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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

CAS class seeks to present all views in a volatile discussion


Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Whoever said college is an ivory tower isolated from worldly concerns never took Abigail Jacobson’s class on 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 the organization 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.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

11 Comments on The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  • Muhammad Elfaham on 11.12.2013 at 8:03 am

    Palestine does not have a voice on the worlds podium. They are trampled on and slowly losing their lands because there is no legitimate , mature, non terrorist like organization leading the people. And the worst part is, the whole world sees this, but is not doing anything about it. They choose to let Hamas, a bunch of simpletons that think making homemade bombs and shooting them over the wall is effective , lead the Palestinian people. It is depressing in a way because at the end of the day, Palestinians and Israelis are both humans, regardless of religion. They shed the same blood and although they do share some differences, they also share a remarkable amount if similarities.

    • Dan Cusher on 11.12.2013 at 11:35 am

      You make some very good points, but using the language of blame is part of the problem. Sure, you take a unifying approach (blaming “the whole world”), but the result is still that it oversimplifies the situation and distracts from the many nuances that make this such an intractable conflict. For example, you say, “The whole world sees this, but is not doing anything about it. They choose to let Hamas…lead the Palestinian people.” Technically, the Palestinian people chose Hamas in a democratic election, which was supported by the world community…until the results were announced. I don’t mean to blame the Palestinian people for electing Hamas – a decent system of education is a prerequisite to a well functioning democracy, and the state of poverty the Palestinians are trapped in prevents that.

      But putting aside HOW Hamas got where they are, what should the world do about it? Should the UN invade the Palestinian territories and oust Hamas? If the UN won’t, should the US do it unilaterally? We (the US) have an embarrassing history of cherry-picking which world leaders we want to support or oppose based on our own selfish interests, occasionally supporting terrorists and ruthless dictators and ousting democratically elected leaders. The US is already hated for supporting Israel. Can you imagine the backlash if we forcefully ousted the Palestinians’ democratically elected administration?

      I don’t have a solution – or even the slightest clue about where to find one. My point is just that blaming the world for allowing this to go on is only distracting from the complex reality of the situation. But I couldn’t agree more with this: “It is depressing in a way because at the end of the day, Palestinians and Israelis are both humans, regardless of religion.”

  • Anonymous on 11.12.2013 at 11:37 am

    For the record, the “Israel security wall” is actually a “security barrier” so please clarify that terminology since less than 7% of the barrier is a wall and more than 90% of it is actually a fence to make it difficult for terrorists to enter into Israel.

    • Rich Barlow on 11.12.2013 at 12:48 pm

      Thanks for your comment. The BBC does indeed use the word “barrier,” though the International Court of Justice uses “wall.”

      • Anonymous on 11.13.2013 at 9:47 am

        But we all know who the International Court of Justice was made up of ;)

  • Yusef on 11.12.2013 at 11:38 am

    What’s funny is that many people still think that the conflict is between two equal parties however it is clear that there is an oppressor and an oppressed. It is the duty of the oppressor to realize what the situation is and work towards resolving this situation. Until Israel acknowledges this and treat Palestinians as equals Palestinian attitude towards Israel will not change and peace talks will remain pointless.

    • Samuel Goldring on 12.28.2013 at 9:58 pm

      Why do you conveniently ignore the rest of the Arab Umma that includes over 400 million Arabs.The dream of every Muslim is to resore the Umma (caliphate) The entire Arab Umma should sit at the negotiation table with Israel so the world could see the, miserliness, sadism,and meanness, of such a huge Umma made up of so many Arab countries. This great Umma will not fulfill zakat (charity) to small Israel even though the Umma taken together is much wealthier and has so many resources than little Israel does. During the middle ages the Arabs came out of Arabia and conquered the Middle East and North Africa and parts of Europe.Most of those conquered peoples were forced to give up their own religion, language, and history and adopt the history ,language and religion of the Arabs. But the Hebrews/ Jews/Israel, never gave up on their religion ,language and history . And Hebrew is again spoken in the land of the Hebrews. The grandfather of the late King Hussein of Jordan courageously welcomed the Jews to the Middle East and shortly thereafter he was murdered
      knifed to death by Arabs who hated him for being so generous. Let the Arabs show their tradition of generosity and they will be admired throughout the world and by God.

  • Meh on 11.12.2013 at 1:18 pm

    This generation’s apartheid.

    • Anonymous on 11.13.2013 at 9:56 am

      So much more complicated than that. I suppose that the current state of many Palestinians living in Israel may fall under that category, but personally I think of South Africa when I hear that word. And in my opinion the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an “apartheid” that is rooted in the same immoral reasons as South Africa’s.

      Israel’s security wall/barrier can certainly be viewed as offensive. However, as an American, I think of the Mexican-American border. I’ve never been there but I assume there is a fence or barrier that is patrolled by arm guards aimed at preventing people from illegaly sneaking into our country.
      Now imagine if many of the people who were attempting to enter US borders illegally were in fact “martyrs” or “terrorists.” Imagine how intense that wall/barrier would be.

      I’m not saying that this wall/barrier is necessarily the best solution, it is not.
      Obviously the vast majority of Palestinians trying to enter Israel are not terrorists/martyrs and this wall/barrier prevents too many of these good people from a better quality of life. But the fact remains: since the wall/barrier has been in place suicide bombings and other acts of martyrdom/terrorism have decreased drastically.

      What to do? I don’t know. I hope others do.

  • Samuel Goldring on 12.28.2013 at 9:18 pm

    To remind all of us as to the purpose of the security wall Israel should paste along the entire length of the wall the photos of all the Arabs and Jews that have been murdered by Muslim terrorists. When Muslims stop talking of murder as a commandment from Allah but instead say that Allah commands Muslims to make sure that Jews have a safe home just like the 21 Arab countries, that comprise the Arab League, have then the wall will come down. To take the wall down while many Muslims teach hatred is forbidden by God because the wall is needed to protect people’s God given lives .

  • Boz Bozzers on 11.19.2014 at 7:12 am

    I am writing a thesis on Art therapy as a way to influence the world to help Palestinians. Could I please get a few responses to this survey, so I can continue on with the report.. Each answer is valuable! Thanks very much in advance.

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