A few days ago, I was a guest lecturer at a class on American Studies at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, a suburb of “East Jerusalem”, beyond the security fence/separation wall that divides this neighborhood from the rest of Jerusalem in a very stark and cruel manner. It was my first visit to this (or any) Palestinian university, and it was an eye-opener and an enervating experience.
My host was Dr. Dan Terris, a professor from Brandeis University, where he has directed the Ethics Center there for many than 20 years. He is on a Fulbright scholarship this year which is enabling him to teach at Al Quds. After the resignation of the founder of the American Studies department, Professor Mohammed Dajani, a few years ago, the university called upon Dr. Terris to help them rebuild this important department, which attracts some of the best and the brightest students at the university. Dr. Terris has been working with the leadership of the university for many years in planning and implementing innovative programs.
Part of my visit to the campus included a surprise visit to the Museum for the Prisoners Movement on campus, in a beautiful building built with money from Kuwait about 10 years ago, which commemorates the struggles of the many thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons over many decades. It was hard to be there, even painful, but it was another reminder for me about how starkly different the meta Palestinian narrative of the conflict is from the meta Israeli one.
In my lecture/discussion on “Interreligious Dialogue in America and Israel/Palestine” with a class of 15 Palestinian graduate students from all over the West Bank, I was pleased to find an intellectually and ideologically diverse group of students who became actively engaged in the discussion. These students — most of whom have already worked in business or government –will clearly become leaders of the Palestinian people in the future.
First, we discussed the differing contexts for interreligious dialogue in America and Israel. In America, multiculturalism has largely replaced the old “melting pot” ideology, yet it is not without problems. The biggest problem is how the white Christian majority relates to the various ethnic, national and religious minorities in the country. In contrast, in Israel, the context is one of an ongoing unresolved, not-likely-to-be-resolved soon conflict, which has led to political despair and paralysis on both the government level and the civil society level.
In addition, when we talked about my four-step model of dialogue — which goes from 1) issues of personal identity to 2) interreligious learning via text study to 3) discussing core issues of the conflict, to 4) taking action, separately and together — we engaged in some fascinating discussions and I learned a great deal in a short time about Palestinian identity in the West Bank. For example, most of the students felt that the most fundamental element of their identity was their belonging to the Palestinian people. This overrided religious attachments, whether to Islam or to Christianity, which were less important. Moreover, I discovered that the main divisions among the Palestinian people — between the secular Fatah movement and the religious Hamas movement — were a great source of concern to these young people, who would clearly have preferred to have Palestinian unity.
We also discussed how the each narrative — the Jewish (Zionist) national one and the Palestinian national one — is largely unknown by the other side. Each side is immersed in only its own narrative of the conflict, which leads to great misunderstanding of each other and a lack of trust. I explained that in the long-term dialogue groups between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews with youth, young adults, religious leaders and educators that I planned and implemented over many years, each person in each group learned about the national-religious narrative of the ‘Other’ in systematic and sensitive ways, usually for the first time in their lives. Anyone who went through a dialogue group with my colleagues or with me could no longer deny that the other side had a narrative, even if they did not agree with it.
I was pleased and gratified by the warm welcome and the lively discussion with these bright and engaged Palestinian students. I wish I could do more of this. It became clear to me that on the human level our conflict can be resolved. It’s too bad that the politicians on both sides have hardened their hearts in recent years and refused to engage in constructive dialogue and negotiations to end our conflict. Nevertheless, I still believe that one day this conflict will end since it is neither divinely nor historically decreed that it must go on forever. Then, the work of changing the hearts and minds of the people towards the opportunities and benefits of peaceful coexistence will become imperative.