The day of Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in Jerusalem, I took a taxi from Ramallah to East Jerusalem and then caught another shared taxi with a group of Palestinian nursing students from Nazareth. On our way to Rabin’s funeral procession, the women told me their parents would not approve of their attendance, mourning for an Israeli prime minister who as a commander in chief had allegedly ordered Israeli troops to “break the bones” of Palestinian protesters. But they wanted to honor the leader who forged the Oslo Peace Accords with Yasser Arafat and who was assassinated as he left the stage of a peace rally in Tel Aviv attended by more than 100,000 people.
The hope I felt in the mid-1990s has been diluted with years and violence. Hamas’s brutal massacre of Israeli civilians, including teenagers at a music festival, has set today’s escalating horror into motion. Today, I think about the spiraling panic I would feel if I was an Israeli calling or texting my child or sibling or parent or beloved over and over and over again with no response, running through the terrifying options: my loved one taken hostage by Hamas militants, dead or suffering brutality. Today, I think about the terror I would feel if I was a Palestinian in Gaza, with no place to take my family as homes and neighborhoods and infrastructure disintegrated around us, the death toll mounting. My chest tightens looking at photos: an Israeli man in shorts and bare feet, led away by Hamas gunmen, so young and so vulnerable; a Palestinian man holding the small, white-shrouded body of a child, kissing the child’s covered face.
I had never been to the Middle East before I moved there for the 1995–96 academic year. I lived in Ramallah, on the West Bank, and worked part-time at a Palestinian institution, Birzeit University. I also was finishing my dissertation and spent many days at the library at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. That year was life-changing. It was dizzying to go through the security checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem and to walk the streets in two different worlds in one day. I was in the privileged position to experience the humanity of people on both sides of the checkpoint. Their suffering is intolerable. As Rabin said at the signing of the first Oslo accord, “Enough of blood and tears. Enough.”
What if we could give all people such a lens into the experience, perspective and worldview of others? We could change the world.
Liberal education is where I turn for hope. I am the dean of a school of arts and communication, and I get to support and speak for disciplines that require us to attend closely to the expression of others—whether their words or stories, their images or music. When we engage these expressions, we expand and we deepen. We get beyond our myopia and narrow self-interest. The liberal arts give us knowledge and methodologies for building nuanced understandings of the world, for building empathy and for collaborating with others to solve problems and be citizens in a diverse democracy. And if we use active, collaborative and engaged pedagogies as teachers, our students learn from texts and course materials, and also from one another. Liberal education can model a process of bringing diverse perspectives and collective intelligence to the solving of any problem.
This may sound utopian, and it would be naïve to expect these aims of liberal education to be realized just because of our good will or passionate commitment. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never relented in my lifetime, and it has now hit a new and horrifying low. When it comes to the generations of violence in the Middle East, professors and academic professionals sometimes fail at listening to opposing arguments and viewpoints. As much as we wish to develop our students’ capacities for civil discourse, we can also fall into demonizing others who align or vote differently. The challenge is to teach our students and also model civil discourse and empathy ourselves as we engage the most difficult topics on the planet.
If we honestly express ourselves and hear what others express about this terrorism and war, there will be heated conflict. I know from decades in higher education teaching about race that we often aspire to rational debates and dispassionate exchanges of ideas. However, this is not the first time I am writing to make the case for passionate, uncomfortable conflict. When it comes to talking about the suffering in Israel and Gaza, emotions run high, and I believe we must allow ourselves and our students to go there—to express fear or rage or sadness or resignation. We have to have the courage to facilitate such honest conversation. How else can we hear others’ human realities? It is our responsibility as educators to create the conditions for experiencing the empathy required for negotiation and peace.
I am making a case for conflict—not violence. I am a student of Charles Rojzman, a French psychologist who has devoted his life to facilitating dialogue between groups in conflict and the founder of Transformational Social Therapy. TST has given me a framework for distinguishing conflict from violence that I use when I teach about difficult topics and that I also turn to in my work as a dean when trying to solve problems in collaboration with colleagues who often see things very differently from me and from each other. Specifically, Rojzman defines four forms of violence that we fear and that we sometimes pre-emptively deploy ourselves as a defense mechanism. We fear being:
- Physically or verbally attacked
- Shamed or humiliated
- Guilted or blamed
- Abandoned or dismissed
Each form of violence is a form of dehumanization that lies on a continuum that leads to genocide.
If I were to facilitate a dialogue on terrorism and war in the Middle East—which often turns to the question of who is most responsible for the blood and trauma—I would share this framework, asking the group to express, listen and, when triggered or uncomfortable, to try to determine if the thing that upsets is conflict or violence. That distinction is not always clear, but we are more likely to engage constructively if we hold ourselves accountable for nonviolent communications.
In those heady and tragic times after the Oslo accords, everyone was talking about the peace process—the falafel vendor, the librarian, the veterinarian, the public health professor, the taxi driver. It was rare for me to meet an Israeli or Palestinian who did not express a passionate desire for peace. Today, the region has descended into war and American college campuses are riven and polarized. As higher education leaders, faculty and staff, let us model how to disagree without demonizing others, how to listen to information and perspectives that challenge what we know or think we know, and how to approach our human problems with empathy and intolerance for the suffering of any and all living beings.