J.S.U. Speaker Neil Lazarus Discusses Middle East Conflict

Neil Lazarus, an expert on Middle Eastern politics, opened an app on his phone and held it out toward a group of students hosted by the Jewish Student Union (J.S.U.) at Andover Inn last Friday. Lazarus used the app, which alerts Israelis when a missile has been fired, to demonstrate the real-time effects of the Middle East conflict.

“One thing that is important to realize [about the Middle East conflict] is it’s real people. It’s us… In Israel, we have an app which tells you when you’re being rocketed… Every time a rocket appears in Israel, a red dot is a siren going off somewhere. That is what happened within approximately three minutes of this evening,” said Lazarus.

Lazarus explained that the issue with American foreign policy in the Middle East is two-fold. First, under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has let Russia gain influence in the region, according to Lazarus.

“The Middle East is like a sandwich. You’ve got America [and] Russia… Despite the rhetoric, I think Trump’s bark is louder than his bite. What we’re actually seeing is, yes, Trump has been saying we’re going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, so on and so forth, we’re going to stop the Iranians. When it comes to actual action, there’s not much difference in American foreign policy… It means Russia has automatically become the superpower,” said Lazarus.

Lazarus believes the U.S. made a mistake deserting the Syrian Kurds by withdrawing American troops from the region. According to Lazarus, this move by the U.S. has disrupted the region’s confidence in America.

“In Turkey, America turned around and said, ‘We’re withdrawing basically all the troops we have,’ and left a group called the Kurds high and dry… Bigger picture: there’s a problem. Many of the Middle Eastern countries are looking at America. They didn’t react to the Iranians attacking Saudi Arabia. [America has] just deserted one of their most important allies in the Middle East. Who can trust America today? That’s what’s really going on: a growing lack of trust of American foreign policy and support for allies in a time where pressure is being put on Israel to give up land,” said Lazarus.

J.S.U. hosted Lazarus last year to speak about the situation in the Middle East. Rabbi Michael Swartzz, Jewish Chaplain, explained that J.S.U. brought Lazarus back to campus last week to update students on the region.

“[In 2018], we brought Neil here, and he was so well-received that we’ve brought him back again to provide an update on what’s been going on in the Middle East and Israel to try and make some sense about the mess that’s over there… [We] hope people walked away with a better understanding of the situation in the Middle East and how complicated and nuanced it is,” said Swarttz.

Karin Ulanovsky ’20, President of J.S.U., explained that Israeli foreign relations are not discussed often enough at Andover due to the subject’s complexity. According to Ulanovsky, the event was meant to be a comfortable learning experience for students.

“[Lazarus] really highlights the fact that a lot of people don’t understand these issues. When people talk, they assume you understand the whole background and politics, every side… But it’s hard, especially as an Andover student, as someone who wants to sound culturally competent, to be like, ‘Actually, I don’t understand the issue,’” said Ulanovsky.

While Emma Slibeck ’20 was aware of the conflict’s gravity, she attended the presentation without a complete understanding. However, Slibeck said that Lazarus helped to demystify the topic.

“I definitely feel like I have a stronger understanding of what the [Israel-Palestine] conflict is about. I knew it was something really important and that I should know about this, but it was so confusing. It felt like there was no way to get a start, but now I feel like I definitely have a solid, baseline understanding of what’s happening,” said Slibeck.

Slibeck noted that she has rarely seen conversation about Middle Eastern issues beyond events like Lazarus’s talk. Slibeck believes the Andover community should discuss these topics more often.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone talk about [the conflict] who wasn’t a part of the J.S.U. and doing one of these events. That’s the only context I’ve ever heard it on campus, and that’s a problem, so I think there definitely should be more conversation on campus,” said Slibeck.

Catherine Gilligan ’22 attended the event to learn more about the relations between Israel and the U.S. Gilligan finds it important to develop a more acute global perspective through self-education.

Gilligan said, “I thought this talk was really interesting. I’m not educated on the Israel-Palestine issue, so I wanted to use this as an opportunity to learn more. I thought [the talk] was very easy to understand and comprehensive… I think a lot of Americans don’t necessarily have a ton of information about foreign policy. I think it’s important to educate yourself as much as possible on what’s going on in the world.”