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Mark Phillips: 'Where are the voices of moderation?'


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May 16, 2002

The following opinion piece ran in the May 15, 2002, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.

I WRITE AS part of my continuing attempt as a secular Jew to make sense of the madness in the Mideast that I read and hear about every day and with the continued hope that influencing even a few of my neighbors, colleagues and friends can make a small difference. I have no real connection to Israel, although I strongly support its sanctity and I vaguely recall that there are trees planted there in my name. I received those trees for my bar mitzvah although I would have preferred a new baseball glove. But I feel pain almost daily for the human beings who live in Israel, Jews and Palestinians alike. I have ceased making judgments about solutions. My knowledge base and experience are too limited. I only know what I read in the papers, and worse yet, what I see on television. I pray for a just peace. Of course, I feel emotions and have biases associated with this struggle. That's natural. What troubles me most lately though is the degree of emotionality and hyperbole on the part of colleagues, students and friends, particularly the degree of fear and anger that they express. I think, if these people, who are so far from what is happening and no better informed than I am, are so irrational, what hope can there be for those who are immersed in the daily reality?

This was reinforced last week when I attended a rally at San Francisco State, where I teach. Sponsored by Hillel, the pro-Israel rally was emotional but free of hate speeches. When it ended however, the physical barriers between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian supporters became permeable and I suddenly found myself on the edge of a shouting match between a Jewish student and a Palestinian student. The Palestinian, on the verge of tears, yelled about the land taken from his family. The Jewish student yelled about how important Israel was to his family and about his grandparents who survived Auschwitz. While my eyes were still moist from the poignancy of the encounter, I was approached by a Jewish colleague who told me not to waste my tears -- the Palestinian was "probably lying." Her absolute rejection of the pain of this Palestinian stunned me. Moments later, I watched Palestinian students scream hateful epithets in the faces of a small group of Jewish students.

I walked away wondering where the voices of moderation were, the voices that we need so badly. We cannot expect that from those whose loved ones are dying, nor from the extremists on either side. But we should expect that from ourselves. I have Jewish friends who see this conflict as leading to the next international pogrom, although there is little evidence of that. Many Palestinians believe that their people are being threatened by all Jews, despite the evidence to the contrary. I find few Jews or Palestinians capable of discussing the problems rationally. And the emotional rallies here, whether on behalf of Palestinian rights or calling for the preservation of the state of Israel, seem to only contribute to the problem.

What we need are strong Palestinian and Jewish voices of moderation. Yet I'm told that moderate students in both groups are afraid to speak out for fear of ostracism from their respective groups. I suspect that this is true of many of my colleagues as well. If moderates do not have the courage to make their voices heard, there will be no hope.

Fear and anger create more fear and anger, not peace and accord. War thrives on these emotions. What we need is compassion for those who are suffering on both sides and the cool rational courage to confront those who continue to feed the flames of hatred. We must stop the cycle of fear and anger in this country, if we are going to be of any help at all in solving the momentous and tragic problems gripping the Middle East.

Mark Phillips is a professor of secondary education and the director of school relations at San Francisco State University.

(Reprinted with permission of the author.)

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Last modified May 16, 2002, by the Office of Public Affairs