Widening Your Perspective: Neil Lazarus on the Israel-Palestine Conflicts

Neil Lazarus, an internationally acclaimed expert in Middle Eastern politics, shared his thoughts on the Iran and Israel-Palestine conflicts in a talk delivered to the Andover community on November 2. Lazarus described the complex situation in the Middle East and quelled common misconceptions about the conflicts.

Lazarus traced the history of Israel and Palestine’s conflict during his talk. According to Lazarus, the conflict between Israel and Palestine began about a century ago, when Jewish and Arab communities both developed senses of national identity which could be fulfilled by the creation of an independent state. As both vied for the same land, however, tensions escalated.

Lazarus addressed various perspectives in his discussion, describing the conflicts within Gaza after Israel left the land. He discussed the different parties and groups that fell into conflict, namely the Palestinian Fatah and Jihadist Hamas.

Lazarus also highlighted the importance of people in today’s society exposing themselves to opposing viewpoints instead of simply reinforcing viewpoints that they agree with.

“What I wanted to show very much was the complexity, which is often not portrayed in the general media here in the United States. People often ask me what television station they should watch to get good coverage… I always encourage people to flip sides, and to at least spend 10 minutes a day watching a channel they disagree with,” said Lazarus.

Lazarus continued, “One of the biggest problems we have today is social medias creating echo chambers where we just listen to each other and listen to people who we agree with. So I encourage people to listen to other sides. And for that purpose, I created an app called Neil Lazarus, which connects viewers, and all in one place shows different opinions in one place, and it updates itself. And that’s available for students to download.”

The multi-dimensional aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Lazarus described was new to Justin Chang ’19. Chang also found certain methods used during the conflict to be surprising.

Chang wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “I was surprised to learn that the dynamic between the supposed Israeli-Palestinian conflict has many dimensions to it. There is an ‘I am threatened by Iran’ dynamic, a Fatah/Hamas dynamic, and a West Bank/Gaza Strip dynamic. I am also dumbstruck by the use of flying condoms as a tool of arson. I can’t even imagine what would be going through a person’s head when they came up with that as an idea. I am also surprised by his statement that Obama founded ‘America First,’ not Donald Trump.”

Lazarus continued by contending that Iran — not Israel — was the new center of Middle Eastern conflicts, considering its nuclear deal and thirst for expansion. According to Lazarus, neighboring countries felt threatened due to the fact that Iran exerted power over many proxy groups and the fact that the United Nations had lifted sanctions on Iran.

Lazarus’s talk was organized by Rabbi Michael Swarttz, Andover’s Jewish Chaplain. He was aware that Lazarus’s work was internationally acclaimed, and once he noted that Lazarus was in the area, he took the opportunity to invite Lazarus to campus.

Swarttz said, “Israel’s narrative and presenting a positive approach to Israel has kinda gotten lost in a lot of the political discussion. Israel is often portrayed as a Goliath to the Palestinian David. Israel is portrayed as the bad guy, as an oppressor, and all these other things. And while some of that is true, what gets lost is how Israel wound up in the position that it’s in as an occupier of territories, and many of the really terrific things that happen in Israel and the hundreds of joint Israeli-Palestinian initiatives that take place throughout the society.”

“These things don’t get covered by the media, so there’s often, to my mind, a skewed presentation of Israel and its neighbors in the media and in political discussion, particularly, in some colleges’ campuses. So we wanted to present a more balanced view of what takes place in that region. And I think Neil is very adept at doing that and I think he got the message across very effectively,” continued Swarttz.

Jack O’Neil ’19 was grateful for Lazarus’s speech and thought his presentation was especially significant because of its relevance to current events.

O’Neil said, “In a time when anti-Semitic acts are rising, it’s more important than ever to dispel falsehoods regarding the conflict in the Middle East. Often times, these anti-Semitic acts are conflated with issues in Israel, and this type of education helps to prevent such misinformation.”

Nina Scott, Instructor in English, was thrilled that Lazarus could present a talk, especially in the aftermath of the synagogue massacre that occurred on October 27.

Scott wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “The event was personal for me because I’m Jewish, and anti-Semitism is back on the rise. Here in the U.S., we have alt-right anti-Semites concocting a deranged theory about George Soros, Trump hints at it, Fox News trumpets it, a creep is inspired by it to murder 11 people, and to top it incoherently off, alt-right supremacist groups then claim to support Israel because they hate Jews but hate radical Islam more. What a vile stew.”

Lazarus’ ability to speak on such a charged topic with clarity, connection, and humor was noted by audience members. People foreign to the topic were given a friendly introduction, while people more familiar were still presented with an interesting analysis of the facts of the conflicts.

Swarttz said, “I think for the students who attended — and we had a few faculty members there as well — there was a wide range of familiarity and knowledge about what goes on in that neighborhood, meaning the Middle East, and Israel and the surrounding countries. There were some people who knew quite a bit about it and some people who were fairly novice. And the way he presents, he’s able to encompass and provide information across the spectrum of people who knew more and people who knew less.”