While on sabbatical this semester, I’ve had time to reflect on the craft of teaching the sometimes volatile subject of Israeli-Palestinian relations. I recently spoke with one of my colleague-friends about a hands-on course he co-teaches on the topic, which involves a three-week trip to Israel and the West Bank.
Jonathan Malino teaches at Guilford College in North Carolina, where he is in the midst of retiring and moving to Ottawa to join Susannah Dalfen, whom he recently married. Susannah, a therapist by profession, joined the delegation on their recent trip to Israel and the West Bank.
As the co-instructor, Malino said his central aim is to impress upon students that the conflict is complex and nuanced, that neither side is monolithic.
On this latest trip, the group met with a variety of experts and activists. There was Cary Nelson, an American professor who works to oppose academic boycotts of Israel; Tova Hartman, professor of gender studies and founder of an Orthodox feminist congregation; a young, female conscientious objector; and Tal Becker, legal adviser to the Israeli foreign ministry. Palestinian speakers included Omar Barghouti, a founder of the anti-Israel boycott movement; Amin Khalaf, founder of Hand-in-Hand coexistence schools, and Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian legislator.
Dalfen is no stranger to Israeli affairs. Long active in Ottawa’s Jewish community, she speaks Hebrew and has travelled to Israel eight times over the past five decades. So I was particularly curious to hear her reactions to seeing the Palestinian areas and the effects of occupation first-hand.
“I didn’t like what I saw,” Dalfen said. There were “gratuitous” obstacles, in her eyes, that Israel places before West Bank Palestinians. “There’s … a collective punishment aspect [to it] that [made me] very sad.”
Dalfen described a Palestinian teenager in Ramallah they met, who had been invited to a UN conference in Jerusalem, but could not attend as the Israeli military wouldn’t grant her a permit. There were the farmers denied water and electricity – in contrast to nearby settlements, which are well supplied. There are restrictions against flying out of Ben-Gurion airport. West Bank Palestinians typically have to travel to Amman to fly abroad.
“It’s like we live in a chicken coop,” Dalfen recalled one Palestinian describing it.
This, coupled with the faction of Palestinians she learned about who resist “normalizing” relations with Israel and Israelis, and those who seek to “inflame and magnify” the conflict, “reinforcing Israeli security fears,” left Dalfen feeling pessimistic.
“It was hard for me to imagine them negotiating peace. The word ‘peace’ almost seemed an anathema to the people there.”
Malino shares Dalfen’s frustration over the state of the occupation. Yet they were both struck by one exchange in particular. It was with Barghouti, the promoter of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel. After hearing him speak, Dalfen, who had tried to stay quiet during most of the speaking engagements to leave space for students to pose questions, became agitated. “It sounds like you don’t want Israel to exist,” she told Barghouti.
A pointed exchange followed between Dalfen and Malino on one side and Barghouti on the other. Barghouti claimed that to be Zionist is to be racist. Dalfen argued the importance of Israel for Jewish collective identity, while Malino pointed out the liberal deficiencies in various other democracies. In contrast, BDS activists generally believe Jewish state character should be rolled back in favour of a binational state.
Malino and Dalfen, like the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, believe a two-state solution is the most practical and just outcome. Like most scholars and policy experts on the region, and like the liberal Zionists with whom I identify, I agree with them.
What do I take from all this?
That seeing the occupation first-hand can lead to a sense of despair over shattered myths. At the same time, coming face-to-face with those who seek to deny one’s collective national expression of sovereign identity can also feel threatening.
So what can we do?
We must listen to one another, and try as hard as we can to seek out pockets of justice and possibility where they might exist in that overlapping space between what each side – and the strands within them – needs.