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A Personal Reflection: CS, Social Justice, and the Complexity of the Israel-Hamas War

November 10, 2023
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By Julie Flapan

This month marks the 30 days that my friends’s son, Hersh Polin-Goldberg, was severely wounded and kidnapped from the music festival in Israel, along with 240 hostages, still held captive in Gaza. The brutal terrorist massacre on innocent Jews by Hamas on October 7th is unconscionable.  The ensuing war, and heartbreaking attacks against innocent civilians and children—along with the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia — is deeply concerning to everyone who values human life, in Israel and Gaza, and here at home.

While preparing my opening remarks for our CSforCA Summit, I felt nervous to discuss the Israel-Hamas war and my personal connection as a Jewish woman—recognizing that our multiracial/multiethnic coalition has many different perspectives that I didn’t want to offend. And, because it’s not directly related to computer science, I questioned whether it was appropriate for me to say anything at all.  

As I reflected on our typical practice in social justice spaces to contextualize computer science in the sociopolitical events of the moment— I struggled with why it is difficult to address the antisemitism I continue to feel around me. The collective grief many of us share for both Jews and Palestinians can make it difficult to know what to say and how to bring people together instead of driving people apart.

In my role as an advocate for equity in computer science, I often speak about the importance of examining technology’s ethics and its impact on society. In particular, what do CS ethics and impact mean in the backdrop of today’s war in the middle east and what role might technology play in how we view this conflict? We want to build students’ essential critical thinking skills to understand why your social media feed might look different than mine, how algorithms are created and by whom, and the biases baked into them by the data sets from which they are drawn. Let’s not forget the need to understand the role of technology in war, cybersecurity, and the accessibility and power of AI tools that reinforce an echo chamber of information and disinformation.

I am reminded of the binary foundations of computer science—and the recognition that the world is far more complex than zeros and ones, right or wrong, left vs. right.  I have spoken before about navigating nuance, and shining a light on the complexity of difficult issues, examining the gray area in-between and the possibility of holding two opposing truths at once.

As we expand access to culturally responsive computer science education where we center student voice, agency, and lived experiences, I hope we can equip our students to build empathy by exploring our own and other’s identities, perspectives, and historical narratives, with the goal of rejecting hate and finding peaceful solutions to life’s most pressing problems.

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