Two experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict verbally duked it out Tuesday, in a debate organized by four undergraduate students.
Maoz Rosenthal, a visiting assistant professor of political science, and Professor Moulay-Ali Bouânani, a lecturer in the Africana studies department and an expert on Arabic civilization, held a two-hour debate in the Mandela Room before an audience of nearly 100 people.
The professors responded to a series of questions about contemporary obstacles preventing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, presented by a panel of the four students who arranged the event.
The debaters considered the logistics of a two-state solution and whether or not U.S. involvement in the controversy is necessary to facilitate peace in the region.
Rosenthal argued that a one-state solution is not realistic given the current circumstance, whereas Bouânani stated that a one-state solution is the most attractive resolution.
“I will just say that the one-state solution has failed,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a very divided place, and without involvement of the international community I really don’t see any other way to come to an agreement.”
Bouânani said that if an external police officer is needed for resolution, the United Nations is a more acceptable overseer than the U.S. He also said that given the effects of globalization there is no longer any need for an exclusively Jewish state.
“The problem is that the Jews of Israel don’t want to be diluted,” Bouânani said. “They want to keep their uniqueness, which is the ‘Jewish state,’ and that’s the problem, but I do think in the long-run they have to sit together and try to find some sort of compromise.”
Each debater was given five minutes to answer the student’s questions, followed by a two-minute rebuttal period in response to his opponent.
Last week, hundreds of students celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. According to Bouânani, Palestinians recognize that as the day their people were displaced from their homeland. Rather than rejoice, he said, they reflect.
“For the Arabs, it is called the Nakba Day, which means ‘day of the catastrophe’ in English,” Bouânani said.
The professors discussed how historical accounts of Israel’s independence vary based on who is telling the story. Both parties agreed that there are inevitable differences in perspective on the issue.
“If you go to Jaffa, an area in Tel-Aviv, you might hear one version of the story about rejoice, while others will talk of the occupation,” Rosenthal said.
The professors said that the most delicate issue Israelis and Palestinians cannot agree on is the status of Palestinian refugees.
According to the debaters, Palestinian settlers were forced to leave Palestine after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and refugee camps were established to house the displaced Palestinians. They said refugee camps still exist in various areas in the Middle East, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Bouânani shared what he considered to be the Palestinian perspective on the creation of the state of Israel. According to Bouânani, many Arabs feel that the Israelis have no reason to prosecute the Palestinian people, since Palestinians never tried to prosecute or exterminate them. He said that with the declaration of the Jewish state, Arab settlers were forced to leave their homes or, if they stayed, were demoted to the status of second-class citizens.
Rosenthal, however, argued that national security is a top concern for most Israelis.
“You will see lots of countries using borders,” Rosenthal said. “Israel’s are based on contemporary issues of defense, and were decided on the basis of personal security issues.”
Rosenthal argued that in contemporary society, issues of land and citizenship status can all be solved by formulas, and that the Israeli government has already come up with blueprints that will solve the equation.
“As long as the refugee problem has not been resolved I really don’t think there is going to be a solution to the problem,” Bouânani said.
Rosenthal agreed that refugees deserve some form of restitution from Israel, but he couldn’t say for sure what the best solution would be.
Students who organized the debate said they were wary of the sensitive nature of the conflict.
We thought this would be a really good issue, because it’s current and controversial,” said Charlie Heim, a sophomore double-majoring in English and physics who helped plan the event.
Derek Gumb, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, said the student panel knew student response to the debate would be mixed.
“We wanted it to be cordial, and we really stressed that,” Gumb said. “We had a disclaimer on all of our promotional materials, and I got a lot of emails from rabbis, students, saying this is a really sensitive topic and that they didn’t want this to get out of control. So people were really concerned, but I think it turned out alright.”
Tareq Haddad, a senior majoring in finance and president of the Arabic Student Association, thought the discussion gave a fair account of both sides.
“I think I was very informative, and it gave a lot of hope for the future. It dealt more with pragmatic issues as opposed to long-rooted differences between the two countries,” Haddad said.
Gregory Hernandez, a junior majoring in creative writing, felt both sides presented their opinions well.
“I thought both professors represented both sides in a very respectful way,” Hernandez said. “The debate was courteous, and I was glad with the questioning and how it was organized. All of their points were very logical and insightful.”
Bouânani and Rosenthal agreed that while tensions in the region remain high, there is room for optimism that the Israelis and Palestinians will come to a resolution in the future.
“I think there will be some kind of peace, because they’ll stop fighting,” Bouânani said. “They’ve become more mature so to speak, politically. All of a sudden Israelis will find themselves facing a ‘civilized’ Palestine and won’t be able to sell the idea of terrorist Palestine anymore to the rest of the world, and that’s what the Palestinians have begun to realize.”