Dunbar: Amid conflict, recognize humanity


Blair Dunbar, Columnist

This past Friday night, Northwestern’s Students for Justice in Palestine led a candlelight vigil at The Rock in honor of the Palestinian victims who died in the recent conflict in the Gaza Strip. I am certainly not an expert when it comes to the conflict, but the religious undertones are hard to ignore. The question of who is right or wrong is irrelevant at a memorial such as the one held Friday night: A war is a war, and the casualties on both sides are disheartening.

The candlelight vigil reminded me of my experiences in Russia this past summer when the conflict between Ukraine and Russia was plastered all over newspaper headlines. The role of the American press seemed to be twofold: make Russian President Vladimir Putin a villain while insisting that Russians hate Americans. The Russian press’ goal didn’t seem too different. As someone who regularly watched the news with her host mom in the evening, it seemed Russia’s main agenda was not only to portray Russia as an innocent bystander but also to suggest that the Western world was oppressing the country. My host mom is not a fan of Putin, but the subject of Putin or President Barack Obama or right or wrong never came up in our conversations. Every night my host mom would watch the coverage of the Ukraine crisis and sigh, clearly upset by the obvious death and destruction.

I have studied abroad twice in Russia now, totaling about six months. Even at the peak of the Ukraine crisis, I never received a negative comment or even a negative look when I told a Russian I was from America. The most frequent comment was, “You’re from America? I love America! Why did you want to come here?” It was a different story when it came to the topic of Obama, but I was never ostracized for being American.

Too often governments become synonymous with the people of a country. Obama becomes the all-embodying representation of the United States, and Putin becomes the all-too-conspicuous symbol of Russia. Many Americans I talk to have a perception of Russians as angry, depressed, rude and certainly not members of the U.S. fan club. Granted, Russians can be angry, depressed and rude but so can Americans. Also, no Russian cafe would refuse to play American music, and I have yet to meet a Russian who rides a horse bareback and shirtless.

The tentative ceasefire agreed to by Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, as of now, is holding. Similarly, the conflict in Gaza was recently concluded on Aug. 26, with more than 2,100 Palestinians dead. However, if history is an example, neither of these two regions will be peaceful for long. As unrest occurs, it’s important to remember that people — whatever the country or whatever the religion — are not defined by a single governing body. Just as it would be unfair to hold all Russians accountable for the actions of Putin, it would be unfair to hold all of Palestine responsible for Hamas’ actions or all Israelis for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions.

It’s a hard distinction to draw, and it’s our nature to choose sides. But it’s a distinction that’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Blair Dunbar is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].