s, when the British had the mandate over the area, and they sent Lord Peel to speak to Jews and Arabs and figure out what was to be done. The students had to spend weeks faithfully representing a figure from that time — including the commissioners — in the simulations; and where possible they were given roles against type (a Muslim as a Jewish leader, an Israeli as the Mufti of Jerusalem). It was like sending students in a time machine, so they really engaged the complexities. The goal wasn’t to change their minds about the equities of the conflict, but to give them the ability to understand the other side’s point of view more realistically.

I also recommended full-semester interdisciplinary courses on antisemitism. From my experience teaching such a course, even students who have markedly different views on Israel/Palestine, by the time we reach the sections on Israel and Zionism, have a framework for discussing their different perspectives reasonably. Colleges should also offer incoming students exposure to ideas of free speech and academic freedom, so that they better appreciate the unique and important role of the educational process to explore ideas.

I spent a lot of money sending my children to college. That they are thoughtful and thinking and successful young adults is, in part, because of their college experiences, navigating issues that made them uncomfortable.





Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate. His most recent book is The Conflict over The Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate (2020).

Main image: Protesters chant during a demonstration outside of Zellerbach Hall on the U.C. Berkeley campus in Berkeley, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Kenneth S Stern, Palestine, Israel, Antisemitism, Conflict, University, Hate, Dialogue, Complexity


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