02/06/2013 03:45 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

The Writing on the Bathroom Wall: Toward Productive Public Discourse on Israel and Palestine

In a recent visit to the restroom in Blue State Coffee on the Yale University campus, I was surprised to find the wall had become contested territory for a debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

israel palestine bathroom discourse

As a Ph.D. student spending much of his time reading the Talmud, this exchange felt oddly familiar. Like the Talmud (especially the Babylonian Talmud), this conversation was layered, with different voices contributing in different ways to the exchange. One of the main tasks of the Talmudist is to separate the different layers of discussion so as to understand each individual layer's ideology and intent, as well as to understand why it was placed in its position relative to the other statements in the area (known as a sugya in Aramaic). I found myself doing the same for this case of verbal diarrhea.

The original comment seems to have been "Free Palestine!" This is followed by an addition meant to subvert the meaning of the original comment: This second writer added "Return them home to Jordan," suggesting that the original comment intended to free Palestine not of Israelis, but of Palestinians (whose home, apparently, was/is in Jordan). This is followed by a cryptic or misspelled comment, whose intent is difficult to decipher ("for caller numer #5" -- is this meant to say "for caller number #5?), something we Talmudists are quite used to. A meta-comment sums up one reader's view of the conversation thus far: "You guys are children!!" and continues with what seems to be parallelism, where those ruling the Middle-East, like the writers on the bathroom wall, are said to be "kids." At this point a reader opted to frame the entire conversation with two Stars of David, perhaps to influence those paying only a short visit to the restroom into thinking the conversation is largely pro-Israel. Not to be outdone, a final comment, placed to the side of the rest of the conversation, declares: Abolish Israel the Apartheid Regime, creating an elegant chiastic structure, where the first and last comments articulate a similar point (Free Palestine/Abolish Israel).

Yet, as opposed to the Talmud, which demands prolonged and rigorous study, these smears intend to briefly catch the eye of the passing visitor. While the Talmud contains many nuanced and complicated statements, the comments on the wall are curt, declarative and one sided. Moreover, whereas the Talmud was written for a "textual community" (to use Brian Stock's terminology) of insiders, the writing on the wall is addressed to the public (though apparently to a predominately male audience, given its placement), which ostensibly includes people with differing views on the subject matter.

The writing on the bathroom wall, then, seems far more similar to the ubiquitous graffiti found in bathrooms stalls around the world, support for sports teams.

This analogy points to the sorry state of discourse concerning Israel and Palestine. We avoid face-to-face and difficult conversations which often force us to have more nuanced opinions, and instead root for different sides competing in the world arena. Like our sports teams, we declare our support wherever we can to spite our opponents, rather than to convince them, and to show how true we are to our team. Too often I have seen a sticker in support of one side of the Middle East conflict placed right next to a sticker in support of the local team. There is no rooting for two teams in a sports match, no nuance or sophistication; it's win or lose, do or die.

Ultimately, this kind of discourse is appropriately placed in the restroom, where humans feel embarrassed and seek anonymity from what they are about to do (and indeed, the owners of the store were apparently embarrassed enough to censor the conversation with a tastefully placed coffee bean bag). We must resist the temptation to devolve into name calling and one-sidedness, and seek to form nuanced and rigorous opinions on this incredibly thorny issue. Like the Talmud, this may take hard work and long periods of study; but the more involved and thorough view that emerges at the end is well worth the wait.

bathroom talmud