I'm always inspired by the stories of those who manage to break free of the limitations of their cultural/tribal conditioning - what the great English poet William Blake referred to as "mind-forged manacles" - and see things afresh. Here is one such story. I came across it at mondoweiss.net and feel it deserves the widest possible distribution. In April this year, grad student Greg Eow wrote the following letter to Ussama Makdisi, a professor of Middle East history at Rice University:
"Dear Professor Makdisi, I don't know if you remember me, but I finished my PhD in the Rice history department in 2007. I was one of Thomas Haskell's students. We ran into each other a handful of times, including once when I helped you with some of the microfilm machines in Fondren Library. Anyway, this is a strange email, both to write and most likely to receive. But I wanted to tell you about some recent experiences which have profoundly changed my view of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. You have demonstrated an interest in changing how people think about the issue, and so I thought you might be interested in what for me has turned out to be a transformative event.
"First of all, a quick word about presuppositions. I confess that I never previously paid a great deal of attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Insofar as I did follow the issue, my sympathies were with the neoconservatives. Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis were my guides. They were realists, I would tell myself, whereas those who quarreled with them - for instance colleagues at Rice who were more interested in postcolonial studies than I - had political axes to grind. Not for me the romance of resistance. I was a good sceptic, an empiricist; and if there was a problem in Israel, it was clear to me it had to do with Muslim fundamentalism, terrorism, and the clash between Enlightenment values and democracy on the one hand and premodern tribalism and totalitarianism on the other.
"Flash forward a couple of years. I'm through with grad school, I finally have some time and money, and I embark on a self-directed course of study on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have my feelings, sure, but I realize that I don't know a whole lot, that a lot of smart people disagree with me, and now I want to make a good faith effort to learn about the issue and test my prejudices against the scholarship in the field. I read Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said, Benny Morris, Patrick Seale, David Fromkin, Juan Cole, Efraim Karsh, Tom Segev, William Cleveland, Bernard Rougier, Albert Hourani. I read your book and article on anti-Americanism. And I spent 2 weeks traveling through Syria, Lebanon, Jerusalem and the West Bank. In sum, I read about 40 books from a number of different standpoints and traveled through the region to see what is going on with my own eyes.
"The result? Well, the whole experience essentially knocked me on my butt. I was wrong about a great many things. And not just wrong, but deeply wrong. Wrong to such a degree that to realize it has left me shaken, wondering how exactly I got to be so intellectually, and in this case morally, obtuse. Just a taste of the data that undid my world view:
"1) The Arab people I met in Syria, Lebanon and the West Bank (and Jerusalem), the vast majority of them Muslims, were almost uniformly lovely, warm and welcoming. I wasn't expecting passersby in the street in all of these places to invite me into their homes for tea to discuss how much they 'hate George Bush, but like Americans'. (This happened too often to count.) Pretty much everyone thought US policy was a disaster, but they were angry about policy and lovely to me in ways that make the 'they hate us for our freedom' line not only inaccurate but criminal. Among the people I met: a 20-year old Shiite Muslim named Muhammad whom I met in the Beqaa Valley. Muhammad supports Hezbollah because of their a) resistance to Israeli incursions into Lebanon (he didn't say anything about Hezbollah provocations); b) their welfare programs; and c) their support of the Palestinian cause (all his words). He's been to mosque no more than twice in his life, eats pork, and likes nothing more than going dancing in Beirut. That is to say, he is entirely secular. With Lewis and Huntington as my guides, I have no way to make sense of such an encounter.
"2) Driving through the West Bank at night allows one to see the proliferation of illegal Israeli settlements with immediate and striking force. They are everywhere, some small, some huge, on the high ground lit up like prisons. I thought the reason why the two-state solution had failed was Palestinian intransigence. A look at the settlements - even a quick look - demolishes such a simple explanation. Traveling through the West Bank at night, and later visiting and talking with people in Ramallah, reinforced an essential point: Israel, or at least powerful forces within Israel, is actively pursuing policies to colonize and annex the West Bank, while simultaneously making life so difficult for Palestinians that they will pick up and leave. The evidence was there for anyone with eyes to see, irrefutable and horrible in its obviousness. How I got duped by the 'Israel wants peace behind the 1967 borders, but extremists deny it to them' line is a question I will be asking myself again and again with embarrassment and not a little shame.
"I could go on, but this (unsolicited) email has gone on long enough and you get the point. What I'm saying is this: keep writing, keep telling US citizens to better inform themselves about what is going on in their name and with their tax dollars. If they're honest, and they go see for themselves what's going on, I can guarantee that the reasonableness of what you and others have written on the matter will soon become apparent."