A Palestinian/Israeli Experiment for Peace in the Middle East

Changing dynamics in the Middle East make peace between Israelis and Palestinians more elusive than ever. Both sides have rights, and both sides made wrongs. How to overcome these wrongs is what two professors, a Palestinian and an Israeli, have been trying to do for over two decades. Their work may represent one of the longest citizen’s experiments for peace in the Middle East.

When Edy Kaufman, an Argentine-born Israeli learned in Maryland that his friend Manuel Hassassian’s house in the Occupied Territories (OT) had been destroyed by an Israeli missile in Bet Jala, he was in shock. Halfway through the second intifada, in July 2003, the Israeli army had been making regular incursions in the OT, and armed Palestinian militias had been retaliating from houses in Bet Jala.

On the night the missile hit Hassassian’s house, there was shooting in nearby Gilo. The Israeli Army responded by firing a T.W.O. missile at Bet Jala which hit their house. Fortunately, ten minutes earlier, the whole family, frightened by the shooting at Gilo, had taken refuge in the basement of their home. Unable to understand what was going on, the noise terrified the family.

It took a while for them to realize what had happened. When the Palestinian police arrived, the Hassassians were told to leave the wreckage and go to a relatives’ house, in case another missile struck again. Kaufman was able to call his friend and offer help. Fortunately, the family had both Jewish and Palestinian friends who were able to help them. However, the attack left both children and adults with long-lasting post-traumatic stress disorder.

The incident, which followed an attack a year earlier by Hamas militants at Hebrew University that killed nine students and staff, strengthened both Kaufman and Hassassian’s determination to continue working for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Both friends had developed a course titled “Conflict Resolution: The Israeli/Palestinian Experiment”, taught since 1993 at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The course’s active participants are Arab and Israeli students. “By presenting the conflict with representatives from both sides, we bring urgency and more visceral reality to the classroom than do lifeless textbook descriptions or even those provided by ‘neutral’ academics disconnected from the conflict,” Kaufman told me in New York. And he added, “We have found that in order to look forward to solutions, it is important to acknowledge the two distinct and prevailing narratives of the past through the current internal divisions in both societies.”

What Hassassian and Kaufman try to stress in their course is the historical dimension of the conflict. For centuries, both in the Middle East and in the Iberian Peninsula there has been a history of peaceful coexistence, even when Jews comprised a minority in the lands of Islam. Because of this past record of coexistence, they feel that a peaceful relationship is again possible.

Without going to extremes, both societies now have a moderate majority, which changes according to the level of violence and the expectations for peace. Both professors found that an important challenge co-teaching their course is how to stress those common interests without engaging in confrontational discourse and maintaining instead a spirit of rapprochement.

In their course, Hassassian and Kaufman emphasize their common destiny and the need for peace between the two sides in the conflict. This initiative will not, by itself, bring peace to the region. But if it is replicated in other places, it will dispel misconceptions and create the conditions for better coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”