Read a report by Prof. Gordie Fellman


Arab/Jewish Student Dialogue

Coexistence Initiative Kripalu Retreat
February 20-23, 2001

By Professor Gordie Fellman, Director of Peace and Conflict Studies

Thanks to the kindness and interests of a donor, the Coexistence Initiative, of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, organized a retreat February 20-23 at the Kripalu Center in western Massachusetts. Participating students and alumni included: Judah Ariel '04, Taher Baderkhan '03, Michael Bavly '00, Yoav Borowitz '00, Forsan Hussein '00, Maisa Khshaibon '03, Daniel Langenthal (Heller/Hornstein), Zein Nasif '03, Marina Pevzner '04, Munther Samawi '04, and Waseem Yahya '03 Retreat leaders were: Center staff members Cynthia Cohen and Dan Terris, Gordie Fellman of sociology, and Palestinian-Israeli coexistence facilitator Farhat Agbaria.

Maisa, Waseem, Taher, Marina, Forsan, and Yoav all are or were Slifka Coexistence Scholars, brought to Brandeis because of their peace commitments and experiences, for a fully paid undergraduate education. Danny Langenthal is a graduate student who although born in the U.S., migrated to Israel in 1993, makes his home there, served in the Israeli army, and continues service in the reserves. Danny is pursuing graduate degrees in business (Heller School MBA) and in Jewish institutional work (Hornstein Program) and in outdoor education at the University of New Hampshire. Judah is the only first-year student in the group (the others are all sophomores). He spent a pre-college year in Israel, was educated in this country in Jewish schools, and is deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as are all the others who attended the retreat. The Jordanians are with us due to President Reinharz and Admissions Dean Gould having traveled to Jordan and solicited interest in Brandeis. All three Jordanian students were brought up with demonized images of Jews and had never met Jews before attending Brandeis.

Hussein and Borowitz were the first Slifka scholars at Brandeis. They have spoken widely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict throughout the United States. Hussein has also spoken widely with Bavly, who came to Brandeis the same year Hussein and Bavly did, but not as a Slifka fellow. Indeed, coming to college after his army service, Bavly was sick of the whole political issue and wanted nothing to do with it. But he and Hussein struck up a friendship rather quickly and have spoken far and wide as a team. Their major break came from an NPR interview, which led to countless speaking engagements through the country. Hussein and Bavly also organized two Arab-Jewish dialogue groups at Brandeis and for three years hosted a weekly radio program devoted to playing Middle Eastern recordings and discussing cooking, life, and the Conflict. Their effects on Brandeis are legendary, as they are on numerous other audiences. Hussein and Pevzner were peace workers in Israel for several years before coming to Brandeis.

Farhat Agbaria, one of the Coexistence Initiatives mid-career peace fellows from several years ago, came to do the major work of facilitation. Agbaria is a professional facilitator and peace worker based at Givat Haviva, near Haifa, in Israel. Givat Haviva is a major center in Israel for fostering Jewish-Palestinian understanding, learning, and dialogue. Agbaria is a master facilitator.

Cindy Cohen directs the Coexistence Initiative. A long-time attendee of events at Kripalu, it was her inspired idea to hold the retreat there, where we not only got a good rate but a fine meeting room, outstanding meals, and access to yoga classes, whirlpools, saunas, and more of the center's excellent facilities. Kripalu presented challenges for students as well as opportunities.

Dan Terris is the Director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, the parent organization for the Coexistence Initiative. Dan joined Farhat and Cindy in planning the retreat and led one of its crucial pieces.

Gordie Fellman, a Brandeis sociology professor who was a long-time Middle East activist, teaches a course called The Sociology of the Israeli-Palestinian Confrontation and chairs the undergraduate interdisciplinary Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies Program. He served as an observer and as someone to offer feedback about the small group presentations at the retreat. The goals of the retreat were two: to foster dialogue among the student participants beyond the point most of them had previously achieved among themselves, and to hone their skills for speaking in public about the Conflict, as members of their various communities.

The program began on Tuesday night, February 20, 2001, with brief introductions, followed by a most fruitful exercise. The eight students and three recent alumni were asked to describe themselves through the eyes and voice of someone who knows them well. They chose parents, siblings, or friends (and in one case, the speakers 12 year old self) for this honor. The exercise revealed much and was a good and pleasant way of learning more about the student and alumni participants.

The next morning, participants were divided into two groups. Farhat met with the Arabs and conducted their discussion in Arabic. The Jews met with Cindy. Each was given five cards, pulled at random from a pile. Cards, different sets for Arabs and for Jews, had written on them some event, place, institution, holiday, food, or popular entertainer known to everyone in the group. Each was asked to toss away the card s/he could most easily do without and explain why (e.g. a singer or food might be discarded by someone who feels there are more important things to consider than that food or singer.) A place or celebration might be sacrificed in the name of some larger principle or issue.

Eventually, each person got down to one card. Then the two groups reassembled together. One Palestinians last card was the right of return. A long, complex, not easy discussion followed upon her putting that card on the table, so to speak. One Jews last card was the beach at Tel Aviv, which symbolized for him the joys and freedoms of life as a secular Israeli. Much discussion followed the revealing of these cards, about the issues of right of return, national self-determination, equality of opportunity and rights, the need for mutual understanding, and more. Farhat asked all the participants at the end of the exercise what feelings it left them with. Indeed, the retreat focused on feelings as much as on politics, and on the integral connection, so often lost in the violence

One Palestinian student expressed anger, during this session, at the Jewishness of the state of Israel and how that leaves her, a Palestinian, feeling. This issue, left over from the morning, started off the afternoon session. It led to a very productive, long discussion about inclusiveness and exclusiveness in reality and possibility, in the relations between the Jewish and Palestinian communities in Israel. Following this discussion, three issues were chosen: Jerusalem, the right of return, and the Israel Defense Forces that formed the foci for small group discussions that followed. There were three or four people and one of these topics, in each group. The gist of the discussions was later shared with the larger group. Wednesday evening, Forsan, Michael, and Yoav explained the histories of their friendships and gave abbreviated versions of the talks they give in public. Forsan talked about growing up in a small village in the Galilee and never meeting a Jew until he was ten. The fateful encounter, organized by a teacher, led him to years of active work in an Arab-Jewish friendship organization that actively promotes peace between the two peoples. Just as Forsan knew no Jews as a child, Yoav met no Arabs until late adolescence. Michael told of his disdain for the whole topic after his army service and how that changed once he and Forsan met at Brandeis. Michael offered a vivid image of difficulties in negotiations, in his discussion of the distance between Barak and Arafat in the peace negotiations. Israel believes it is offering a million-dollar deal, he suggested, while the Palestinians think it's worth a single dollar. Each side's reality, he suggested, needs to be recognized and honored by the other side. There was much discussion about these presentations following them, and feedback of both supportive and critical kinds, on them. The three alumni had to leave early Thursday morning, leaving the rest of the retreat for the eight undergraduates.

The next morning, Thursday, started with a pile of very nice photographs, none of which are from or about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each student was asked to select one that s/he felt best characterized the conflict. A Jordanian chose a picture of a man who could easily be seen as representing Israeli soldiers as Palestinians experience them. A Palestinian picked out a picture of a child who looked to the selector of the picture confused as to whether he has a future. Another Palestinian chose a wisdom figure and also a car crash, symbolizing that "the situation" is like a car that is crashing all the time. An Israeli chose a destroyed house, to represent what Israel does to Palestinians. And so on. The pictures were devices to extend the dialogue in still further directions than the discussions had so far covered.

Farhat and Cindy so far facilitated all these sessions. The next, also in the morning, was facilitated by Dan. The students created a large inventory of issues. This included: challenging stereotypes, recognizing the suffering on both sides, needs for straightforwardness but also for tact, the usefulness of facts, the appeal sometimes of role playing members of the "other side," the need for each side to acknowledge its wrongs committed against the other, the possibility of combining self narrative and self criticism, taking the audience into account in speaking, recognition of the rights of each group and of mutual feelings of insecurity, identity issues on both sides, Jerusalem, the right of return, settlements, symbols of the Jewish state, religion, land, influences on the conflict of neighboring Arab countries, world views, the impact of American media, the possibility of making peace from the grassroots up (between peoples) rather than just between governments, discrimination, bottom-up perspectives on peace-making, cultural traditions, non-violence, equality, and justice and democracy.

Next, the students were divided into three groups (two of three students, and one of two) and assigned to come up with a presentation, as if for a public audience, on that topic, by evening. Formats and content varied. Each presentation was greeted by us all with applause and then with critical feedback. It appeared as if the students were eager to do this trial public presentation, although several have in fact already spoken in public. The retreat added much substance and much thought about how to be effective, for them all.

On Friday morning, we had closing exercises, including each person telling at least one other how that person appreciated him or her during our retreat. Many staff people at Kripalu, believing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be a troubling, highly significant world issue, were glad that our retreat was held at Kripalu and wanted to know something about what we did on our retreat. Our last event was an hour with about two dozen staff. One student opened by explaining, briefly and eloquently, what we had been doing there. Others then contributed their own observations, feelings, learning, and the like. Another student asked for questions from the Kripalu staff. Students handled them expertly.

We four of the Brandeis retreat staff wound up our four days with our students wonderfully gratified, holding our students in higher esteem than ever, and proud of what they had learned during our time together. It was such an intense time that one student said she felt drained at the end of each day. What we staff noted was the seriousness, openness, and learning that had clearly gone on. Despite his earlier explanation of hoping to establish a fully safe space for the retreat to proceed, Farhat observed, to the students, after a day, that he thought they were being overly cautious. They took him up on the observation and revealed ever more of frank opinions and honest emotions, as the days proceeded. That candor was indeed forthcoming. By the end of the retreat, everyone involved knew much more about the people they had spent time with, issues in the conflict, and ways of thinking and speaking about them.