Neither of you are monsters. Your fellow Palestinian student is not paragliding into peace festivals and grenading children. Your fellow Israeli student is not blasting rockets into apartments and annihilating families. You’re students. You take the same classes, you go to the same dining commons, you bike the same bike paths, you want the same opportunity to be all you can be and you hold the same sanctity for human life and human flourishing. None of these has to come at the expense of the other person.

But everyone’s hurt. Everyone’s hurt. And everyone’s tired and offended and angry and disgusted and sad and scared and horrified. Palestinians can’t affirm their personhood without being doxxed and fired. Israelis can’t affirm their personhood without being tied to apartheid. Both are hiding in their dorm rooms, feeling abandoned and fearing for their lives.

And when you hurt, you hurt back; neither side seems to recognize the other’s pain. Demonstrations and support sessions are completely segregated by whom you support, and if there’s ever any interaction between the two sides, it’s to tell someone how despicable they are. We’ve gotten to the point where students are calling the police on each other at an Associated Students Senate meeting and hiring private security to protect a memorial from vandalism — to say nothing of what happened at the MultiCultural Center (MCC) and its ensuing suspension.

We live in separate worlds. We have 1,200 dead and 240 abducted on one side and more than 30,000 dead on the other, all including children, babies and the elderly, and all we can do is point fingers at each other. All we can do is talk of the “incredible images” of hang gliders and bulldozers “breaking through that disgusting militarized wall,” as one pundit did, or of the “human animals” who deserve to die, as Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant did.

And what of the genocide charges against the Israeli government, of the sexual assault charges against Hamas, of the antisemitism charges against Harvard University, of the complicity charges against the United States? Ironic, says one. Manufactured, says another. Justified, says a third. No, unambiguous. No, morally obscene. No, proportional. No, weaponized. No, overwhelming. No — unbearable. Just more reasons why you’re right and the idiots are wrong.

It seems to me that it has become a competition — a competition to see who can suffer the higher death toll, the more damning photo, the greater injustice; and upon discovering such superiority, the winner will shove the smoking gun into the face of the loser, crying, “I told you so! I told you so! Now apologize!”

But this is not a competition. A wrong does not justify a wrong. And there will be no winners — not when you’ve both already lost so much. It has to be possible for two things to be true at the same time: to decry Hamas and the Israeli government alike, or the Israeli government and Hamas alike, for their attacks on civilians, to acknowledge the pain of one without denying the pain of another. To treat someone’s suffering as irrelevant or invalid because you believe it to be lesser than yours — to say that social justice is only just when it is just us — is to allow your hurt to taint your compassion.

The university — the place where people come to, ideally, learn about the world and overturn their preexisting notions of how it works — is much to blame for this mutual failure of empathy.

I once had an instructor who passionately explained why a painting was racist and why arguments to the contrary were disingenuously wrong. Then they asked (genuinely, I think) for disagreements from the class.

But you would be a fool to even give the appearance of defending a position that someone in such a position of power had just taken to task, in front of that many people. 

I agreed with most of the instructor’s points, but I still had questions; I wanted responses to some of my doubts. But I couldn’t say anything. I was scared. I couldn’t so much as embed a slight contradiction into a clarifying question and know for certain that I wouldn’t be disowned for being insensitively idiotic, whether by the instructor or by my peers. And so this went on, in different places and with different people.

And I realize that I might sound like some nutty right-winger who just wants a free pass to vomit some slurs when I say what I say next, but self-censorship — the kind that stymies academic, social and emotional understanding — is a real problem here. Opinions and doubts here normally never endure a collision with their opposites, which means they don’t change. They get stronger.

On issues that united the left, dissension was kept mostly to a simmer. But Israel-Palestine — divided by its dash — is anything but unifying. And now we disagree the only way we know how: by boiling over, because we never learned otherwise. Support Israel? You’re a colonizer. Support Palestine? You’re a terrorist. Neutral? You’re a coward. You just can’t win.

This cannot stand. The university, now more than ever, must assert its role as the great forge of thought, where ideas are melted and hardened and melted again. We need to learn how to disagree productively: how to disagree without calling each other names, without feeling as though our inherent worth is on the line and without destroying personal and professional relationships. And we need to learn how to do this not just for cryogenic eruditions like string theory and Shakespeare but also — especially — for that which we hold most dear.

The MCC can say all it wants about wanting to “create a template of the world we all want to live in one day,” about wanting places “where people can express themselves freely.” And Chancellor Henry T. Yang can say all he wants about wanting to “sustain a community of dialogue, inclusion, belonging, and mutual respect” and “cultivate understanding among the diverse parts of our whole.” But until students can actually debate contentious issues without fear of either social or physical harm and without seeing their peers as mortal enemies, the administration and its instructors will have failed in their mission to equip the next generation with the tools they need to make their way in the world. And we will all be very stuck indeed.

Yes, perhaps some topics truly are too odorous to be discussed or even considered. But Israel-Palestine, as charged as it is, should not — cannot — be off limits. Especially not now.

It’s true that talk alone won’t solve all our problems. But if we believe in the validity of lived experience, then I think we must also believe that both sides are valid for saying that anti-Zionism is and isn’t antisemitism. I think we must believe that both sides are valid for saying that the MCC is both a place for “collective healing” and a place where people have “never felt comfortable.” Each must truly believe, in their heart, one of these two sets of facts to be true. And in that case, no amount of shouting or shaming is gonna convince anyone that you’re right. If anything, you’ll just get the other person to dig in their heels.

So talking, not shouting, is how we begin. We have the beginnings of a framework for how to do that: In November, the UCSB ombuds hosted a small faculty training for “difficult conversations” involving “opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes.” I think we should, ideally, turn this into a mandatory four-unit course, for faculty and students alike. Perhaps something to spend the UC President’s one-time funding on?

I believe the Daily Nexus can play a key role as well. Maybe students can respectfully debate different perspectives on Israel-Palestine in a recurring column. (What a world it would be if editorial-quality opinions, regardless of whether you agree with them, were the norm instead of the exception.) No ad hominem attacks; just an agora among the mudslinging, a space for folks to get to know each other on a human level and work toward a better future, one perspective and debate at a time.

And debate there will be, because no single article — or statement, podcast, discussion or diatribe — can possibly contain every stroke or nuance. I’m sure more than a few people are going to take me to task for leaving out some aspect of geography, religion, history, politics or one of a million other things that numberless pages and books and shelves and aisles and libraries could not and cannot do justice to — much less 2,400 words. And I welcome that. I look forward to learning from you.

But my point isn’t to judge you or me on how well we have accounted for every crown and bearing and partition that compose the thousand gears of this hundred-year-old blood machine. My point is that there is no single off switch to this machine, and the only way to turn it off is to do it together: to shake the hand of your enemy, hold your tongue and open your heart, regardless of whom you support. You must set aside your pain and your pride and be willing to change your view, at least partially — perhaps expecting that you will. And you must be willing to be the one to take this first step, whether you hold the most exalted of offices or the most common of stations, even if the other continues to do everything they can to get a rise out of you.

Because it feels good to hate someone who hates you. But your enemy is only your enemy so long as you are their enemy. And if you stop hating back — if you stop treating your enemy as an enemy — you are much more likely to get them to follow suit: There is little satisfaction in hating someone who does not hate back.

This will not be easy — it will, unsurprisingly, be one of the hardest things you ever do: accepting the possibility that you are wrong, or at least that you hold merely one piece of the puzzle, especially when you are feeling as though you have no room left in your heart for mercy. And you will be all the stronger for doing so.

If you’re still not convinced, consult some direct sources: Listen to “Golan’s Story” and “Voices from Gaza,” two episodes from the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” for Israeli and Palestinian eyewitness accounts in the aftermath of Oct. 7. And you must listen to both — if you’re pro-Israeli, do not just listen to “Golan’s Story,” and if you’re pro-Palestinian, do not just listen to “Voices from Gaza.” The dueling episodes combined make up about an hour.

Listen to one as he seeks safety in a place that can provide none as rockets and jets and drones whizz and detonate overhead and civilians are called to national prayer and his aunt and his cousins arrive at his house so that they can all sleep together, because if they are bombed in the night, at least then they will be bombed together. Listen to another as she watches 10 or 15 or more children hang from cars and trunks and bulldozer scoops, how she can do nothing in the midst of missiles and torn cadavers not even of age, covered with wedding dresses so as to maintain some semblance of decency in this living hell. Listen to a third describe a 10-year-old girl hiding in a house on fire, pleading for help for her dying father and her dead mother and her dead brother lying before her, receiving none because to help would be to risk your own death, and when help finally arrives, listen to the parents cover the eyes of their children so that these children may not end their childhood with the sight of bodies strewn across the neighborhood razed to the ground but with merely, mercifully, the sound of gunfire and screaming instead.

Listen. And then tell me that Golan’s boot is on the throat of two million Palestinians and that he deserves to die. Tell me that Abdallah and Wafa are antisemitic terrorist sympathizers who deserve to die. Tell me that this is a simple story of good and evil, of democracy and anarchy, of justice and liberation, of the victim and the oppressor.

And if reading all that turns your stomach into a knot, consider what that means. Consider that these dueling narratives are perhaps not dueling at all — but are rather part of the same story.

Some will consider this doubt to be weakness. And as you wade through liter after liter of contradiction to compose a yet-flawed understanding of a fluid reality, some will accuse you of bothsidesism, of evasiveness, of some pernicious deficiency in moral conviction or character.

Maybe this doubt really is weakness. Maybe uncompromising confidence and condemnation really do mark a loyal patriot. But then so be it. Because I consider this doubt a matter of practicality, this bothsidesism a matter of intellectual survival and this treason the only way to get as close as possible to justice, truth and mercy, even if getting to it means you must be ever ready to betray that which you hold most dear.

There are wounds. Perhaps these wounds will never heal. But if you do not wish to let these wounds write the story of your life, consider the words of Rami Elhanan, an Israeli who, in 1997, lost his daughter to a Palestinian and had this to say after Oct. 7: “We are doomed to live here together, and we have to choose whether to share this land or to share the graveyard under it.” Consider, too, the words of Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian who, in 2007, lost his daughter to an Israeli and had this to say after Oct. 7: “We are bigger than our pain and our sadness. … It’s up to us to live side by side or together, or unfortunately, we will continue to sacrifice the blood of our kids forever.”

Yiu-On Li believes that you should take WRIT 105R, Rhetoric and Writing, to better learn how to argue, not fight. And please make Productive Disagreement a required course, or at least an elective.

A version of this article appeared on p. 12 of the April 18, 2024 print edition of The Daily Nexus.