From the Community | American Vultures and the conflict in Israel and Palestine

Opinion by Omer Reingold
May 31, 2021, 7:30 p.m.

In Isaac Asimov’s story “The Gentle Vultures,” an advanced species of vegetarian aliens is waiting for humans to start a nuclear war before they step in, rebuild and profit in the process. A human, abducted by those aliens, equates them with vultures for not helping prevent the war but rather waiting on the sidelines to profit from it.

In the U.S., every crisis is an opportunity and the suffering of others should never prevent you from turning a quick buck. The recent round of fighting in Israel and Palestine is no different. Conservative and progressive politicians are fundraising with passionate speeches and snappy tweets, celebrities are reminding us that they are still relevant, and others are expressing their innate violence on social media and in the physical world.

During the recent round of war, I found myself in useless and endless arguments on social media with right-wing Israelis who long ago gave up on the prospects of peace in the Middle East. At the same time, I was worried for my family and friends still in Israel and about the prospects of escalation. I was also disappointed by the superficial response from the progressive political side in the U.S., with which I usually identify.

I found myself envying the conservatives who are convinced of their truth: that Jews had been slaughtered by Muslims in Palestine for decades before the state of Israel was established. The conflict, wars and violence are and always have been the result of Palestinians’ refusal to accept any compromise short of the annihilation of Israel. Palestinians are led by a murderous terrorist organization that throws political opponents and gay men off rooftops. Similarly, I found myself envying the progressives who are convinced that Israel is a blood-thirsty power-grabbing apartheid state, the vanguard of white colonialism in the Middle East, the worst offender of human rights in the world.

The ones I don’t envy are Israelis and Palestinians living this deadly conflict for generations with no end in sight. I also don’t envy Jews and Muslims suffering from hate crimes and plain antisemitism in the U.S. I don’t even envy “small” expressions of anti-Muslim and antisemitic sentiments: the Muslim man that is suspected a terrorist for his looks, the young Jewish kid being ghosted by her classmates for the actions of adults, oceans away. While conservatives and progressives make political and other gains (including on university campuses), I doubt that they are helping those that are directly affected by the conflict, and both are contributing to the rise of antisemitic and anti-Muslim crimes in the U.S.

I used to sneer at those who found antisemitism in criticism of Israel. But I changed my mind. The obsessive focus on Israel out of all the evils and suffering in the world, the ignorance about the situation, the tendency for one-sidedness and hyperbole left no doubt in my mind. It may not be as obvious as neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!” But just like racism, antisemitism can be unaware of itself and the result of ignorance and lazy yearning for social capital. Once again, Jews are serving their traditional role as the great unifiers. Since Jews were the ultimate “others” of the Christian and Muslim world, hatred of Jews served as the commonality between Christians and Muslims, between the Soviet Union and the United States and here in the U.S. between conservatives and progressives. Those who assigned some of the blame for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to the speech of a Republican president should also assign, for intellectual integrity, some of the blame for the recent rise in antisemitic incidents to the speech of progressive politicians.

You may be saying to yourself: This guy is telling us to back down, and this will leave the Palestinians, the weaker party, defenseless. But this is the opposite of what I wish for. I’d like you to be agents of positive and effective change. For that you need to go much deeper and familiarize yourselves with the complicated reality of the Middle East. 

I’m not asking you to learn decades or even centuries of history in useless attempts to assign blame, but history can teach us important lessons. What are the global (political and economic) interests that kept this conflict alive for so long? (This may hit a bit closer to home than you imagine.) Which of those are still in effect today? Which are the parties within Israel and Palestine that have an interest in prolonging the conflict? How can I support those who still believe that a peaceful solution is possible?

Back to Asimov’s story, while the aliens rejected the image of vultures at first, it was so powerful that it affected their actions. So please excuse me for using such blunt imagery, but answer me this: Is it working?

Omer Reingold is a faculty member of the Computer Science Department at Stanford University. The opinions expressed are solely his own.

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