Creating Community During Conflict

Confronting the campus-wide polarization due to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Contributing Writer Oren Tirschwell ’25 encourages a focus on shared humanity and common ground.

“What’s your favorite thing about attending this school?” It’s a classic question to ask on a college tour. If you asked it at Amherst, there’s a good chance the answer had to do with community — and if you chose to come to a small liberal arts school, you probably did so because you wanted a sense of community.

But what does community mean when there is a global event which divides us? And in these times, should community still be something we strive for?

I think it should be. Some people have no interest in there being any sense of campus wide community right now. If that’s you, then you may as well stop reading this. Because this article is about asking: How can we form community in a time of extreme polarization over an event which is so far away, yet is so close to home for so many students?

Colleges, companies, and everyone in between have issued statements and responses to the current crisis in the Middle East. I think most of them can be grouped into three categories: Take “side” A, take “side” B, or attempt to moderate between the two “sides.” But no matter which approach is taken, these responses get criticism from almost everyone.

People who disagree with the statement criticize it. People who generally agree with it feel it didn’t go far enough or went too far. And when the moderator approach is taken, it’s typically described as “a whole lot of nothing” — that there’s no tangible impact from the statement.

So none of these approaches form community. I believe there must be another way: a fourth option that allows us to come together despite our differences. And I believe it is our shared humanity that can do that.

Every student on this campus who has a personal connection to the Middle East is grieving right now. We are scared. We are in pain. We feel alone, even when surrounded by others.

Every student on this campus who doesn’t have a personal connection to the Middle East is grieving, too. The loss of life has been tremendous. And you all know someone who has that personal connection — even if you don’t realize it yet.

I believe that if we ground our conversations and our discourse with each other in this shared humanity — in this grief, sorrow, fear, and sadness — we may have a chance at creating a community again: a sense of respect, empathy, kindness, trust, and care for one another. Then, we may have a chance at having a real conversation with someone who holds different opinions from our own.

I don’t expect that having these conversations will change people’s minds about where they stand on the conflict. But to have a community, we need to be able to understand each other. The only way to understand each other is to talk to each other. And the only way to talk to each other, and to actually hear each other, is to focus on what we have in common — not what differentiates us.

It’s easy to focus on what makes us different — and sometimes to an extreme. But disrespect or hate speech is only going to force us apart. Islamophobia and antisemitism are never the answer, regardless of how painful this is, regardless of how painful this gets. I condemn, in the strongest possible way, hate speech of any sort, directed at anyone. This is how we destroy community, not create it.

As we approach the days, weeks, and months ahead, I implore every Amherst community member to try to keep this in mind. Don’t open a conversation in a hostile manner, or by jumping straight into what your views or political opinions are. Start by acknowledging what you have in common. Ask, “How are you?” Say, “This has been a really hard and stressful time for me.” Share, “I have family in the region — and I’m worried for them,” or “I’ve lost a friend there. I have no words to describe my grief.”

And even if you don’t feel like this is personal to you, reach out to someone for whom it is. Even if your views differ from theirs, remember that they are human — they are grieving and mourning. Knowing that someone cares about their humanity might help them. It might make them feel safer here, and it might make them feel less alone.

Some people have said to me that the Amherst community just isn’t ready for this yet — that people aren’t ready to hear this yet. To them I say: If not now, when? I, as do many, fear that this conflict is going to worsen. As death tolls rise and the violence continues, I believe our community will continue to fracture, and reconciliation will become harder and harder — unless we try to do something about it now.

Some people will say that this is a cop-out position, and that by writing this article, I’m avoiding taking a stance and doing a “whole lot of nothing.” To them I say this: I am open to sharing my honest thoughts and positions with anyone on this campus who wants to hear them, and to hear yours as well. But I only want to do that once you and I have come together, and formed a connection and sense of community through our shared humanity.

I have family in the region. I'm scared. I’m grieving. And my heart goes out to all of those in our community, and around the world, who have lost loved ones in this conflict, who are scared for someone, and who are saddened and paralyzed by the events that have occurred. These are the emotions and feelings that I have right now. If we’re going to talk about this issue, though, and actually listen to each other, I want to be able to understand and acknowledge your feelings, too.

Reflecting on this on Tuesday afternoon, it has become ever clearer that there is one more thing I need to say. Every innocent civilian who has died in this war is someone's loved one. Each and every one of these people was a life, a source of joy and happiness. They were each a part of their own community. They were siblings, parents,children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, family friends, teachers, students, one year old or 101 years old or anywhere in between. The death of these innocent lives is never OK. It is never excusable. It is never necessary.

Amherst: We can rise above the polarization that has already swept over our campus. We can come together in this time of sorrow and sadness and pain. If we center our shared humanity — what we have in common, not what sets us apart — we can do better than this. I firmly believe that. But we have to be willing to try. I hope that you are willing to try.