Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Learning to Love Israel

Daniel Knecht ‘05, Former Staff Columnist
May 27, 2008

As many of us commemorate Israel’s 60th year of independence, it is appropriate to reflect on our relationship, as individuals and as an educational institution, with Israel. Throughout my education at Dartmouth, I explored the Israeli condition and its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

During my junior year at Dartmouth I applied for a Tucker Fellowship to volunteer on an ambulance in Israel. Because it was during the Second Intifada in 2003, the Tucker foundation thought it was too dangerous and denied me funding. Despite the lack of financial backing from Dartmouth, I continued on to Israel. It was my first time in the region. I experienced firsthand life in Israel and the Middle East, honed my skills as a medic and learned about contemporary Israeli society and its history. I was fortunate to have the full support of this newspaper, where I shared my experiences working on an Israeli ambulance on the Opinion page. I witnessed the anxiety and fear Israelis dealt with on a daily basis due to terrorism, as well as the difficulties Palestinians endured under occupation. That winter I became an ardent Zionist — a supporter of the Jewish democratic state called Israel. I returned to Dartmouth that spring with a greater sense of understanding of Israel’s condition, as well as a hunger to learn more of the Arab-Israeli conflict.During my senior year at Dartmouth, I applied for a Fulbright grant to Israel. I decided to investigate the deficiencies of Israeli health care afforded to the Bedouins. In the summer of 2005 I arrived in Israel weeks after the Gaza disengagement, an equally historic and controversial step in which Israel voluntarily withdrew thousands of settlers from the overpopulated strip, in addition to dismantling its military presence in the territory. Clearly a huge gamble by the Israelis, it was hoped that the Palestinians would work on improving their own lot in Gaza and cease firing rockets at Israeli towns and farms. Three years later the opposite rang true as Sderot, a quaint desert town, had been turned into the front line of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I returned to America that spring having completed my Fulbright grant. I had a profoundly more sophisticated sense of Israel’s precarious situation, the Arab world and their thorny interplay. I could easily parse out Israel’s shortcomings, as well as its astounding successes. I also developed a deep respect for Arab culture and Islam. The similarities between Judaism and Islam are numerous, and although Arab and Israeli societies are starkly different, I didn’t see why the two could not peacefully coexist.

As Israel passes its 60th anniversary, I am less optimistic about the future of the region than I was when I first became enchanted with Israel several years ago. I first believed that territorial concessions and negotiations were the panacea for peace. Unfortunately, the conflict has evolved from one of a nationalist, secular struggle to a nihilistic obsession by Islamic fundamentalists. The Hamas takeover of Gaza, Second Lebanon War and persistent rocket attacks from Gaza have provided a bitter lesson to those who think that this conflict is simply a protracted border dispute. The past few years’ events have proven that Israel is now locked in a mortal battle against Islamic extremists. What is almost as concerning is the West’s lack of a unified and strong response to the ever-escalating conflict. Jimmy Carter’s visits with Hamas leaders in Damascus, as well as Lee Bollinger’s invitation for Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia demonstrate that many of our academic and political leaders have failed to conceptualize the real dangers extremists pose to our society. They have traded in common sense for an over-intellectualized view of the conflict.

What is our role, as individuals and as part of an institution, in the current conflict? Instead of reaching out to our enemies as Carter and others have fruitlessly attempted, we must work to forge new friendships and support current ones. Our university must foster an educational environment that promotes intellectual curiosity on the Arab-Israeli conflict while actively excluding the hateful opinions of Ahmadinejad, Hamas and other extremists from the discussion. We must emphatically support students who wish to study abroad wherever they choose. Over countless cups of tea, my Bedouin acquaintances and I discussed America’s war in Iraq and America’s perceived lopsided support of Israel. Although we certainly did not agree on many of the topics, I returned home to New York with a deep respect and fondness toward Arab culture. I also believe I conveyed to them our sincere hope and desire for peace in the region. The resolution of this conflict rests on our ability as Americans to successfully influence and convey our goodwill to those who are willing to listen.

A worthwhile education at Dartmouth should equip its students to tackle difficult issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict head on. Common sense should trump the moral relativism and naivete espoused by some politicians and academicians. Throughout its 60 years of existence, Israel has never felt more secure and existentially threatened at the same time; its economy and global presence have never been stronger, all while at the United Nations Iran repeatedly threatens to wipe it off the map. The Jewish-democratic state of Israel has already proven its right to exist and prosper. Now, as Hezbollah and Iran call for Israel’s destruction, Dartmouth and other institutions of higher education need to strengthen their commitment to Israel. Our shared values, which include pluralism, democracy and high valuation of life and education, unite us. My Dartmouth education has allowed me to realize the importance of a strong relationship with Israel, and our obligation to defend our mutual values against whoever threatens them.

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