Let’s Ditch the Binaries and Join the ‘All of Humanity’ Club

Violence is often a catalyst for people, even those who think of themselves as enlightened international educators, to show their true colors and revert to tribal loyalties.

This knee-jerk reaction reminds me of a 1960s slogan: ‘Scratch a liberal, find a fascist’. In the case of many international educators, below the surface lurk values and attitudes that are inconsistent with those of a global citizen and which are triggered by external events that strike close to one’s emotional home.

This situation unfolded after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022. In a March 2022 article, “A call for universal empathy: We are ‘the other’”, I noted that I agreed with the various ‘Stand with Ukraine’ statements, but didn’t recall seeing similar statements from the usual suspects after the ‘shock and awe’ US invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003.

That was the same year NAFSA: Association of International Educators invited Thomas Farrell, a senior US State Department political appointee, neocon and former international educator, no less, to speak at its annual conference. In his plenary address, he proclaimed that one can no longer claim to “hate this government’s policies but love the country”, an expression of nationalism in defense of the Iraq war.

This apparent disconnect is something I experienced during the Trump administration when I wrote some articles, including one titled “Promoting study in US universities in trying times” about Trump’s impact on Vietnamese student enrolment. (It was minimal.)

Several Trump supporters who work as international educators in the US emailed me to complain about my apparent anti-Trump bias. Working in our field and being a ‘Make America Great Again’ supporter is a textbook case of cognitive dissonance; it just doesn’t compute. It’s yet more proof that most people are a bundle of contradictions.

Taking sides

Here we go again. In the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel and the latter’s immediate retaliation, a veteran US international educator whom I know and respect expressed his dismay and disgust on LinkedIn at a statement on the Israel-Gaza war issued by the Forum on Education Abroad which said the forum was “deeply sadden (sic) by the war in Israel and Gaza and the resulting injuries, trauma and loss of life”.

The international educator wrote: “This weak statement is shameful to me as a Jew and international educator for over 40 years. If all that forum members are is ‘saddened’, what would have to occur on the world stage before the association would forthrightly condemn a brutal terrorist attack such as that by Hamas?”

The statement is presumably ‘weak’ because it acknowledges suffering on both sides of that hotly contested border.

This is an obvious example of taking sides, rooting for a favorite team, as it were, to the exclusion of ‘the other’ who is also suffering grievously at the hands of one the world’s most generously funded and well-equipped militaries with billions of dollars of more US aid on the way.

The colleague clearly preferred a partisan response over a balanced and inclusive one. Another international educator left a comment that was a subtle yet powerful rejection of the original post: “Yes, a much stronger statement must be made. The barbaric violence unleashed on the Israelis and Palestinians must be condemned in much harsher terms.”

An inclusive approach

In his October 2023 essay “On Solidarity and War Crimes”, Daniel Spector does a yeoman-like job summing up this tragic situation, writing: “To say that Hamas’ attack was a war crime does not excuse or divert attention from Israel’s history of war crimes, or equate what Hamas did with what Israel has been doing for 75 years. Hamas’ war crime stands on its own and must be judged on its own.

“Israel is fundamentally and historically – but not solely – responsible for the unending violence in Israel-Palestine, and Hamas committed a war crime; Palestinian civilians are the primary victims of Israel’s unending violence, and killing Israeli civilians is wrong.”

Like other statements issued by international education organizations, the Forum on Education Abroad’s was inclusive: “Our thoughts and sympathy remain with all who are caught up in the escalating violence and with the many members of the education abroad community whose loved ones and colleagues may be impacted.”

It reaffirmed the pivotal role of education abroad “in creating safe spaces and brave spaces for belonging, communication, sharing and learning”.

The Institute of International Education struck the same chord by stating that it “unconditionally condemns the taking of civilian hostages and other acts of terrorism with the eruption of violence in Israel and Gaza. The tragic loss of innocent lives in another war is a loss that harms us all and makes the dream of peace ever more difficult to realize”.

NAFSA condemned “the senseless and heinous acts by Hamas against innocent Israeli civilians” and added: “We also mourn the tragic loss of Palestinian civilian lives in Gaza. Our shared humanity during this time of shock, trauma and grief calls for us to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering and demonstrate compassion and care for those near and far…

“Acts of war and dehumanization are in direct opposition to our values as international educators. We believe in the power of people-to-people exchanges, diplomacy and dialogue to build bridges across differences. We must remain steadfast in our resolve to create a more peaceful, just and equitable world.”

Global Citizens

The notion of standing in solidarity with those who are suffering and the commitment to creating a more peaceful, just and equitable world is at the core of what it means to be a global citizen – with or without national affiliation – a worldview that all international educators should logically embrace.

Seeing the ubiquitous and exclusionary ‘I Stand with Israel’ avatars on Facebook, I realize that I have never ‘stood’ with a government or a country. I stand with the victims of violence, state-sponsored and homegrown, the oppressed and the exploited, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or nationality. Isn’t this the essence of global citizenship?

Let’s dispense with this parochial and binary view of the world – ‘good vs evil’, ‘us vs them’, ‘in-group vs out-group’ – in favor of one that is truly all-inclusive. The club to which I belong and to which I am loyal is all of humanity.

Thi Bay Miradoli, a New York City-based children’s rights advocate, echoed this sentiment when she wrote on LinkedIn: “Crimes against humanity, like war crimes, are crimes against all of humanity because a child in Gaza is all of humanity like a child in Israel is all of humanity and Arab or Jewish children anywhere in the world are all of humanity.”

Closer to where this war is being waged, a group of Israel-based progressives and peace activists issued a statement in which they emphasized that “there is no contradiction between staunchly opposing the Israeli subjugation and occupation of Palestinians and unequivocally condemning brutal acts of violence against innocent civilians”.

As I have previously written: “While we all carry a national passport out of necessity, ‘the world is our country’,” in reference to a famous Thomas Paine quote.

We are all citizens of Planet Earth and members of humanity, regardless of our nationality. Our well-being forms an unbreakable bond with that of our fellow human beings and the natural world. It is the ultimate expression of inclusion that has many positive implications for peace, justice, environmental protection and economic sustainability.

It bears repeating that what we truly need, what the world desperately needs, is universal empathy, caring, concern and compassion based on our shared humanity, not selective outrage and empathy reserved for people who are like us or whom we unconditionally support for whatever reason to the exclusion of ‘the other’. Imagine that.

This originally appeared in University World News.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.