I teach a class called “Social Conflict” where we examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by talking directly to individuals living in the region. On Tuesdays, we are huddled in front of a screen talking to those in the Gaza Strip; on Thursdays we are talking to those in Israel. I am always gratified by what happens when individuals have the opportunity to talk to “the other side.” Here are end-of-semester reflections from two of the Penn State students who took the class last semester–one is Jewish, the other is Palestinian. When I read their essays, I am reminded of the possibility for changing the world that exists in a real conversation.
Jewish Student Blog A) :
As the semester comes to a close, I must say this class has definitely changed the way, which I approach, not only the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but also how I look at the world and the way in which humans view their identity, develop an attachment to their environment and the way in which humans handle adversity.
Identity, which is shaped throughout our lives and throughout our experiences, should evolve as we gain new insights and knowledge about the world around us. Every Tuesday and Thursday I felt that I was taking a trip abroad into another country not that I was just attending a typical class at Penn State University in Pond Lab but rather that I was in Israelor Gaza. Completely internalizing what people from across the globe had to say about their culture and national identity allowed me to partake in a conversation about the conflict that I’ve never had before.
Registering for the class was a last minute decision that probably would never have happened if I hadn’t heard that this class was looking for more Jewish students. Thinking about that has made me realize how completely engulfed in my Jewish identity I am and how that shapes my sense of responsibility and loyalty I feel towards “my group”.
Never having had the chance to hear the Palestinian narrative, this class allowed me to form an impression and a window to understanding the Palestinian perspective. I was nervous coming into this class, as I thought about how I would defend a land that I think of as my own when I really had never studied the conflict in depth before. This leads me to what Nick said today in class when he spoke about having to prove yourself to people whose culture you share and to what extent you have to know certain information or believe certain ideas before “your group” accepts you as one of them. This stuck out to me as we as a class separated ourselves from our “side” in order to fully participate in discussion and dialogue and work towards understanding our biases and appreciating what the opposing side had to say despite our own personal beliefs. I was relieved that this class required listening more so than the need to be able to defend or argue against “the other side” and therefore provided a safe way to learn more about the conflict and the people who are involved.
The benefit I have found in taking on different perspectives is that for me personally it has allowed me to develop my own opinions based on first hand information from what I have heard in class and Skype sessions with people in Gaza and Israel. I no longer rely solely based on what I have been told by my peers throughout my life to understand the conflict as I have never been given a more complete picture of what is occurring in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict until this class. Although it is harder and arguably a longer process to take the time to get to know people on a human level, in reality, I believe this is the most beneficial way to resolve conflict. When you know a person and the different facets of that person, as Josh used the metaphor of “separate ID cards, which show the face of the same person, only representing a different aspect of that person” dialogue becomes more meaningful as your not just talking to a “side” your talking to a real human being who has had their own experiences which have shaped that person and formed their background and why they believe the things that they do.
Leaving this class I will take with me the ability to question everything, internalize other peoples emotions as valid even if I do not agree, and to take the time to understand my own biases and formulate my own opinions based on experiences rather than preconceived ideas of what I believe to be true.
Palestinian Student Blog B):
Too often we walk through life dead, doing what we are supposed to do, thinking the way were supposed to and maintaining the routine taught by our fathers, and their fathers before them and so in. We live the life that society teaches us to live, we are aligned with the people we are meant to be friends with, and enemies with people we are meant to hate. It becomes a complicated practice, when you step back, when you realize that you are in fact a dead. That you have moved through your life, thinking you knew everything when in reality you knew nothing. We cling to assurance, like a child clings to his fathers hand, we cling to the concrete and the certain. When in reality it is known that nothing is certain and nothing is predictable, we are incapable of predicting the future because it goes where it wants and we have no choice but to follow. We have no choice but to adapt. Isn’t this the story and the beauty of mankind? It is our ability to make do with the circumstances that we are given that makes us truly human. It is our attachment to predictability when there is none, it is our hope that life will get better when it might not, and it is our capability of living when everything around us death.
This is how people live through bombs, wars and destruction. This is why people who live in the deadliest places still live, still maintain a culture, a way of life we assume is missing. Because how can someone live like that? How can someone be so content with knowing he may not live the next day, he may not see the sunrise, or his daughter clinging on to him for strength? Is it not beautiful to understand this means acceptance of death, of mortality, and yet his capability of living the fullest life? The story of humanity is the story of survival. I am Palestinian, this is how I define my identity, and this is always how I have chosen to define myself. It is so entrenched into my being, of who I am, of my identity that I know nothing else, and don’t want to know anything else. A socially constructed identity that I was handed down by my parent, by my culture and was ultimately meant to cling on to. It is this strength I placed on identity that makes me cringe, as I look back. Without exploration, without hesitation, and without questions I accepted my identity and everything that came with it. The ideals, and opinions that I was meant to have and the way I was supposed to think. Isn’t this the cost of being in a group of belonging?
It is the fear that we will ultimately be alone that keeps us coloring within the lines. As we remain in the boundaries society has drawn for us because of we don’t the consequence is isolation. Borders, we construct, enemies, we construct, in the name of security in the name of protection. Protection from whom? We seek protection from our enemies that could be our friends tomorrow, if we truly wished it, people probably more alike to us than we would ever like to admit. The important thing for me here is the fact that our beliefs, our enemies, and our hate are all constructed. And just like we constructed we can easily demolish, just like how we built the wall, to separate, and to justify, we can deconstruct, and join. The question then changes, it isn’t about who is right and who was wrong, who has justice on their side, and who is the oppressor. The lines are never distinctly drawn. No side is the victim forever, because the victim becomes the suicide bomber, becomes the spiteful, as he satisfies a self-fulfilling prophecy from his “enemy”. He from the beginning told him this what he was, spiteful and hateful. The victim is no longer the victim when he is the bomber of innocent children; it is then that the roles reverse. And the oppressor gets a taste of the helplessness, the victim feels constantly. He is ripped down from his throne of power. The question is how did it end up this way, and how can we go back?
To a time where all of this didn’t matter, where complicated layers that intersected were never present. To a time, where the sun shone on your neighbors house, as you looked at him as merely a human being feeling no need for protection, no need to hate him, or avoid him. I don’t believe, at least for right now, that humanizing alone is sufficient to going anywhere. Empathy is a step; humanization is a step, and a very important one. But if we do nothing with what we have learned, if we are not bold enough, courageous enough to step out of the borders that have defined our identity, we will remain in a never-ending cycle. To step out of our comfortable lives and be thrown into a world of reality, a reality that can’t be avoided. We build walls, barriers and we justify it by saying it is a mean of protection of security from something out there. Without having any idea whatsoever about whom this other is, nonetheless, what this other is. He is not human, he cannot be a person like me, he is barbaric, savage, and uneducated and that is why I have the right to be better than him, to oppress him, to want to hate him. This is what we are taught. We are taught to avoid reality, so that we are safe, so that we don’t have to experience the fear of rethinking everything we were taught was correct.
It is because we are taught to avoid the unknown to cling to uncertainty that doesn’t exist. So is it that life is uncertain, and our story is survival, and this is what makes us all human. United by this theme of never truly knowing anything, of rethinking and then thinking again, and being okay with the fact that you may truly never know anything. We are alive to feel things, to experience the reality of things, even though they may put us in the role of the oppressor, the role of the hateful, the bad guy. It may put us in situations of fear, and hate, of love and loss. But this is life, and experiencing all of these things make us alive, and our ability to feel, to hope, to dream and to be full of sorrow and confusion is what makes us human, this is our common humanity. Our attempt at trying to avoid life, to feel safe and secure all the time, is our attempt at creating an illusion, of being dead while we persuade ourselves that we are alive.