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Can we talk about the Middle East?

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Esther Cepeda
October 3, 2011
— Let’s talk about what’s going on with Israel and Palestine these days.

If this invitation makes you consider turning the page, you’re not alone.


In the run-up to the confrontation last month at the United Nations involving the U.S., Palestine and Israel, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that “Americans express mixed opinions about a possible independent Palestinian state, an issue that has so far drawn little attention from the press or the public.”


In a study titled “Palestinian Statehood: Mixed Views, Low Visibility,” Pew said that half the people it surveyed between Sept. 15 and 18 had heard nothing at all about the planned U.N. speeches. Pew connected this to U.S. press coverage of the issue, which it called minimal—“less than 2 percent of all news coverage (in the preceding week) was devoted to the debate over Palestinian statehood.”


Though it may be true that U.S. news outlets rarely cover the Middle East as aggressively as they do the economy or the 2012 presidential election, many people interested in international news, in general, and Middle East relations, in particular, have been following this story like some fans follow the Kardashians. We simply rely on news shared through social media sites to supplement information that comes from many global outlets such as al-Jazeera and any of several world news organizations based in Europe.


The more important issue here is that people aren’t talking to each other about Palestine and Israel because they feel they can’t. The issue is so highly charged—both to the Jewish community and to non-Jewish political types who care primarily about the political ramifications of support for Israel—that you’d have to be crazy to bring it up in polite company. Believe me, almost any open-minded consideration of the Palestinians’ plight can be interpreted as being “against Israel.”


This is distressing to people, like me, who grew up in a city where a vibrant Palestinian community—a rarity, as the Census Bureau estimates the Palestinians in the U.S. to be a tiny community of about 93,000—coexisted peacefully with a large Jewish population.


Interestingly, some young Jews are starting to speak up about this taboo topic. In her Sept. 29 Time magazine article, “Why Fewer Young American Jews Share Their Parents’ View of Israel,” Dana Goldstein courageously told her personal account of balancing her Jewish identity with her belief in human rights. She noted a 2007 study from the University of California at Davis which found that more than 40 percent of American Jews younger than 35 believe that “Israel occupies land belonging to someone else,” and more than 30 percent report sometimes feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions.


She also cited a survey released last month which found that although New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical students are just as likely as their elders to have studied and lived in Israel, and believe it is “very important” to their Judaism, about 70 percent of the young prospective rabbis report feeling “disturbed” by Israel’s treatment of Arab Israelis and Palestinians. In a survey of those ordained between 1980 and 1994, about half felt this way.


Attitudes evolve slowly, and Americans’ ability to talk freely about the Middle East conundrum won’t transform overnight, but we must welcome our Jewish friends’ courage in making it OK for the rest of us to ask questions and talk about one of the most important struggles in our world’s history.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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