We are told, and experience reveals, that
"an enemy is one whose story we have not heard."
Thanks to Arleen Shifrin in southern California, we learn of a bold, new course at The Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
In the midst of violence, courageous professors decided to go on with this new kind of education in compassionate listening, a missing part of the peace process.
Equally important is the policy of the sponsors for a parallel course for Palestinians when the environment permits.
This story shows the difficulty of listening and, finally, the difference it can make.
Published in The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 22, 2001
Puzzled Israelis sign up to hear the other side
As violence escalates,
course offers insight
into Palestinian view
By Esther Hecht;
Special to the Union-Tribune
As peace talks ground to a halt and the violence began to spin out of control, many Israelis were shell-shocked and left wondering what went wrong.
Sue Kerman was furious when Palestinians in the occupied territories started rioting last September. After all, the Israeli government said a peace agreement was near.
The Jerusalem high school teacher was even angrier when Israeli Arabs rioted in October. Kerman was so incensed she almost canceled her registration for a course titled "The Palestinians in the Twentieth Century: An Inside View."
But even more than she was angered by the violence, Kerman, 53, was baffled. Like many Israelis, she was jolted into realizing she had no idea what motivated the Palestinians. "I needed more background," she said.
So when the course began in November, Kerman was one of nearly 100 Jerusalem residents -- including teachers, psychologists, journalists, graduate students and retired businesspeople -- who responded to the events by coming to hear "the other side."
For a change, they were to hear it not through the filter of Israeli analysts but directly from Palestinian academics. So determined were the Israelis to learn that most of them signed up for the second semester of the course, which started this month.
But they were in for a bumpy ride.
"It's not always easy for Israelis to hear everything that is said," they were warned at the outset by Prof. Amnon Cohen, head of the Hebrew University's Harry S Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, co-sponsor of the course.
Course organizer Dr. Adel Manna began by presenting the Israeli narrative of Zionist endeavor in the 20th century and then its mirror image: the Palestinian narrative of the same events. The audience was visibly uncomfortable as Manna described the Palestinians' gradual realization in the 1920s and 1930s that the Zionist enterprise, which led to establishment of the state of Israel, undermined their own national aspirations.
During coffee breaks the participants expressed a range of reactions. Ari Rath, 75, former editor of The Jerusalem Post, said he had "expected to hear more extremism; it was very factual."
Kerman, however, commented that "how they whitewash themselves upsets me." And Ariel Ginsburg, 67, retired director of a chemicals firm, declared "nothing bothered me" but noted that the woman next to him "was ready to pull out a machine gun."
Outside the lecture hall, each week brought more violence on both sides. Yet the lecturers came as promised, even when travel restrictions in the West Bank made it nearly impossible, and the students listened politely, even when they disputed the historical facts presented.
But in the fifth week of the course, when Nazmi Al-Jubeh, a historian at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah and a member of the Palestinian negotiating team in 1991-1993, described the Jewish population of Jerusalem's Old City as having "left" in 1947, one student interjected angrily, "They were expelled!"
Jubeh responded with obvious irritation, "OK, expelled." To which the student retorted, "Besides those who were killed," causing Manna to cut in and ask that the participants "stop the provocations."
At other times Manna reminded argumentative students, "We're not here to conduct negotiations."
Apart from Manna, whose straightforwardness and perfect Hebrew won the participants' admiration, the lecturer to whom the students warmed most was Dr. Yezid Sayigh, author of the definitive "Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993."
Sayigh, a Cambridge University professor of international relations, said violence became central to Palestinian aspirations for a state only after nonviolent modes of political expression were blocked.
"Violence enabled a particular (nationalist) formulation to assert itself, to compete with other ideological possibilities," he said.
His own family, for example, refugees from Tiberias, "believed Palestine was southern Syria and should be merged with Syria."
The first semester dealt with the history leading up to the current events. In the second semester, students had a choice of culture, language and the arts; the Arabs in Israel; or economics and democracy.
Planned excursions to Palestinian areas, canceled in the first semester because of the continuing violence, were replaced by a lecture on the holy month of Ramadan, which coincided with the course.
After the Ramadan lecture, a religiously observant student said she was surprised to learn how similar some of the customs were to those of Judaism.
The courses, offered in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, are funded by the Ford Foundation. Ford Foundation policy is that a parallel course for Palestinians be organized by the Palestinians themselves, Manna said, and so far, current events have interfered.
Manna, who acted as moderator, added a personal touch by describing his experiences. He was born in 1947 in Majdal Kurum, a village in Galilee. His family was expelled in 1949, as part of a "thinning out" of the Arab population, but managed to return after a legal battle.
He earned his doctorate in Middle Eastern history at the Hebrew University and has taught there and at universities in the West Bank. Since 1995 he has headed the Israel Institute for Arab Studies, a nonprofit center specializing in research and publications on Israeli Arabs and educational projects for the Arab public.
Facing a roomful of Israelis can be daunting, Manna said in an interview at the start of the second semester, but "we get a lot of encouragement from the students, which keeps us going, because personally, it's not easy to give this course."
He would like to see the idea spread to universities and teachers' colleges throughout the country, so that instead of listening to Israeli experts talk about the Palestinians, they would hear Palestinian academics. The Education Ministry recently expressed interest in providing such a course for teachers.
Manna is certain the current course is not simply "preaching to the converted." Though the majority are politically center or left- wing, "they find out very quickly that they know very little and that they have many stereotypes."
That ignorance and failure to acknowledge the viewpoint of the other side is compounded by condescension, he said. "That is why so many Israelis, and especially left-wingers, were so surprised and baffled by recent events."
Without acknowledgment of the other side's point of view, there will be no popular support for a peace agreement, he said.
And indeed, one student in the course, who asked to remain anonymous, summed up the new perspective the lectures had given her. "I am certain of the justice of our cause," she said, "but now I'm also certain of the justice of theirs."
Esther Hecht is a free-lance writer based in Jerusalem
You can learn more about this course by writing to Hanas@vanleer.org.il