Several of you have commented on my references to Arab students and acquaintances. While some have accused me of paternalism and compared me to anti-Semites who say, "some of my best friends are Jews," others have expressed surprise about personal relationships between Jews and Arabs.
The issue is complex, with nuances that do not lend themselves that casual generalization. What follows are my own experiences. They reflect conditions in and close to a university, which one of my students described as an island of comity in a larger context of suspicion and separation, and a neighborhood close to the university with Jewish and Arab residents.
I think of students as clients who deserve the best service I can provide. A physician treats patients without reference to their attitudes about politics. Insofar as my work involves politics and public policy, the comparison is not all that simple. Discussions inevitably get to what the government is doing, what it can be expected to do, and what it should be doing.
Arabs as well as Jews have different perspectives. Arab students have criticized politicians who claim to lead Palestine with as much sarcasm as Jews criticize politicians who claim to lead Israel. The Hebrew University attracts a number of non-Jews and non-Arabs from throughout the world, who also come with predispositions.
Occasionally the organization of Arab students mounts a demonstration against Israel, or against something it finds amiss in the university. Predictably there will be Jews who join their demonstration, as well as a counter demonstration by right-wing students. University security personnel and the police maintain a distance between the shouters and placard wavers. Most students try to avoid the commotion on their way to class.
Not all students of political science are politically active or motivated. Some just want a degree, and they have chosen political science. Some are fascinated with politics as a subject of analysis, and do not identify closely with a party or political perspective. I am more concerned to understand than to express preferences, and my preferences are not all that strong. Years of examining politics have brought me to the posture that what happens? and why? are more interesting questions than what should happen?
This is not to say that I am above the fray. I always decide to vote one way or another. I identify closely with Israel, its struggles, and efforts at accommodation. However, in a well institutionalized democracy like Israel, party platforms and election promises have limited importance. The realities of coping with economics and international politics render leading politicians flexible and pragmatic. Bibi may come to decide differently than Tzipi, but no one can predict what each would do from what has been said in the campaign. Either will be influenced greatly by what comes to the country from outside, as well as the analyses of ranking bureaucrats, other experts, and coalition partners.
One can write a similar sentence about McCain, Bush, and Obama. The styles and some of the outcomes may differ, but Congress, experts, and the world dim the differences.
No doubt that the larger picture I see on a daily basis is one of Jewish and Arab antagonisms reflecting different ways of viewing what happened years ago, and recently.
Within that, however, are numerous relationships of accommodation and friendship. It is apparent in the classroom, in the gym that serves students, faculty, and university graduates, and in the neighborhood where Jews and Arabs meet on the street. At times it seems that conversations avoid the most sensitive issues of the moment. Cynicism and humor allow us to diffuse tensions and remain civil.
I am not describing a paradise without politics. There are expressions of loyalty to one's own narrative. Occasionally there is emotion. The people I encounter are well educated, and have chosen to interact with one another. Most know how to separate the greater issues from friendships, or maintain relations that are appropriate between students and teachers.
Others are inclined to shout at one another, or even seek to kill, but we get along.
I welcome comments sent to my e-mail address, below.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science