I have enjoyed reading Hannah Urtz’s (SFS ’20) column over the course of the semester. Yet I was disappointed that her recent article on Western privilege in the Middle East lacked sensitivity to the security threats that face Israelis — and enough awareness of the author’s own privilege as a Westerner who is not affected by those concerns. This is the privilege of a Westerner who can disregard the security perils that menace Israel because they do not threaten her. Urtz treated those needs with such casual indifference that, as a fellow Georgetown University student studying in Jerusalem, I feel I must respond.
There is an inescapable trade-off between Israeli security and Palestinian freedom of movement. Israeli civilians live under a constant threat of violence: Last year alone, Israeli security prevented over 1,000 Palestinian terror and lone wolf attacks, according to the Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent to the FBI. Yet the author does not once mention this context.
Instead, by Urtz’s account, Israel’s entry policies are based simply on whether people “had darker skin or appeared to be Muslim.” By omitting any mention of Israeli security needs, Urtz implies that Israel’s policies are not even in a part a reflection of any genuine security needs but rather the manifestation of nothing but plain old prejudice.
The author writes that “acknowledging my privilege matters as I attempt to understand my experience here more comprehensively.” She is right that we need to consider our privilege before we make judgments about a place. Yet she fell short in acting on her principle. I think she failed to contextualize what she saw here because she did not go far enough in recognizing her own privilege.
It is the privilege of a tourist who comes for a weekend and leaves without having to shelter during a Hamas rocket attack. It is the privilege of a person who is not Jewish who travels the Middle East without having to hide her identity.
Israelis, who must face the specter of bus bombings and mass shootings, do not have that privilege. And Hoyas such as myself, who are now officially banned from a host of Arab countries like Lebanon because our passports include a visa to study in Israel, do not have that privilege.
There is a real debate over how to balance the security needs of Israelis with the rights of Palestinians, and I agree with some of the points Urtz raises. Yet not acknowledging the nuances of the situation, and the burdens that both peoples must bear, undermines any argument about the conflict. So I would make a suggestion to the author: If you genuinely want to contribute to that debate, consider the perspectives of all those who do not have your privileges, including both Palestinians and Israelis.
Tanner Larkin is a junior in the SFS. He is currently studying abroad in Jerusalem, Israel.