An American in Palestine: The Power of Positionality in Understanding Conflict

There is an urban legend within the US State Department of a US Senator who, upon his first trip to Jerusalem, was so shocked by the violence between Palestinians and Israelis within the holy city that he demanded a briefing from the resident attaché. The Senator asked the attaché point blank: “what can we do to solve this? Why has this humanitarian crisis been allowed to persist?” The attaché simply shrugged, looked at the Senator and said: “Nothing. They’re just not done killing each other yet.” While that may seem a callous answer, it is perhaps the only neutral description I have ever heard of the political and ideological intractability of the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Image courtesy of Joi, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Joi, © 2009, some rights reserved.

When studying politics, it is all too easy to adhere predominantly to one point of view, and perceive that view to be the objective and only truth. These points of view can be imparted in multitudinous different ways; be they through your parents, your country of origin, your religion (or lack thereof), and your ethnicity. Modern media, rather than rectifying this problem, has ultimately aided this compartmentalization. The massive choices available through the Internet and media outlets have created a system of ideological wish fulfillment, making knowledge-obtention a process of confirming already ingrained perceptions (why else would Fox News be the most watched news channel in America?). This, in turn, pushes even everyday assertions to become intractable.

The power and subtlety of this bias was recently demonstrated to this editor whilst on a research trip to Jordan and the West Bank run through the M.Litt Middle Eastern and Central Asian Security Studies program (MECAS). The intention of the trip was to better understand the conflicts in the region, and gain insight through discussion with those who lived with the conflicts on a daily basis. However, even more profound was the affect that the nationalities of each of the group members affected both the way we perceived the conflict, and the way that those within the conflict perceived us. As the title of this article would suggest, I am a citizen of one of the few countries in the world that politically supports the state of Israel. In order to practice what I preach, I should state outright that my own position before going to Palestine was, at least politically, on the side of Israel. However, the group of Masters students that comprised the group were citizens from a myriad of different backgrounds, many of whom were going on this trip with exactly the opposite predisposition as myself (and more than one who had lived with the conflict personally). When arriving to Palestine, the treatment each of us got due to the passport we carried varied massively. Those who came from countries with relatively little to do with the conflict were treated as just students curious for information; those who had ancestry from Arab countries were treated automatically as compatriots; and those of us from countries with strong ties to Israel were treated much more diplomatically and suspiciously upon first meeting. Our nationalities were always recognized and continually referenced; our passports representing everything the speaker needed to know about us. This limited the depth of dialogue, disallowing many of us to delve deeper into conversation over the conflict for fear that our national identities would affect the reception of our questions.

The ingrained bias of the trip itself was also powerful. Our group spoke to Palestinians who lived their entire lives in refugee camps, experienced the evasiveness of an IDF checkpoint in Bethlehem, and saw the desolation and destruction that the Israeli “barrier” wall was wreaking on Palestinian communities. However, one party our group never interfaced with were the Israelis themselves. While we heard horror stories of the actions of Israeli settlers, never once were we given an opportunity to talk to one. While we heard tell of the brutality of the IDF as well as the negative militaristic effects the draft has on Israeli society, a conversation with members of the military hierarchy was never considered. Without these necessary interactions, the entirety of Israeli policy was rendered in overly simplistic terms, casting them as the villains of the story and stripping them of legitimacy.

Marcus Aurelius once said that, “everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact; everything we see is a perspective, not a truth.” When studying any conflict, particularly one as complex and controversial as the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is far too easy to subconsciously channel your identity into labeling one side as “wrong” and the other “right.” However, in a world where right and wrong are relative to the position you hold, it is important to understand that your perspective may not be the only one. As students, particularly students from such a prestigious university, the perceptions we carry out into the broader society will undeniably have a huge impact. It is then up to us to strive continuously to rise above the limitation of our own positionality, and seek to understand other perspectives and ideas, for it is only through understanding that lasting peace can be achieved. Until that happens, people will never get tired of simply killing each other.

2 Replies to “An American in Palestine: The Power of Positionality in Understanding Conflict”

  1. There is an urban legend that your introduction is smug nonsense, and so is the conclusion. Your ranting about “they are just not done killing each other yet” is derogatory, arrogant and unnecessary.

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