Critics of Israel should engage with Naftali Bennett

guest column

We write as supporters of the State of Israel’s right to live in peace within secure borders as a member of the community of nations but critics of many aspects of Israel’s policies regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict. We also support sovereignty for the Palestinian people and independent Palestinian state.

We will be attending the event featuring former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett at Duke this Wednesday because we believe that the only way these causes, as well as the imperative of peace, will be served is through meaningful dialogue, engagement and education. 

We strongly recommend that all members of the Duke community who care about these issue attend the event with us and engage with Mr. Bennett while he is on our campus. If you are a critic of Israel and advocate for the Palestinians, we believe these causes will be advanced far more effectively through engagement with Mr. Bennett rather than through boycotting, heckling or walking out of the event.  

We acknowledge that those who are hostile to Israel may believe you have nothing to learn from attending the event. Mr. Bennett is the former prime minister of a country you believe is violently oppressing the Palestinian people. Even listening to his justifications for the treatment of the Palestinians and explanation of Israel’s position, in your view, is morally fraught and an abandonment of the Palestinian cause. The only appropriate response to his visit to Duke, as you see it, is to boycott and disrupt.  

We respectfully disagree.  

The first reason we believe that critics of Israel should listen to Mr. Bennett is to gain a deeper understanding of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

This is an intricately complex international, interreligious conflict with a history spanning over 75 years. Each party to the conflict has developed a one-sided narrative that attempts to show that either the pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian perspective has justice on its side. Both of these one-sided narratives are deeply flawed. In its struggle for statehood, conduct of wars, and occupation of disputed territories since 1967, Israel has engaged in human rights abuses, missed opportunities for peace and advanced policies intentionally designed to frustrate Palestinian aspirations for nationhood.  Palestinians have been the far weaker party throughout this period, but also have engaged in terrorism against Israelis and taken actions that have aggravated rather than attempted to resolve the conflict. 

Attending the Bennett event will hopefully educate all the attendees on the nuance, subtlety and complexity of the conflict. Gaining this understanding, in our view, will make Israeli’s critics more effective in advancing the political interests of the Palestinians than continuing to espouse the one-sided, factually inaccurate narrative that fuels much of the dialogue about the conflict on our campus. (And by the way, we would equally encourage passionate advocates of Israel to attend events featuring Palestinian leaders who challenge their narrative as well). 

Furthermore, the format of the event will not be an unrestricted opportunity for Mr. Bennett to espouse Israeli propaganda, as you might expect.  Rather, the event is going to be a conversation between Mr. Bennett and our colleague Bruce Jentleson, who has deep expertise in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We are confident that Mr. Bennett will be forced to answer tough questions and that attendees at the event will benefit from observing how Professor Jentleson interrogates Mr. Bennett in a substantive, forceful, but polite, way.  

Furthermore, hearing from Mr. Bennett would expose you to an Israeli leader like no other — the first in history to include a representative of an Israeli-Arab party (and a committed Islamist) in the government. While this short-lived government was far from perfect, Mr. Bennett strove to bring people with “radically different political opinions” together in a government that focused on “cooperation and unity” and transcended “tribe for the good of [the] nation.” This is a message deeply relevant to our highly polarized times.

We are also confident that if leaders of student groups critical of Israel attend the event without disruption, they would be provided an opportunity to pose a question directly to Mr. Bennett. The rare chance to publicly criticize the former leader of another country is not an opportunity that should be discarded lightly. Given that Israel is currently in the news, Mr. Bennett’s answer to a probing question about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians could gain international attention and contribute to the debate. A boycott of Mr. Bennett’s talk, however, would gain zero attention and have no impact on the plight of the Palestinians.  

By recommending against a boycott, walkout or disruption of the Bennett event, we are not advocating against a protest on campus. Israel and Mr. Bennett have a lot to answer for. Israel has not been engaged in meaningful efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over a decade and its policies in the West Bank and Gaza have inflicted large scale suffering on the Palestinian people.  Mr. Bennett once led the Jewish Home party, which strongly promoted Jewish settlement of the West Bank. These settlements, in our view, are the primary obstacle to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. A protest directed at Israel’s longstanding settlement policy and other violations of human rights is absolutely justified.  

But we believe that such a protest should end once the event begins and that critics of Israel should participate in the event rather than boycotting, heckling or walking out. These forms of protest might provide the participants some type of personal satisfaction, but in reality, are empty gestures that will aid Palestinians not one iota.

Indeed, they may be counterproductive. Supporters of Israel witnessing these tactics will conclude that Israel’s opponents are unreasonable and uninterested in dialogue. Boycott, disruption or walkout would only ratify their view that Israel’s occupation of disputed territories is justified because Israel has no partner with which to pursue peace.   

Boycotts, heckling and walkouts also send all the wrong messages to the world outside Duke about how we approach controversial issues.  Duke is dedicated to “knowledge in the service of society.” But boycotts, heckling and walkouts of a prestigious guest to our university contradict this concept. Use of these tactics against Mr. Bennett would suggest that the protestors arrogantly believe they have nothing to learn from an experienced foreign leader and symbolize the all-too-common perception that today’s students are over-politicized and unwilling to engage with those who challenge their worldview. 

We know from our interaction with Duke students on a daily basis that these are not your values. 

So, come listen to Mr. Bennett.  

Let him know what you think, challenge him and learn something new. Show the world that Duke students understand that the only way to tackle the vast challenges of the 21st century is through genuine education through the critical exchange of ideas.

David Schanzer is a professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy and serves as the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. Abdullah Antepli is an associate professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy, as well as an associate professor of the practice of interfaith relations at the Divinity School.


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