For eight days earlier this month, tensions flared anew in the Middle East as 158 Palestinians and five Israelis died in hostilities associated with Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud. The controversy and ambiguity inherent in the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict resurfaced as the Netanyahu administration and Hamas blamed each other for the renewed violence. Few students at Pomona College said a word, however, as millions of Palestinian and Israeli civilians attempted to cope with living in a constant state of fear.
More often than not, I am satisfied with the degree and quality of political debate at my school. I can rarely sit at the dining halls without either falling into or overhearing a heated discussion on the issues of the day. As the situation in the Middle East escalated, however, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the relative silence from people I would have expected to react strongly to this story. I can, of course, speak only for whatever fraction of the Pomona student body I encountered and for the time I spent trying to gauge student opinions during the conflict; a Pitzer student informed me that debate was vivacious at her school, and I may not have eavesdropped on the right circles at my own. Given that this story dominated both national and global media for eight days, however, I heard and engaged in shockingly little dialogue.
I must concede that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular may provoke divisions in political opinion among Pomona’s student body. Although students all along the political spectrum at Pomona are likely to admit that a left-leaning consensus exists at our school, sympathies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not cohere to party or ideological lines as neatly as issues like gay marriage or contraceptive rights—issues that I imagine elicit more nearly unanimous reactions at Pomona. The phenomenon that appears frequently in this newspaper as of late—what many students label political correctness—may indeed have played some role in our relative hesitancy to discuss an event so inextricably affiliated with racial and religious questions.
I do not think, however, that any supposed fear to offend among the Pomona student body can account adequately for a more general trend on campus that I believe this latest paucity of political dialogue reflects. I have found that political conversations flourish when someone broaches a domestic issue, especially if the issue is immediately pertinent to 18- to 22-year old college students. One need look no further back than the elections at the beginning of the month to find passionate, multifaceted political discourse.
As the issues in question move away from those that most visibly affect the everyday lives of Pomona students, however, gaps in our political literacy quickly appear. In many ways, this is of course unsurprising. There are obvious reasons why an event in the Middle East provokes less discussion on campus than a presidential election or changes to immigration policy.
Just because our relative unfamiliarity with more distant controversies—including those concerning foreign policy—is understandable, that does not make it desirable. Whether it be the schisms in the Middle East or the future of social security benefits, political debates that appear esoteric because of geography or demographics can nevertheless affect us in real and significant ways. Contingencies like a nuclear Iran or a ground invasion of Gaza would increase the stakes astronomically in conflicts like last week’s, for example, and the United States’s alliance with Israel means events in the region could have far-reaching impacts. Because significant problems that materialize across the globe are so deceptively remote from our everyday lives, we ought to exchange and to search for information on them as though they were occurring in the heart of Claremont.
To avoid appearing as though I am refusing to follow my own advice out of a misplaced sense of political correctness, I will briefly state that, in my view, Israel’s response to Hamas’ attacks appeared disproportionate and the U.S. media coverage fairly one-sided. Nevertheless, I am not writing this article to advance any particular viewpoint on the conflict itself. I am much more interested in hearing others’ thoughts on both this recent event and other international controversies. I know I am certainly still open to new information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there are countless other global issues of which I am ignorant or that seem insignificant to me but are of great importance to other students.
I know a degree of selectivity in our debates is necessary, or else every provincial issue across the globe will come to dominate our lives. If we do not work to educate ourselves on the issues that do matter, however, then I do not know how such selectivity can ever develop. I can think of no better opportunity for such education to occur than conversations between students at Pomona College.