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Hedy Epstein, You’re Not Helping

Published: October 29, 2010
Section: Opinions


So I’ve had a week to stew after attending the Hedy Epstein event held last Thursday, and I’ve reached a conclusion. While I sympathize with what Students for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Voice for Peace were trying to do, bringing Epstein to campus not only highlighted the divisions between us (Brandeis students) but indeed added to them.

First, let me explain my position. I consider myself a Zionist, but only in the basic sense that no one uses anymore: I believe that Israel should exist. In my thoughts and my conversations on the subject that’s about all I cede to Israel. I support an end to the occupation and a withdrawal of the settlers, and I think that after 1973 most of Israel’s military actions have been either unwarranted or severely disproportionate. I’m not exactly coming at this from the same angle as those from the Brandeis Zionist Alliance or BIPAC who attended the event. That’s just in case you were wondering. Anyway, back to my point.

Epstein’s speech was relatively unobjectionable. She spoke of her childhood and how she became a pro-Palestinian activist. It all came from a very specific viewpoint, but it was a viewpoint we rarely hear from speakers at Brandeis, so it is hard to begrudge her that. It was during the question and answer session that I really felt the depths of despair I sank into for much of the rest of the night. Those of us who don’t stick our fingers in our ears when Israel-Palestine issues come up (a more common reaction at Brandeis than you might expect) are familiar with the questions the audience brought up: What about rockets from Hamas? What about Israel’s security? Mostly they brought up facts and asked Epstein to respond, ranging from the sponsorship of the Gaza Flotilla to the number of rockets falling on Israel. Epstein did respond, and with gusto, and created a vision of the world in which all Israeli actions stem from pure hate and all Palestinian actions are either peaceful or in self defense.

Those who advocate more peaceful relations both between Israelis and Palestinians and between the partisans of each side on college campuses talk about fostering a dialogue. If you take the genuine exchange of well thought-out opinions to be a good thing, as I do, then you hope that campus events will promote this dialogue. Well, there was definitely an exchange going on here. Was it a constructive dialogue?

No. Here’s why: Hedy Epstein is an extremist. I say this not in a pejorative sense but in the very real sense that someone who claims that Hamas has the right to fire rockets at Israel, or that they are the rightful government of Palestine, or that there is no reason for them to be declared a terrorist organization, is an extremist, especially for this campus. I don’t have an issue with the idea of extremists, but they tend to kill dialogue. Hamas’s whole goal has been to kill dialogue, and you could say the same thing of the Israeli right. So inviting Hedy Epstein to speak isn’t helpful. Those who agreed with her got to feel that warm glow of smugness which comes from sitting in a room full of people who disagree with you. Those who did not got to feel some righteous anger. Everyone felt better, but no one said anything to each other. They spoke their points; they cheered or jeered; and they were able to go for the entire lecture without thinking.

Epstein emphasized the inhumanity of Israelis and the humanity of Palestinians. One of those subjects was useful, the other alienated people. The tragedy of occupation is not that it is being carried out by monsters who seek ways to hurt the occupied; it is that its very nature dehumanizes both sides. From what I heard, Hedy Epstein doesn’t get that. In an audience that mostly agreed with her, it would be just another tragic example of how subtlety and distinction get trampled in the rush to evoke sympathy. In the audience that showed up last week, it just meant people didn’t listen to her. If Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine want to get their respective messages across, they should focus on creating real dialogue. What I witnessed was just a pointless anger-fest.

The author is an Associate Justice of the Student Judiciary, an editor of The Blowfish, and an Aquarius.