Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Whoever said college is an ivory tower isolated from worldly concerns never took Abigail Jacobson’s class The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
During a recent session on the history of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Jacobson put a 15-minute chunk of discussion off the record for a visiting reporter as she and students exchanged personal views in a conversation so animated that all 17 people in the room seemed to be talking simultaneously at one point. Such are the passions that this real-world tragedy arouses in students around a table on Bay State Road. For Jacobson, creating a free zone for free expression, where students hear and exchange divergent views, is the goal.
“I’m trying really, really hard to expose the students to the different stories and to the different perspectives of this conflict,” Jacobson said in an interview. An Israeli who has worked as a mediator with Israeli and Palestinian youth here and in her home country—invaluable experience during classroom exchanges like the one mentioned above, she noted—Jacobson is a visiting professor from MIT, through BU’s Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies. This is the first time at BU she’s taught the class, which is being offered by the College of Arts & Sciences history department.
“I’m also being very, very careful about my own prejudices,” she said, “and about the fact that I myself have a side in the conflict. I’m Jewish Israeli; I state it right at the beginning that I’m talking about my own identity. But at the same time, I’m really trying to do a good job in explaining and bringing in all the different perspectives.”
She’s chosen a freighted moment: Secretary of State John Kerry is gambling that renewed peace talks might yield a deal within a year. Yet if Jacobson’s lesson on the PLO is any barometer, the moral of the Middle East may be that the gradual passage of time and the reality checks that brings are a diplomat’s best friends.
In class she explained how the PLO began armed struggle against Israel shortly after it was founded in 1964 and how in 1968 it adopted “the three nos”—no negotiation with the Jewish state, no recognition, and no peace—only to bow to reality a generation later, accepting Israel’s existence in 1988 and embracing a two-state solution. Describing this 24-year journey, Jacobson paused at key way stations, including the PLO’s 1968 charter approving armed struggle and denouncing Zionism as “racist,” “fanatic,” and “fascist.”
“Very emotion-based,” Ebrahim Ebrahim (CAS’17) suggested about this stance. “It’s not very reasonable.” If getting students to trade their single-lens telescope for a wide-angle view on the conflict is the goal, Jacobson succeeded with Ebrahim. He said after class, “Due to my Middle Eastern background”—he lived in Bahrain for four years—“I innately sided with Palestine. What I learned is that it is not possible to side with either of the two peoples in this issue without rejecting some truths,” from “the conditions of the Palestinian refugees who have lived in poor conditions of refugee camps for generations now to the fact that the Israeli people have a nation” that they won’t abandon.
Leora Kaufman (CAS’14), president of BU Students for Israel, took the class “to challenge what I know about the country and force myself to see it from a less emotional perspective.” (Her previous awareness came from nine months of living in the Jewish state, where her family goes back six generations.) The class hasn’t changed her views, and in fact, she acknowledges, it can be “a challenge, because my passion for the country is so deeply rooted.” Yet “it has enlightened me to different perspectives and historical facts.”
Jacobson tries to neuter class discussions of biased words. Pointing out for students that the PLO charter endorsed “commando action” against Israel, she explained why she didn’t label that terrorism: “The word ‘terrorism’ is a very loaded word,” with Palestinian suicide bombers denounced by Israel as terrorists, but seen as martyrs in the eyes of their own people. But whichever side one sympathizes with, the PLO finally “needed to be attuned to what was achievable and what was not achievable,” Jacobson told her class. “Some would say it’s only a façade, but politically, all the political documents starting in 1988 recognize the state of Israel and talk about the two-state solution.”
But time, remember, changes reality. Pragmatists have long argued that Israel’s coexisting with a Palestinian state in Israeli-occupied territories is the only way out. But as Israeli settlements have burgeoned in the territories, Jacobson told the class, “Many people say we are…getting further and further away from the two-state solution.”
Whether students believe that, or whether they have firm beliefs at all about the conflict at this point, must await the last class, which Jacobson reserves for their personal reflections. As for her own predictions about Kerry’s current effort, while hoping for the best, she cited the history of dashed peacemaking, concluding, “I’m not holding my breath here.”