Well before the horrific terror attacks of Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza, discussing Israel on campus was complicated. Protests and rallies from supporters of either Israel or Palestine in recent months make sincere discussion of the issue sometimes seem off the table and civil disagreement seem impossible. This may sound  surprising coming from the president of an organization whose goals are to “promote intellectual diversity and freedom of speech” and “foster robust and open debate.” Times like these have tempted me to surrender to cynicism about the possibility of real discourse. 

But a recent Buckley Institute event on the Israel-Palestine conflict eased that doubt and replaced it with renewed hope. Many students came, and a few asked tough questions, showing that it’s still possible to debate issues with mutual respect, even ones with passionate people on either side of the argument. 

Our  speaker, Mr. Elliott Abrams, was President Donald Trump’s point man on Iran and President George Bush’s ’68 Deputy National Security Advisor, and he served in the Reagan Administration. Not only is he a staunch Israel supporter, but he has been working in the conservative policy world for decades. Considering the climate on college campuses nationwide, I expected protestors or disruptors. When a couple of students showed up and sat in the front row while the speech was underway, I thought that perhaps the moment for a disruptive protest had come.

Instead, they sat respectfully and listened. When the question-and-answer session came, I was happy to send the microphone in their direction. One student asked about Mr. Abrams’ suggestion to send Iran “a warning” and if what he really meant was that the United States should bomb the country. Another attendee pressed Mr. Abrams on whether Israel is as autocratic, or maybe even more so, than the regimes America and Israel say we are in opposition to. He argued that America was guilty of a double standard. The Houthis hadn’t yet killed any Americans, but they had spurred a U.S. retaliation, while the Palestinian-Americans killed during Israel’s war in Gaza seemed to garner no U.S. response.

A third student spoke passionately about Palestinians and their plight. She challenged Mr. Abrams about U.S. support for Israel despite the growing death toll in Palestine and the power asymmetry. She questioned the bombings in Yemen, which she noted was already the “poorest country in the Middle East.” 

They thanked Mr. Abrams for speaking. They made their points, then let him respond without interruption. Theirs weren’t the only questions, but they were the toughest. This is how dialogue should be across campus, even on sensitive and challenging issues. Creating space for conversations like this is why Buckley exists in the first place. And why I’m proud to lead it. 

I unfortunately wasn’t able to talk to the students after the event ended. I probably disagree with them on a whole host of issues, including Israel and Palestine. But if they are reading this, I want to thank them for modeling civil debate on issues that are clearly personal to them. To the rest of campus, and especially those thinking about coming to the next Buckley event, come and disagree. Please. Even on Israel-Palestine.

TREVOR MACKAY is a junior in Timothy Dwight College majoring in history. He is President of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, the flagship program of the Buckley Institute. He can be reached at trevor.mackay@yale.edu.