Days after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, four Dartmouth College professors, all experts on the Middle East or its dominant religions, sat in an auditorium in front of 300 students — with more in an overflow room and watching via livestream — and answered questions for an hour and a half. They discussed why Egypt wasn’t opening its border with Gaza, what international law says about the right to resist an occupying power, and whether Israel is an “apartheid” state. Perhaps most importantly, the professors — of different ethnicities and ideologies — modeled respectful civil discourse.
Professor Susannah Heschel, who chairs Dartmouth’s Jewish studies program and co-organized the forum, cautioned students against reducing the events to a simple narrative. She suggested students study the Middle East and recognize the limitations of their knowledge (“We should not try to learn what’s going on from TikTok,” she said.) Former Egyptian diplomat Ezzedine Fishere suggested students think about what they are trying to accomplish when talking about the conflict — are they seeking to advocate or to learn — and said seeking to understand complexity and different perspectives may be useful.
In the month since Hamas’s attack, campuses have erupted into incendiary protests where nuance is reduced to slogans and violence is increasing. Public conversations revolve around topics like whether the Harvard University president’s statement was strong enough and whether Brandeis University should fund a pro-Palestinian student group that expressed support for Hamas. Jewish students feel threatened by rising antisemitism. At Northeastern University, Hillel officials confirmed that an Instagram post by an individual who has not been publicly identified included Jewish students’ names, Instagram handles, and public biographies and called for them to be shamed on campus. Jewish Cooper Union students reportedly were locked in a library as protesters banged on the door while yelling pro-Palestinian slogans. A Cornell University student was arrested for making online threats against Jewish students, a University of Massachusetts Amherst student was arrested for punching a Jewish student and spitting on an Israeli flag, and multiple people were arrested after clashes at Tulane University, sparked when a pro-Palestinian demonstrator allegedly hit a pro-Israel student with a flagpole after the pro-Israel student tried to prevent the burning of an Israeli flag.
Yet the Dartmouth events, which included two forums in the week after the attack, and other teachable moments at campuses nationwide, point to the potential for a better alternative, one grounded in scholarship and nuance, which recognizes that young adults are still forming their opinions and need to be taught — taught about the immensely complicated past and present of the region but also taught how to civilly disagree. College campuses should be a place for protest and disagreement and free speech — and they should be a place where students can learn about complex subjects and have safe spaces for respectful dialogue with those they disagree with, where debate adversaries are lab mates and dormitory neighbors, not anonymous social media posters.
That will take a conscious effort by administrators and professors. It will take investing in Middle Eastern studies programs and building respectful relationships between faculty with diverse views, who can model those relationships for students. It will mean directly engaging with controversial topics like the Middle East conflict in classrooms and forums, rather than leaving it to outside advocacy groups to define the debate. It means holding professors to standards of professionalism, ensuring they are creating respectful spaces where diverse students can feel comfortable engaging. It means ensuring diversity on campus reflects diversity of thought, where students cannot assume their classmates share their ideology.
Tarek El-Ariss, chair of Dartmouth’s Middle Eastern studies program, who organized the academic forums with Heschel, said he and Heschel co-teach classes, as do other Arab-Jewish pairs of professors, so a culture of scholarship and dialogue already existed. The professors were then prepared to respond immediately after the attacks to create what El-Ariss called an “intellectual culture” alongside a “culture of care” where “we’re not just there to fight each other or win an argument but we’re actually there to communicate, to dialogue, despite the difficulty.”
“We wanted to create an atmosphere that would bring everyone together and not polarize the campus,” Heschel said. “That atmosphere is a classroom.”
Teaching about the Middle East on campus is challenging. Lior Sternfeld, an Israeli Jew and historian of the Middle East, has taught the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a decade, most recently as an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University. “It’s not an easy course to teach and many people prefer if they can to avoid teaching it, because it’s dangerous,” Sternfeld said. “Especially for untenured faculty, you’re in the crossfire of every possible organization and pressure group in and around campus.” He said the goal of his class is not to stifle debate but to better inform students so they can argue for their cause knowledgably while recognizing the humanity of those on the other side. Sternfeld said without academic content, students’ only sources of information are advocates.
That was the experience of Zahra Asghar, a Harvard Kennedy School master’s student, who wrote a Globe op-ed urging Harvard to provide academic and expert resources to address the conflict. Asghar grew up in the United Arab Emirates and moved to the United States for college in 2016. She said the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict she was taught as a child was one-sided, playing down Israeli deaths, but pro-Israel friends she met as an adult also seemed to have one-sided understandings, ignoring Palestinian displacement. “We seem to live in this post-factual world where everyone is uncomfortable with grappling with those facts,” Asghar said in an interview with the Globe editorial board.
Asghar said she believes a campus should be a place where experts can engage with students on the facts, the gray areas, the history, and what comes next. She said she feels like only the most passionate students are speaking up, many of whom are directly connected to the region and feeling personal pain. Other students are intimidated because the issue is a lightning rod for criticism. “I feel like everyone is too scared to have a conversation,” Asghar said.
If a campus is a place where vitriolic protests are encouraged but faculty and students fear having complex, difficult conversations, that is a damning indictment of what higher education has become. But if colleges can find ways to nurture these important conversations, they will be upholding the finest traditions of what academia can be while enabling a generation to have the type of respectful dialogue that society badly needs.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.