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How do we deal with rising tensions? ‘The choice is talk or fight’

‘A Muslim and a Jew in the house of God.’ This is how historian Nadia Bouras introduced her recent conversation with colleague Sara Polak in Leiden’s Hooglandse Kerk. They discussed the rising tensions since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. ‘Dare to ask each other questions.’

How has the conflict between Israel and Hamas affected Dutch society? This was the question the two Leiden academics discussed on 3 February, first with moderators Abeltje Hoogenkamp and Sebastiaan Tijsterman, and then with the many attendees. Bouras is a historian at the Institute for History and Polak is an expert in American Studies at the Centre for the Arts in Society. The two spoke about how they are dealing with the conflict − as lecturers and researchers, but above all as people.

Angry or scared

Bouras and Polak regularly discuss the Israel-Hamas conflict with each other as well as with other colleagues and friends. They also do so in their seminars and lectures. ‘On the Monday after 7 October, the first thing I did was to ask the students in my class how the terrorist attack had affected them’, said Bouras. ‘It struck me then and it still does that students are angry or scared at times. Then it is good to talk about where those feelings come from. This exploring and identifying is an integral part of a university. Accusations of racism or antisemitism have no place there once they start to fly, all chances of being open to others go out the window. People are too quick to make such accusations at the moment.’

Polak added, ‘Some people are so convinced of their own righteousness they don’t even want a discussion. But if you don’t talk, you fight. That is the choice we have. And we choose to talk.’

Avoiding debate

Bouras and Polak both feel that the conflict is being treated with too much trepidation at the university. Fear of the wrong things being said, which might cause people to feel unsafe, is stopping many from engaging in debate, the two said. But the university is the best place to keep on asking questions, and academics such as historians are well equipped to do so. ‘The university is looking too much from the perspective of security when we as academics want to seek and foster debate, and can ensure it stays on track’, said Polak.

‘Mainly by asking questions.’ Bouras added, ‘If you ask me, universities can also take a stance to show solidarity against the destruction of the entire academic infrastructure in Gaza.’

'We should stand up for the human rights of everyone involved'

Standing up for human rights

The two also discuss the conflict in Amsterdam, where they live. Someone there compared it with the Ajax and Feijenoord football clubs: you’re for one or the other and you despise the opponent. Bouras extended the football metaphor, ‘We are all failing together as the referee. We should stand up for the human rights of everyone involved. You can’t condemn Hamas’s terrorist attacks and unconditionally support the mass slaughter in Gaza.’

Both explained how the contrasts in the Middle East were part of their childhood. ‘My grandparents didn’t want to go to Israel after the war; they wanted to stay in the Netherlands’, said Polak. ‘But the idea that there was a safe place there for Jews was important to them.’

Bouras is from a Moroccan background. ‘We always listened to Fairuz at home, singing battle songs about Palestine’, she said.

Peace movement

The two researchers agree that it is not a religious conflict but a power struggle, although religion is often brought into the equation. ‘I am Jewish but not religious and do not support current Israeli politics’, said Polak. ‘I remember the assassination of the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin he was for peace and was murdered by an orthodox Jew. My mother said at the time: “Now there will never be a resolution.”’

Bouras noted that many victims from the kibbutzim that were attacked on 7 October were active in the Israeli peace movement. ‘That peace movement has been hard hit but it is still alive.’

Shared values

Polak also commented on the big differences within the Jewish community. ‘So if someone says, “I speak on behalf of the Jewish community”, I tend to think: not on my behalf. Thanks to my name, people frequently respond to my Jewishness. When I ate at friends’ houses as a child I wasn’t given ham in my sandwiches which I did eat because they assumed I ate kosher. I want to decide for myself where I stand. For me “Never again” means never again violating anyone’s human rights, including Palestinians’. These are values that we should be able to agree on.’

Text: Minke Holleman
Photos: Marc de Haan

The conversation was the initiative of the Hooglandse Kerk, which is offering a free and welcoming series of reflections on Saturday afternoons: Kamervragen.

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