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Contrasting Narratives: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Prof. Fishman and his students had the opportunity to speak with Ksenia Svetlova (bottom, right, foreground), a member of Israeli Parliament. PHOTO/ Louis Fishman
Prof. Fishman and his students had the opportunity to speak with Tal Schneider (bottom, right, foreground), a journalist and political analyst. PHOTO/ Louis Fishman

By Samip Delhiwala

Published: September 27th, 2017

One of the most significant ongoing issues in the Middle East is the conflict between the state of Israel and the de jure state of Palestine, often referred to as the “world’s most intractable conflict.” Dating its roots back to the late 19th century, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the subject of intense media coverage and is extensively taught in history courses in higher education.

Because of its severe complexity, Brooklyn College history professor Louis Fishman believes that teaching and informing students about the conflict is something best done when witnessed firsthand, which is exactly why he spearheaded a study abroad program in Israel with five BC students this past summer.

Fishman, who lives in New York, Istanbul, and Tel Aviv during different parts of the year, previously led students on a “Modern Turkey” study abroad program. But after the program was cancelled during the summer of 2016, he decided to create a study abroad trip to Israel for the summer of 2017.

“The [Israel] trip was built on the Modern Turkey class that I did in Istanbul, in terms of my teaching style and organizing the trip,” Fishman said.

However, this past summer’s trip was more difficult to plan for Fishman—who organizes the entire program on his own—because he wanted his students to visit three different cities in Israel: Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. They also visited the small towns of Nazareth, Yarka, and Nahef for one day each.

Organizing the trip also included contacting various politicians, journalists, and organizations, all of which Fishman did, so that students can meet with them for lectures and ask questions.

“It was just me and my email, WhatsApp, and Facebook, with no one in between,” Fishman said.

Outside of meeting with organizations and individuals, Fishman conducted his own lectures with the students in intimate settings, such as small classrooms or cafés. During these lectures, he taught the pure history behind the conflict.

The group first arrived in Tel Aviv on July 14 and took a train from the airport to Haifa, which sits in the northern part of Israel and is the third-largest city in the country. According to Fishman, Haifa is inhabited by both Palestinians—specifically Palestinians with Israeli citizenship not living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip—and Israeli Jews, and therefore there is a sense of coexistence in the city.

“These Palestinians have Israeli citizenship, but their mother tongue is Arabic,” Fishman clarified. “They are referred to as Israeli Arabs, but many of them identify as Palestinians.”

Fishman specifically chose to begin in Haifa because of ease of mobility, mainly due to the train station nearby. After a rest day on Saturday, July 15, the group went to Jerusalem on Sunday.

“Haifa is far from the feeling of the conflict, but I really wanted to throw [the students] in cold water and get them to go to Jerusalem on one of the first days we were there,” Fishman said.

They explored the city for the day, and returned to Haifa for Monday, July 17. The group met with a youth organization in the afternoon and then traveled to Tel Aviv, Israel’s second-largest city and technological and financial center, on Tuesday. There, Fishman took the students to the U.S. embassy to listen to diplomats explain their work on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“I’ve never taken students to a U.S. embassy before, but I think it’s very important for students to see job opportunities for the future,” Fishman explained. “Some students might want to deal with diplomacy in the future.”

The group also did a Fishman-led walking tour of Tel Aviv, which both he and the students particularly enjoyed because they had the opportunity to observe the architecture and history of the city, which was founded in 1909.

After extensively exploring the intricacies of Tel Aviv, the group took a train back to Haifa on Tuesday night and spent all of Wednesday there before returning to Tel Aviv for a Thursday day trip. There, they met with Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, a newspaper on Israel, the Middle East, and the Jewish world. Benn discussed the history of the paper and its political stance. The students also had the opportunity to speak to Ilene Prusher, a journalist and contributor to Haaretz.

“How many students have the chance to go into an actual newsroom?” Fishman rhetorically asked. “Again, it’s a great opportunity for the students to see these interesting things, and maybe start thinking if this is something they want a career in.”

“Journalists are also reporting on parts of conflicts that people don’t want to hear,” he added. “They’re able to see things that we don’t always see, so its important to hear what they have to say about the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.”

The group returned to Haifa again, and spent another six days there. Fishman took his students on multiple walking tours, and they had the opportunity to meet with multiple organizations, journalists, and politicians such as Ksenia Svetlova, a member of the Israeli Parliament, who discussed local politics, various social issues, and potential solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Many of the organizations that the group visited were for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, youth movements, and grassroots movements.

“Seeing all these types of groups is something many of these students have never done before back home,” Fishman said.

One such organization is Elem, which focuses on treating and rehabilitating Israeli youth who get involved in drug or alcohol abuse, drop out of school, or leave home. They also met with a grassroots feminist organization called Isha L’Ishia. Khulud Khamis, a Palestinian writer, explained to the students what the organization is about and its role in Palestinian and Jewish societies.

“I like taking the students to grassroots organizations, not the more famous well-polished organizations,” Fishman explained. “The people in these grassroots organizations are very conscious of what it is like to be oppressed, and I want [the students] to hear directly from them.”

In between conducting walking tours and visiting these organizations and individuals, Fishman gave his students a necessary break from all of the emotionally heavy topics that they were learning about. They spent time with an Arabic calligrapher named Ahmad, who is a friend of Fishman, and learned Arabic calligraphy and its history.

The students had a chance to take a break and learn Arabic calligraphy from Ahmad (right, foreground). PHOTO/ Louis Fishman
The students had a chance to take a break and learn Arabic calligraphy from Ahmad Zaobi (right, foreground). PHOTO/ Louis Fishman

“For the first time, [the students] were relaxed,” Fishman said. “They were drawing the Arabic letter ‘alif’ for 15 minutes. I was relaxed, they were relaxed, and it was like we reached nirvana. It was nice to see them do hands-on stuff for a change.”

Fishman personally enjoyed spending time in Haifa and teaching the students about it. He graduated from the University of Haifa in 1995, and he has not been back that often. But he stressed how it was more important for his students.

“Starting off in Haifa was very special because we’re in a smaller neighborhood,” Fishman said. “You really are able to absorb and meet a lot of people on your own that you wouldn’t meet in other bigger cities.”

After finishing Haifa, the group went to the Arab Druze city of Yarka for two days. The students received a tour of the Israeli-Lebanese border as well as a historical survey of the region of Galilee in northern Israel.

Fishman and his students also visited the Arab city of Nahaf, where they received a walking tour and a history of the village over the last 100 years.

They proceeded to Nazareth, where they received a lecture on Palestinian media within the context of Palestinian politics, before going to Jerusalem for five days. There, the group met with Noga Tarnopolsky, who shared her experiences as a foreign journalist. She also discussed the difficulties that come with writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The group had the chance to speak with an organization called B’Tselem, which monitors human rights violations in occupied Palestinian territories.

When the time came for Fishman to lecture on the history of Jerusalem, he did not need any formal room to do so.

“All of the lecturing in Jerusalem was done while walking around the walls there,” he said. “It’s good because students get to hear me and visualize at the same time.”

One specific moment in Jerusalem was particularly significant for Leonid Gozman, a student who went on the trip.

“There was one moment when we were walking in Jerusalem, and Professor Fishman pointed out a building that was being constructed, a new Museum of Tolerance,” he said. “The museum, however, was being built on the site of a Palestinian graveyard.”

Perhaps the most powerful moment in Jerusalem for Fishman was a discussion with Bassam, who is a Palestinian Muslim, and Rami, who is an Israeli Jew. Bassam and Rami, both middle-aged men, lost each of their daughters to violence from the ongoing conflict. The Israeli army killed Bassam’s daughter while a Palestinian terrorist killed Rami’s daughter, yet, ironically, this has united them to fight for peace in the region. They are founders of The Parents’ Circle, which is a grassroots organization created for bereaving Palestinians and Israelis. According to its website, it “promotes reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge.”

Prof. Fishman and his students listened to Bassam (middle left) and Rami (middle right) speak about their experiences in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. PHOTO/ Louis Fishman
Prof. Fishman and his students listened to Bassam (middle left) and Rami (middle right) speak about their experiences in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. PHOTO/ Louis Fishman

“[Bassam and Rami’s talk] was tough to listen to because I have a daughter as well,” Fishman said. “You look around and you see the students are getting emotional as well.”

But Fishman, and his students especially, embraced these moments as opportunities to learn.

“It’s hard to explain how all-consuming the conflict is without having visited Israel or Palestine,” Gozman said. “It makes up 50 percent of any regular conversation, 100 percent of all political discourse. It’s all that’s discussed in the media. It has become ingrained in the culture. There are no world affairs; everything that happens in the outside world is regarded in its relation to the conflict. One forgets when one is there that there are other issues in the world, other struggles, because it feels like this issue is at the center of the world.”

Fishman, in response, said, “As a professor, whether it’s in the classroom or outside the classroom, you have great satisfaction in seeing students breaking out, learning, meeting new people, and having a good time.”

Overall, the program more than exceeded Fishman and his students’ expectations. For next summer’s program, he hopes to be able to take his students to more Palestinian institutions and towns, such as Ramallah and Bethlehem, both in the occupied Palestinian territories.

When asked what new mindsets he would like for his students to carry back home, Fishman responded, “Over there we get to see all of these feminist, LGBTQ, and youth movements, as well as movements to help the impoverished and conflict-stricken people. Although these issues are specific to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they parallel what is going on here, and I hope these students realize that and become more active in their communities.”

“I think there’s a lot of meaning in conflicting narratives,” Fishman said to summarize the trip. “Every group that we met showed us a different side of the conflict that we didn’t know before. It was an absolute success, and I encourage students to come next summer.”

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