Brandeis scholarships create unlikely partners in peace program

By Claire Hoffman
The New York Times / May 14, 2003

Maisa Khshaibon, a senior at Brandeis University, spends many of her evenings laughing and joking with her best friend, Marina Pevzner, a junior. Their conversations go beyond classes and clothes, and often turn to human rights, suicide bombings and the future of their homeland, Israel.

Ms. Khshaibon, a Palestinian, met Ms. Pevzner, an Israeli Jew, at Brandeis, in Waltham, Mass., just west of Boston, and they became friends through a scholarship program with an unusual purpose: to encourage young Jews and Palestinians to create a more peaceful coexistence.

Since 1996, eight students have received the scholarships, and some acknowledge that against the constant violence at home their American-born friendships and common dreams might seem small. But they say they are convinced that peace must begin from friendships like their own, and from the recognition that their futures are intertwined.

Ms. Khshaibon and Ms. Pevzner love to cook together and go dancing, at an Arab disco.

"She is like my sister," Ms. Pevzner said. "If something happens in Israel, she is the first person I call."

Last summer when news of a bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem flashed across television screens, Ms. Pevzner said, she and Ms. Khshaibon sat on the couch together and watched the coverage with a shared sense of heartache.

In 1948, Brandeis was founded by Jews and named after Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court. Today roughly half of the more than 3,000 undergraduates are Jewish. The idea for the scholarships came from Jehuda Reinharz, the university president.

"I have no illusion that this program can change the world or even the Middle East," Dr. Reinharz said. "But if I can plant some seeds of change, it would be fantastic."

Alan B. Slifka, a New York money manager and philanthropist, financed the scholarships, each more than $160,000 in tuition and living expenses over four years. Mr. Slifka is chairman of the Abraham Fund Initiative, a nonprofit group that has sponsored programs to promote coexistence in Israel for more than a decade. He recently gave Brandeis $5 million to create the first master's degree in coexistence studies.

Dr. Reinharz and Mr. Slifka say they have been careful to keep the scholarships from becoming entangled in politics, and the undergraduates may take any courses they want. The scholarship holders say they see a Palestinian state as essential for peace. But given Israel's troubled economy and its paucity of jobs, their majors include not just sociology and conflict studies, but also business and computer science.

The first two scholarship winners graduated in 2000, and two more, including Ms. Khshaibon, will graduate on Sunday.

"I hope they all go back to Israel," Mr. Slifka said. "Because they have a country to build."

Yoav Borowitz, 28, the first Jewish graduate using the scholarship, returned to Tel Aviv and is now a sports reporter for Ha'aretz, a daily newspaper. "Coexistence comes into play with everything I do," he said in a telephone interview. He recently finished an article on the integration of Arab students into soccer teams, a topic he had to fight for, as some of his editors found it odd.

Forsan Hussein, 25, the first Palestinian to win the scholarship, now works for Mr. Slifka's nonprofit group in New York. He plans to attend Johns Hopkins next fall to do graduate work in international relations and economics, focusing on the Middle East.

"I am a very hopeful person," he said. But, he added, the current generation of Israeli and Palestinian leaders does not "have the vision, nor the inner power to make peace."

"It is about time for young people to take over, people who don't think in terms of adverseness, but mutuality," Mr. Hussein said.

Nearly all the students learned about the scholarships through a network of summer camps and school programs for Arabs and Jews.

Ms. Khshaibon said she had attended an Arab elementary school with only one computer while the nearby Jewish school had immaculate rooms filled with computers. Now she is completing an economics major, with an eye toward helping build the economy, because, she said, "it is hard to maintain peace when our country is so poor."

Ms. Pevzner, who came of age in the more tranquil times after the 1993 Oslo peace accords, said her parents had "become increasingly far right" since the violence had escalated. "My parents are supportive of me, but increasingly we have more fights," she said. Concerning her 14-year-old brother, she noted, "When I was my brother's age, I demonstrated for peace, and now he is demonstrating for war."

Still, she said, her family welcomed her friend when she visited.

Ms. Pevzner and Ms. Khshaibon have organized a weekly dialogue group, the heart of coexistence activities at the university. For two hours, 22 students gather behind closed doors at the student center, talking about the most divisive issues. Recent topics included discrimination against Arab-Americans and the war with Iraq. "The dialogue groups are always the most painful after the suicide bombings," Ms. Khshaibon said.

After graduation, Ms. Khshaibon plans to work and attend graduate school in the United States.

Ms. Pevzner won a fellowship as an instructor in coexistence exercises in Sri Lanka this summer. "Unfortunately, conflict resolution is a field that can be applied to every country in the world," she said.

Still, she added: "My heart belongs to Israel. The more the violence gets worse, the harder it is to be away."