Opinion: Taking sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

How do you earn the right to have an opinion on the conflict? You begin by stripping yourself of your biases.

(Tamir Kalifa | The New York Times) Israeli soldiers survey a house that was destroyed in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and subsequent battle with Israeli forces in Kfar Azza, Israel, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.

A wise and learned friend of mine told his daughter when she expressed a strident opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “You haven’t earned the right to have that opinion!”

One thing that has always characterized the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land is the ferocity of the opinions of those who aren’t part of the conflict but think they know all about it. That ferocity has been visible most recently in protests and in responses to news articles, including here in The Salt Lake Tribune.

My reaction to the extreme comments from either side is often the same as that of my friend: “You haven’t earned the right to have that opinion.” I can say this because it has been my experience that those who have earned the right to have an opinion on the conflict don’t make extreme comments. And they are neither pro-Israel nor pro-Palestine but are earnestly hoping for the best for both peoples.

How do you earn the right to have an opinion on the conflict? You begin by stripping yourself of your biases. This is hard to do, because you don’t recognize that your biases are biases but think they’re self-evident truths. They’re not. They’re automatic responses often based on uninformed stereotypes regarding religion, politics and ethnicity.

Next, you put in the time to learn about the conflict, going back to its earliest history in the late 1800s. Then you examine it from the perspectives of those on all sides. Finally, it really helps to get to know the people themselves through first-hand interaction.

When the Brigham Young University Jerusalem program was first proposed in the late 1960s, President David O. McKay allowed it to take place on the condition that it would give equal treatment to the Arab and Israeli sides. That mandate was especially remarkable coming as it did around the time of the Six Day War of 1967, when American enthusiasm for Israel was at a very high point. The wisdom of the decision has been shown again and again, as the BYU program and its sponsoring institutions have developed outstanding relations with local Arabs and Jews. And it has been shown in the thousands of young people who have studied there and have come home with tender feelings toward both groups. It’s very hard to dehumanize someone you actually know, and you haven’t earned the right to an opinion until you can appreciate the desires and feelings of all the people involved.

In 1988, after a congressional fact-finding trip to the Middle East, Utah Congressman Wayne Owens visited the BYU campus to meet with the Palestinian students there. He told them of his own biases, that he had grown to adulthood favoring Israel. But he knew that he hadn’t earned the right to an informed opinion, so he wanted to learn of the Palestinians’ perspective directly from them. Over the course of multiple interactions with those students, he came to see that there was another point of view that he needed to understand. As a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee in the United States Congress, he became very active in building bridges between the two groups, and he eventually helped set up a nongovernmental peace-making center that still exists today.

Years after his meetings with the BYU students, I ran into Owens on one of his many bridge-building trips to the Middle East. He was still at it. He died in Tel Aviv, Israel, on one such trip. More recently a prominent Israeli peace activist told me that he considered Owens “saintly” for his efforts.

I believe those who have earned the right to have an opinion on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have embraced the belief that both sides have valid claims to the land. They don’t wish for either side any blessings or advantages that they don’t wish for the other side as well, including the opportunity to govern themselves and live in peace in their ancestral land. Informed individuals may dislike the policies, the leaders, or the actions of either group — or of both groups — but they don’t favor the happiness of one group of people over the other. On that, they don’t take sides.

Kent P. Jackson

Kent P. Jackson is a retired Brigham Young University professor. He served as director of BYU’s Near Eastern Studies program for six years and lived in Jerusalem for three years as a teacher and administrator at BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. He taught for many years an introduction to Islam, and he is the author of the book Islam: A First Encounter.

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