Skip to content

2010

Mark Brennan

The Johns Hopkins University

The first part of the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project in the Middle East has been a whirlwind. In a matter of two days, we attended an orientation in Washington D.C. designed to introduce us to the goals of the program, as well as Middle Eastern politics, economics, and cultures.

Our orientation began with hearty congratulations from the program’s sponsor, The Ibrahim Family Foundation. With short addresses from S.A. and Winston Ibrahim, the tone for the program was set. They discussed the role of Islam in America from the perspective of an American immigrant family of the Muslim faith. More broadly, they emphasized the importance of “sharing America with the world.” The Ibrahim family designed the program with the hopes of presenting American society and values to the world, via multi-culture and faith dialogue.

Immediately after the welcome from the Foundation, Professor of Political Science Steven David of the Johns Hopkins University gave brief introductory remarks. Professor David has accompanied the programs abroad for two years now. In his introduction, he emphasized the necessity of trips and international exchanges like this, that encourage cross-cultural dialogue in today’s increasingly globalized world. Additionally, he gave a brief introductory lecture about the many religious, historical, and geopolitical origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I appreciated the care and thought he put into his lecture, to ensure it was well balanced and relatively unbiased.

The Ibrahim Family Foundation also organized a lecture with Jordan Hassin (Crosby-Volmer International Communications). He spoke about many ideas, but what struck me the most was his comment about being an ambassador to the Middle East. He suggested that we are now inherently what the Institute of International Education (IIE) calls “citizen diplomats,” and thus represent the United States to foreigners. “Each of you is a product of the ideals of our country, and therefore ambassadors,” he noted.

Finally, we heard from IIE. The Institute is a longstanding pioneer in international education, and is founded on the idea that lasting peace between nations is found through understanding, and that international exchange is the best way to achieve this understanding. IIE’s Mike McCartt and Eric Johnson gave a brief introduction about the program and the Institute, and echoed S.A. Ibrahim’s congratulations.

After the final round of introductions, we had our first meeting. It was Akram Elias, President of the Capital Communications Group. Mr. Elias is in the cultural intelligence business. He spoke extensively about the differences between what he terms cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence. Mr. Elias explained that emotional intelligence is often used as the rationale behind actions in the Middle East. Having always attended western schools that emphasize cognitive rational reasons to events, this was a foreign concept to me. Thus to understand the Middle East in a cultural, religious, or political sense, it is essential that one understand the many deeply rooted emotional currents in Arab, Israeli, and Persian society.

Following Mr. Elias, we were privileged to visit the Israeli, Jordanian, and the United Arab Emirates embassies. At the Israeli embassy I had the chance to speak with their Director of Communications, Jonathan Peled, and ask questions about the Israeli naval blockade / flotilla incident. Through he was remarkably receptive to all questions, he always managed to answer them in the most diplomatic fashion. As a side note, the Israeli embassy’s security was quite impressive. It owns the only metal detector for which I had to take my belt off, out of the many embassy and airport detectors I have walked through in the past 3 days….. After the Israeli embassy we visited Jordan’s and the UAE’s embassy. Their representatives were very hospitable and receptive to questions. It was interesting how they spent much of the time we had with them reinforcing the importance their current leaders have played in their country’s development.

A final domestic meeting we had was with various representatives from the Obama / Biden Administration, including: Herro Mustafa, Special Advisor for Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; Pradeep Ramamurthy, Senior Director for Global Engagement; and Paul Monteiro, Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement, all of whom addressed domestic and international interfaith dialogue. One was the Jewish liaison for the White House. They all emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue in today’s world, just as Professor David did during his remarks. They were all incredibly accessible, and it was nice contrasting the comments from the embassy visits with the White House visit.

With our orientation completed, we left for Dulles International Airport for the 6pm (ET) flight to Dubai (arrival: 11pm, the next day, Dubai time). Luckily, we had enough time during a layover to get lunch in Amsterdam, and visit the Anne Frank house. Though totally jetlagged, we are now in Dubai, about to begin to apply the qualitative understanding our orientation gave us to Middle Eastern affairs.

Glennis Markison

The Johns Hopkins University

From touring ancient villages to visiting provocative art galleries, our group has discovered that Dubai has a lot more to offer than sizeable skyscrapers and Hermès headscarves. Yes, we found it thrilling to view Dubai from the world’s tallest building. And yes, we had a good time shopping in the world’s largest mall. However, our most significant experiences were the ones in which our group dug beneath Dubai’s stylish exterior and explored the Emirate’s most sensitive issues. From the disparities between the lifestyles of Emiratis and ex-pats to the recession’s effect on Dubai’s growth to the complex roles that the UAE plays in Middle Eastern conflicts, the tough topics we learned about inspired a lot of passionate conversations.

By the end of our first day in Dubai, it was clear that the United States’ media had provided us with a rather incomplete depiction of the Emirate. Focusing more on the Emirate’s style and not nearly enough on its substance, TV programs and filmic references to Dubai failed to tell the whole story. Fortunately, our next two days in Dubai centered on how the Emirate presents itself through its own media forms.

After our meeting at the Dubai School of Government, our group went to Cisco Systems International. We discussed the different results of Cisco’s providing of infrastructure for internet access to Middle Eastern countries. We learned that young people in the Middle East use social networking services like Facebook and MySpace much more than Americans . I was initially startled by this fact, but it made sense after it was explained that this disparity is likely a result of the strict rules against dating in the Middle East. Relationships are formed on the internet because they are not always allowed to develop organically in the real world. As for more politically-charged internet topics, we also discussed Cisco’s adherence to American foreign policy decisions when it comes to which countries and regimes the company is allowed to work with. We also discussed the compromising position that Cisco might be put in if cyber warfare were to take place between America (or its allies) and other countries. We became aware of the many ways in which internet access can affect people’s lives.

Our next meeting, with the GulfCap Group, was less focused on communication and politics in the Middle East and more on the way businesses are run in the region. For example, we learned how Islamic Banking works, and how this no-interest model has proven successful for the GulfCap Group. However, while the conversation mostly revolved around finance, there was one humorous incident which commented on certain aspects of Middle Eastern culture. An alarm went off throughout the building early on in the meeting, warning in both English and Arabic that there might be a fire somewhere in the building and that the situation was being investigated. It turned out that it was a false alarm, but the P.A. system apologized for the incident by sending out 5 identical messages every 30 seconds or so. After the final apology alarm, one of the representatives of GulfCap smirked and said: “You see, the alarm rang five times just so you would really feel that you’re in the Middle East.” Naturally, we all started laughing.

The next day we got a firsthand look at how Dubai presents itself through media. We went to Dubai Media City, a chunk of the Emirate that houses a variety of media business who all work together to complete their projects. We started the day by having a meeting with representatives of several different companies within the Media City. We discussed freedom of speech, censorship, the growing film industry, the role of women in media and the diverse audience that Dubai’s TV shows and films must keep in mind. I was especially grateful that we got to converse with Nayla Al Khaja, the first female filmmaker in Dubai. Her first film, a very unnerving and powerful short about pedophilia, was banned in Dubai when it was initially released. Ironically, the same film received an award two years later by the very group that had tried to prevent its release. This really exemplified the rapidly changing nature of Dubai. Nayla’s presentation also dealt with some of the ways in which family structure and religion affect women’s ability to involve themselves in the media. Ms. Al Khaja noted that she often has trouble casting Arab actresses in her films because these women usually have religious families who don’t approve of the career path. This meeting in the Media City really emphasized the sensitive balance of conservatism and progressivism in Dubai’s culture.

After that, we learned about seven radio stations that operate through the Media City via the Arab Radio Network (ARN). That these stations are presented in multiple languages further emphasized the multicultural nature of Dubai. It was wonderful to be around so many creative people, especially when we got to listen to presenters go live on air and to hear composers create musical interludes for radio programs. Our tour of MBC, a news and entertainment channel, also helped us get a feel for the way Dubai expresses itself through media. From covering conflicts in the Middle East to creating flashy reality TV shows, MBC proves that people in Dubai can face complicated issues and also be eager to have a good time. The media in the United States too often emphasizes the latter, forgetting that people in Dubai can also tackle tough topics.

After our exciting trip to Dubai Media City, our group met with two employees from Google. Very high up in the company, the two men explained to us everything from censorship to marketing. They addressed the social and political implications of internet use, and also commented on the current political climates in their home countries — Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It was a very satisfying interaction because we got to learn not only about how Google does business, but also about how different cultures utilize its service. For example, Google doesn’t work with countries that have really strong censorship efforts, because ultimately they force the search engine to work way too slowly.

We concluded our long, media-filled day by attending a party with young leaders at a home on the Palm Jumeirah. The home was beautiful, the deserts were delicious, and the conversations were fascinating. I spent over an hour talking with an ex-Pat ABC reporter who covers politics in the Middle East. We talked about everything from gender to democracy.

Needless to say, our group had a great time in Dubai. We struck a perfect balance between the serious and the social, so I’m excited to see what happens as we travel to countries that are more directly involved in conflicts.

Benjamin Wasserman

University of Pennsylvania

Our first day in Dubai was packed with meetings and activities that gave us a broad and deep understanding of the past, present, and future of Dubai. To start, we traveled to one of the original three towns within Dubai, Bastakiya Village. We arrived at the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding, where were we greeted by two Emirati men who took us on a guided tour of Bastakiya. During the tour we saw the different types of houses of old Dubai and were educated about the lives of those who lived in Bastakiya when it was a thriving trade hub.

Our tour was followed by a visit to a mosque during prayer. We observed the prayer, and afterwards one of our Emirati guides took our questions about the prayer service and explained some of the tenets of Islam. This first taste of dialogue was followed by a lunch at the Center where we enjoyed traditional Middle Eastern food, learned cultural practices at mealtime, and continued dialogue with our guide. It was fascinating to hear from an Emirati man who was educated and lived in the United States for many years what his opinions were on American foreign policy and education in the Middle East.

We then ventured over to The Third Line Art Gallery, an art gallery in Dubai that concentrates on the works of Middle Eastern artists. The main exhibit was work by Abbas Akhavan that was a provocative portrayal of the Dubai economy, past and present. In addition, we were shown works by Middle Eastern artists that dealt with faith, namely Islam. A striking element of this visit occurred when the curator noted that the work of Jewish artists could not be presented at the gallery, and the only way that a Jewish artist might be able to present work would be if he or she was undoubtedly anti-Zionist. The curator also noted that while no direct censorship has been exercised by the government, a great deal of self-censorship occurs so as not to incite the government to act.

Next stop: Dubai Mall. It is the largest and by far the most extravagant mall in the world. The most lavish shops in the world have taken residence in the Mall, which includes a movie theater, an aquarium and “underwater zoo,” and a Gold Souk. The mall is also in the center of a complex of brand new buildings and popular tourist spots in Dubai. There is a man-made lagoon, where we watched a fountain show similar to that of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. There are also many hotels in the area, but the most significant feature of the area, and possibly all of Dubai, is the Burj Khalifa. The Burj Khalifa is the largest building in the world, standing at a height of 2,717 feet and completed this past year. After exploring the Dubai Mall and grabbing a bite to eat, we went to the observation deck on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa. From the elevator to the top to the incredible view on the deck, the whole experience was incredible. The lavishness of the Dubai Mall and the prominence of the Burj Khalifa serve as a testament to the magnificent economic success of Dubai in recent years.

The next day, our first appointment was with the Dubai School of Government (DSG). The DSG was established in 2005 and was developed in conjunction with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Makhtoum, the ruler of Dubai. At the DSG, we met with Ms. Natasha Ridge, a research fellow, and Dr. Tarik M. Yousef, Dean of the DSG. The school admits exclusively Arab students, with about 50% of the students being Emirati and 50% of the students coming from other Arab countries. The University offers a Masters in Public Administration, and the institution has a focus on research in the Arab world. The University was developed in part in reaction to the reliance of the Arab world on western consulting firms to achieve more efficient results in governance, education, and healthcare. Some of the goals of the University are to give Arabs a high-end education in the Middle East, and to promote quality research done by Arabs in the Middle East to help policymakers. Dr. Yousef, the Dean, was especially articulate in his passion to develop strong research institutions and an effective education system throughout the Middle East.
The ambitious goals of the Dubai School of Government demonstrated a promising trend to promote the higher education of Arab students in the Middle East. If this trend continues, one can see how the Middle East can become the bastion of knowledge that it once was. However, our visit to the School also highlighted some important issues concerning education and the social structure of the United Arab Emirates.

The most interesting element of UAE society that we discovered was the treatment of Emiratis by the government. As natives of the UAE, Emiratis, which make up between 15 and 20% of the population of the UAE, are given a special status through the policy of ‘Emiratization’. Some features of this policy are that Emiratis cannot be fired from private businesses unless they cause significant financial damage to that business, they are on a higher pay scale than other nationalities within the UAE, and private institutions must have a certain percentage of Emiratis employed. This incentive structure can sometimes lead to a lack of motivation in Emiratis and can lead to businesses not wanting to hire them.

In addition, women tend to outperform men academically. Of college educated people within the UAE, 70% are women and 30% are men. Despite this fact, the top positions in the government bureaucracy are reserved for men, thus limiting the level of success women can attain. In addition, there are no Jewish students at the Dubai School of Government, and while there have been visiting faculty members that were Jewish, none have been Israelis. Despite the aforementioned issues, it is important to recognize that Dubai is one of the most liberal and open countries in the Arab world.

The first part of our trip certainly gave us a broad picture of Dubai. In a span of 24 hours, we saw how Dubai looked just 100 years ago in Bastakiya Village, the lavishness of present-day Dubai in the Dubai Mall and the enormous Burj Khalifa, and the issues surrounding the current social and educational issues of Dubai and how they may affect the future of Dubai and the greater Middle East. Considering the rapid modernization and economic success of Dubai in conjunction with its striking demographics, one can see why Dubai is such a remarkable case study within the Middle East.

Sarah Erwin

Johns Hopkins University/Harvard College

Standing on the banks of the Jordan River in Bethany as the guide explained that our location had been unanimously confirmed as the spot of Jesus’ baptism by Christian churches was one of those moments when struggling to maintain my composure was simply out of the question. This was where it all began for my religion, and to be looking at the very spot where Christianity came into being was utterly surreal. He walked here, and here I was now. Plucked from extravagant, cosmopolitan Dubai and deposited suddenly in a still developing, poverty-stricken country was enough of a shock, but to be standing there and thinking about how countries in which Christianity either does not exist or has a very small presence had worked to protect and preserve this sight was even more mind-boggling. Immediately, I had fallen in love with Jordan.

As we continued along the Jordan River to a spot illustrating the close Jordanian border with Israel, our guide, Zuhair, showed us many indications of the former high levels of the river. It was difficult to believe that such an important water source had been reduced to a murky body of water that Zuhair somewhat jokingly called a creek. Our conversation on the way out of Bethany consisted of one of our first in depth exchanges of information and ideas about our respective religions. We asked each other questions about traditions, ceremonies, symbols, and other aspects of our forms of worship. I truly appreciated how respectful we all were of one another, and how reverent and curious the whole group was about Bethany and the Jordan River despite me being the only Catholic in the group. It was powerful to consider the interfaith cooperation and participation that took place and persists in order to uncover and protect a site so sacred to Christianity.

After our visit to Bethany, we were given a spectacular view of Amman from atop The Citadel, where we were able to see the city for miles in all directions, along with an enormous and proud Jordanian flag flying from a hilltop in the distance. We examined the ancient artifacts in the Archeological Museum, gaining a better idea of the extent of the history of the region we were now in. Standing atop The Citadel and looking at Roman ruins after having stood atop the Burj Khalifa and looking at a rapidly growing city just a few days before made the cultural difference between Jordan and Dubai even clearer.

After checking in at the American Center of Oriental Research Hostel, we met up with a middle school classmate of Winston Ibrahim’s, Molly Hunter, to have dinner. Molly, a graduate of Williams College, works at Reclaim Childhood, which promotes the involvement of Iraqi refugee women and their children in sports such as soccer and basketball. The girls and their translators were bright, intelligent, and enlightening to talk to about their experiences adjusting to life in a new country. Most of them said they were ready to leave Jordan to find a prosperous job elsewhere, and their courage and motivation to learn and make a better life for themselves was inspiring.

Wednesday morning we met with representatives from the United States Embassy in Amman, one of whom was also from the great state of Maine, and traveled together to the University of Jordan to speak with Dr. Mohammad Majali, the Dean of Sharia and Islamic Studies. Dr. Majali talked with us about efforts to exchange and establish ties with Western universities in order to improve the image of Islam in the West. Many students come from abroad to study at the university, and he and other faculty members push them to speak in Arabic as much as possible so that language barriers do not prevent them from getting to know students from other countries. Although all of us were taken aback by his insistence that Jews had been responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the United States, we felt comfortable asking provocative questions and pushing Dr. Majali to explain his stances. From our meeting with the dean, we were able to learn about the idea of interfaith cooperation and the concept of democracy in the world of Islam from a new perspective, and it opened our eyes to yet another valuable point of view.

After our time at the University of Jordan, we went on to Al Isra University to meet with Dr. Wajih Mahmoud, several other faculty members, and a group of students to learn about their involvement in cross-cultural dialogue. Although we all wished we could have had more time to talk with the students about our perceptions and stereotypes of each others’ countries, the questions we were able to ask and address were thoughtful and eye-opening. We all agreed that hearing them speak about their views of the United States was extremely important in helping us to understand how our country is thought about by the rest of the world. The students also ate lunch with us and provided us with copies of an English translation of the Qur’an and a book of poetry written by a few of the students to help us learn about their culture. The book of poetry in particular revealed to me how no matter where someone comes from, their struggles and joys are something anyone can relate to. Spending time with people our own age from Jordan was enjoyable for all of us, and we wished it could have lasted longer.

Our last meeting of the day was with Dr. Munjed Al Sharif, a coordinator of projects working to adapt to climate change in Jordan, particularly concerning the issue of water scarcity in the region. He explained to us how access to water is extremely limited due to the geography of Jordan and the lack and expense of necessary technologies. Historically, many plans about the distribution of water among the countries surrounding the Jordan River have been agreed upon but never enacted successfully, and Dr. Al Sharif explained to us that cooperation is critical. It was incredible to understand that while I don’t think twice about turning on a faucet in my home in Maine, the people of Jordan are given water in a container on the roofs of their houses once a week and must make it last until the next delivery. Up until our meeting with Dr. Al Sharif, we had been discussing mainly the political and cultural aspects of the conflict in the Middle East, but it became clear that the environmental issues in the region are equally as influential in relations between the countries. Currently, Israel, with the most sophisticated water systems, has agreements with Jordan to share its technologies, and the two countries also have plans for an infrastructural project called the Red-Dead Canal, which will use the Red Sea and the Dead Sea to improve water supply to the region. Dr. Al Sharif summed up the situation best when he told us simply that water has now also acquired a strategic value, and it makes cooperation necessary now more than ever. This meeting provided yet another perspective of the situation in the Middle East, and although I am not one of the students in the group studying environmental sciences I was extremely interested and enlightened by our discussion.

Our last day in Jordan was spent exploring the mind-boggling, ancient sites in Petra. We had seen many pictures of the unbelievable monuments before our trip, but seeing in person the intricately decorated and carved Treasury, the massive Monastery, and the hundreds of carvings along our walk in the Siq gorge was truly indescribable. With Zuhair leading the way as a fountain of information about the meanings and significance of each rock formation we passed, the depth of the history of Petra became increasingly more astounding. Adding on a camel ride with Glennis in which we attempted to communicate with the camels’ owner in our limited Arabic made the day that much more memorable. Being surrounded by so much history for an entire day was truly inexplicable, and it is something I will never forget. The rich culture of Jordan became increasingly clearer the more time we spent in the country, and Petra completed the picture perfectly.

There is another important aspect of Jordanian culture our group was able to experience several times: the insane taxi drivers. Crossing the Allenby Bridge proved to be nothing in comparison to being flung around in the backseat of a cab as the driver rocketed through the streets of Amman and simultaneously tried to decipher our complicated directions through the language barrier. Upon each surprisingly safe landing at our destination after these rides, most of us seemed compelled to sink to our knees and kiss the ground. I was very fortunate to be able to see a dear Jordanian friend on our last night in Amman from an international, interfaith summer camp I have gone to for several years called Seeds of Peace. My friend, Laith, described the roads of Jordan perfectly. “In Jordan, you don’t drive,” he said, with a serious and slightly foreboding look on his face. “You fight for your existence.” Yet despite our life-threatening journeys through Amman, Jordan proved to be a remarkable place from which I learned invaluable lessons, and I sincerely hope to return for a much longer amount of time in the future.

Zachary Bell

University of Pennsylvania

On the morning of June 11, our group left Jordan for the Allenby Bridge crossing into Israel. While this was supposed to be a minor portion of the day, it turned into a rather significant event. Despite a Jordanian tour guide who helped move us up to the front of the queue in Jordan, it took well over an hour to get to leave Jordan. After passing through the demilitarized zone, we got dropped off at the Israeli checkpoint. We had arranged a “VIP” guide, Odessa, to speed us through, and I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortably American as we cut the long line of Palestinians waiting in line for their turn to cross. In the second part of the Israeli checkpoint, our bags were screened, and despite nothing unusual about his bags, Mak (who is an Indian Muslim) was asked to stay behind for questioning. Dr. David stayed behind with him, and reported that he was asked most of the questions on behalf of Mak, assuring the Israeli soldiers of his legitimate reasons for traveling to Israel. At the third part of the checkpoint, our passports were checked and we were all questioned on our itinerary in Israel. The variety in questioning was a bit shocking – several students were asked one or two questions and were approved in just a few minutes, while others (like Mak) underwent much lengthier interviews. In the end, Mak, Winston (also Muslim), and myself (a Jew), were asked to fill out extra paperwork and had to wait in a separate room. While we all waited (for what came to over an hour), it was partially comical, and partially distressing that it was a surprise that I was chosen, while we all expected Mak and Winston to be questioned more thoroughly. While none of us are totally comfortable with this sort of profiling, it forced us to enter Israel fully aware of how security may trump civil rights in some cases in the country we were entering.We were picked up at Allenby Bridge from Rabbi Ron Kronish, a reform rabbi who lives in Jerusalem. During the bus ride, Rabbi Kronish gave us an introduction to Israel, and importantly explained the notion of a “dual narrative,” where the history and current situation between the Palestinians and Israelis has two stories, with different implications, different accusations, and even different facts.

After settling in at the hotel, we went to Friday night services at a reform synagogue in Jerusalem, Kehilat Kol HaNeshama. Rabbi Kronish gave a brief overview of the reform movement, as a response to the orthodox movement, which then caused the outgrowth of the conservative movement as a middle ground response. He explained that it is “reform” and not “reformed,” because it is constantly in a state of change, interpretation, and adaptation to fit in the context of a changing world. The ambience of the synagogue was warm and inviting. Everyone seemed to like the beautiful singing (which was incorporated in almost every prayer) and the “guided meditation” by the Rabbi to help us reflect upon the week. For me, it was very comforting to know the prayers and participate fully, because after two weeks of understanding other cultures, it made me feel at home even in a foreign land. I was surprised by my sense of pride in reciting the prayers, which probably came from feelings that I was finally getting to share my culture after hearing the other students explain Christianity and Islam throughout Dubai and Jordan. As the service was coming to a close, the rabbi welcomed all the “guests” to the service, which turned out to be a variety of groups from around the world. I had never seen a congregation so welcoming and diverse, while still so prideful and intimate.

We ended the night with a Shabbat dinner at Rabbi Krosnish’s house in Jerusalem. Rabbi Kronish is the head of an intercultural group (ICCI), and so the dinner included several local Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. It was interesting to be in the same social scene with people like Hani, a Palestinian from Jerusalem who participated in ICCI and was working as a performer in a theater group, and Anat, a Jewish Israeli who was studying Arabic in University. The night had special meaning for me, since the Kronish’s daughter was a director for me at my Jewish summer camp growing up, and so I was able to get a glimpse of the background of an American Jewish leader. The interaction of this diverse group was hopeful, but also spurred questions about what defines identity in this region – are you a Jew, a Palestinian, or a Jerusalem citizen?

The following morning, we were given a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, which included a visit to the Church of Assumption, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Temple Mount (for the Muslim students), the Western Wall, and an organization called the Sisters of Zion. The historical sites added to the awesome nature of Jerusalem and deepened our appreciation for the religious and historical significance of the city for multiple groups. However, to me, the Sisters of Zion presented an equally enlightening experience. The Sisters of Zion is a group of nuns from the Catholic church who dedicate their work to fighting anti-Jewish interpretation of the Christian Scriptures, as part of an acknowledgement of the role of the Catholic Church in condoning or being used as justification for anti-Semitism in the past. The Sisters train preachers to understand the scriptures in a more tolerant manner. It was inspiring to hear from Sister Trudy as she spoke with sincerity and conviction for her mission, when it contradicted all my stereotypes of the Catholic Church. It also contradicted the notion that cultural understanding came through novel or futuristic methods, when this group was using interpretation of Scripture, disseminated through the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to promote tolerance.

In the afternoon we crossed the border into the West Bank en route to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is host to the Church of the Nativity, which had a floor mosaic dating back over 1500 years, and a cave beneath the church where Jesus is believed to have been born.

Afterwards, we went to the Arab Educational Institute, a forum for Palestinians in Bethlehem and the West Bank to engage in intercultural dialogue. The Palestinians included recent graduates of university and other people in their twenties. We quickly jumped into conversation about how the Palestinians and Arab world view U.S. foreign policy, what life is like with the Wall (which separates the West Bank from the rest of Israel), and how Israel should be dealing with Hamas in Gaza. There were a variety of viewpoints and personalities. At one point, one of the Palestinian youth was explaining that while the Palestinians (especially Hamas) did attack Israel, each action was a reaction to something that Israel did. In this light, he also explained that, to him, suicide bombing was more of a political statement than a true attack. On this reaction-perpetuation point, I asked what negative move Hamas was reacting to when they fired 10,000 rockets after Israel disengaged (moving out its settlers) from Gaza in 2005, an act which I perceived as one that offered a clean beginning. He responded that Israel still had a siege on Gaza and that Israel never really left, which to him provoked the rockets. Alternatively, I spoke with another Palestinian man who emphasized the “human rights perspective,” and spoke more about the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, and how it was imperative that they be improved. He (and others) explained that 64% of Palestinians in the West Bank live below the poverty line, that it is difficult to travel to Jerusalem (which many of them depended on for work before the Wall was erected) and most other countries, and that harassment and embarrassment by Israeli soldiers was commonplace. This man explained that he went to university in Jerusalem, and that one Israeli soldier would not allow him to enter unless he admitted that he was a homosexual (which he was not). Our tour guide through the Church of the Nativity (who worked with this group) was a Dutch man with a Palestinian wife, and he explained that a female Israeli soldier forced his seven-year-old daughter to strip down naked at one checkpoint. It was hard to know how to react. In the end I felt like even though I could certainly understand why these youth had these opinions, it was still disappointing that even the more open-minded among them could only go as far as frame the conflict in terms of human rights, but not once did any of them seem to acknowledge that Israel’s moves were simply similar reactions to actions of the Palestinians, and that Israel had legitimate security concerns. For example, there was a common view that Israel erected the Wall as a way to cut off economic and educational resources from the Palestinians to make their life harder, claiming that Wall had little to do with security. This failure to take the 1,000 Israeli deaths from the second intifada into account the same way they take the hardships and deaths of Palestinians into account was indicative of the mental roadblock to true mutual understanding. Additionally, the Education Institute, which was created for the purpose of intercultural dialogue, hung posters of locks on doors (symbols for the locks on the homes of the Palestinians that they would some day come back to) and maps of Palestine that had no acknowledgement of Israel. Given that a center dedicated to mutual understanding seemed to fall so short was discouraging. However, these youth all seemed like reasonable people, little different from us, who were just reacting to a life of hardship that could all be used as evidence for blaming Israel. In preparing to speak with Israelis the following day, I wanted to understand how Israel could allow the individual harassments by soldiers to persist, and get a better understanding of what Israel was doing to foster economic and political development in the West Bank. As we would soon see, the grand disparity between the Israelis’ description of life in the West Bank and the treatment by Israeli soldiers would make us start to understand Rabbi Kronish’s point that the Middle East is a region of “dual narratives” for the same story.

Mohammed Hussain

University of Pennsylvania

Our first trip for the day, was a strategic tour of the city with Dr. Mordechai Kedar and David Weinberg, both affiliated with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. The trip began atop Nebi Samuel, a fortress on the highest point in the area on the Northern edge of the Jerusalem, and worked our way along to several strategically important locations around the city. The location of this first stop itself matched some of the surprises of the discussion. The hill is within what is termed by most of the world as the West Bank. However, Dr. Kedar explained that in his view, as no sovereign nation currently lays claim to the land, Israel is free to do with that land as it pleases, without it being termed “occupied,” as long as it respects private property on the land. Throughout the tour, Dr. Kedar and Mr. Weinberg presented clear, reasonable arguments supporting positions I had previously deemed to be completely irrational, arrogant, and unjust, such as this denial of the occupied nature of the West Bank. While I still disagreed with many of their statements and conclusions, I recognized the value in considering their perspective, which I had previously ignored.

Perhaps the most interesting product of that perspective was Dr. Kedar’s ‘Seven-state solution.’ Believing that creating one monolithic Palestinian state would fail to recognize the dominant tribal structure of Palestinian society, he suggested created several states, with each city center serving as a microstate. While his point concerning tribalism confirms what we saw on the other legs of our trip, in the governance of both the Emirates and Jordan, I was skeptical to the merit of a plan that would continue to have Israel holding the rural areas between these city-states (although they would be connected by underground roadways).

Our high vantage point showed us several Israeli settlements and Arab neighborhoods, with the two populations incredibly entwined with one another. We could also see the ‘security fence,’ or ‘separation wall,’ depending on whom you ask, that surrounds some Arab areas and protects the pockets of the West Bank that Israel has annexed and the roads that connect them to Israel proper. The theme of dual narratives emerged again. While the Palestinians we had met the day before saw this as an attempt to continue to push them out of their own land, Dr. Kedar explained the wall in security terms and the safety it provided. This dual narrative continued as the day progressed, for example, with our guides qualifying the harassment at checkpoints we had heard of the day before as isolated incidents that Israeli policy tries to eliminate. As we traveled around the city, we heard our guides stressing the need to maintain a unified Jerusalem, rather than dividing it as the most popular two-state solution suggests. Citing Jordanian abuses against Jews when that state held East Jerusalem from 1948-1967, they both emphasized that a divided Jerusalem would be the effective end of Israel. In their opinion, Arabs would not have respect for the city; they would “rather see it in ruins so long as it were not in Jewish hands.”

This highlights part of a so-what prejudiced attitude that I noticed throughout the tour. In addition to painting Israel as a victim, our guides often noted the Palestinian Authority’s failures in advancing the cause for peace without seeming to show concern about the livelihood of the Palestinian people in the West Bank. In addition, the intolerance of Islam was brought up in passing several times as an impediment towards a resolution, something that as a Muslim on an interfaith trip, I could not ignore. While I do not doubt that some Muslims are intolerant of Jews, and may even use religion to justify this, Islam’s theological stance towards Judaism and Christianity was used to say that Muslims cannot coexist with others. For example, our opinion of Jesus, peace be upon him, as a non-divine Messiah was said to prevent our tolerance of Christians (last time I checked, Jewish Israelis also disagree with the Christian interpretation of Jesus). Such an attitude challenges the idea that interfaith is even possible. However, aside from this issue, while the ever-present dual narrative added some confusion to the facts of the situation, such as the purpose of the wall, the tour effectively exposed to me the reasoning behind the Israeli perspective.

Our next stop, a meeting with Professor Hillel Frisch of Bar-Ilan University in his home in the settlement of Ma’aleh Adummim, furthered the same themes. I immediately noted the ease with which we entered the settlement, as there is no border or checkpoint between the settlement and Jerusalem, unlike our entrance into Bethlehem the day before. In addition, the size of the settlement was apparent; its population numbering 40,000. Our host, using the biblical and ancient names for the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, largely focused on the failures of the Palestinian leadership in creating their own state. In his view, the Palestinians have been given many chances to establish a state, but they have either rejected the deal, such as in 1948, or they have failed in creating a responsible state, as in the Gaza Strip under Hamas in 2006. He noted the work of Fatah PM Salim Fayyad in building the institutions of a state in the West Bank as a run-up to declaring statehood there by the end of next years, but remained pessimistic because of corruption within the rest of Fatah. In any case, the era of state-building is over, in his view, for the Palestinians, the Kurds, and other nationalist movements. The dual narrative entered again, with Professor Frisch posing that life is going well economically in the West Bank, despite the high poverty rate we had previously heard. Finally, he drew on his expertise to give examples as to why a binational, one-state solution, would fail. As a result of the above, I found an attitude from our hosts that simply accepted the status quo. The approach to the conflict was to be one of management, not resolution. The threat of Iran was mentioned again, and stressed, as during the tour, furthering the opinion that resolution of the Palestinian conflict is a low-priority.

From this long and challenging day, I gained a perspective on Israel’s actions, and I saw them as more rational and justifiable than I had previously, when I simply viewed them as completely arrogant and unjust. Just as Palestinian sentiments of frustration and even anger are justified and reasonable, so are Israeli actions to protect its citizens, at least in theory, though we cannot verify that Israel is not intentionally undermining Palestinian territorial integrity under the veil of security. Israel does in fact have security concerns that need to be addressed while trying to resolve this issue, as our guides and hosts made clear. However, an attitude that is satisfied with the status quo, despite the political, infrastructural, and economic suffering faced by Palestinians, is unacceptable from a humanitarian perspective. After returning from the settlement, Dr. David lectured on terrorism at the hotels, in which he highlighted similar issues for the United States, in that the need to protect herself from terrorism today may override the need to address the root causes of radical extremism. However, I believe that if those root causes are not addressed, we may face a perpetual threat.

A venture back into the Old City for the evening led to a conversation with some Arab store owners whose family had lived in the current Muslim quarter for nearly 300 years. Together with the woman who cleaned up after breakfast at the hotel, a Montessori teacher until her school recently closed (assuming I understood correctly), and our bus driver Amir, who spoke little English, they were the extent of my direct conversation with Arabs living in Israel during the trip. While three examples are not enough to conclude about class differences, though I am tempted to do so, they made it clear that our short time in this holy city had left huge swathes of the population nearly untouched.

The next day, the last non-travel day of the program, began with two meetings at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. We first met with Dr. Eran Halperin, a political psychologist. He believes that in a conflict, the two sides often miss opportunities to resolve the conflict, or improve the situation of both parties, for purely psychological reasons. If they were acting completely rationally, they would move in a particular direction, but they turn away from a solution due to psychological barriers. For example, a party may oppose a proposal simply because it came from the other side, even if they had the same idea. Other barriers he discussed include self-victimization and perpetually seeing oneself as the more moral side. In these situations, one side will often ignore or easily forget any good news about the other side that it is presented with. His perspective helped me to better understand the opinions we had heard the day before, especially when he noted that Israel can live comfortably with the status quo, even if a lack of conflict resolution poses an ever-present security and diplomatic threat. Dr. Halperin also works with leaders and individuals in Israel and the West Bank to help them recognize these barriers in their own thinking, usually through indirect means. He points out that the vast majority of Palestinians and Israelis see the two-state solution as the end result of this conflict, and a majority support that end, leading him to believe that minimizing these psychological barriers will make it easier to come to a resolution.

Our last meeting of the trip was with Dr. Hani Zubideh. He discussed new trends in Middle East politics regarding religion, namely the posturing of the non-Arab Turks and Iranians and the strengthening of US-Israeli relations as a result of the strengthening of this new Muslim Axis. Dr. Zubideh also discussed his research with migrant workers, showing another side of Israel, in both its diversity and the problems it faces with the maltreatment of these workers. Often times only the Palestinian issue is mentioned, when in fact there are other matters to deal with here as well.

We finished off the day, and a good chunk of the night, on the beach in Tel Aviv, a mere thirty miles from the Gaza Strip, enjoying the sand, a beautiful sunset, and the World Cup on a big screen right at the Mediterranean’s edge. As we pack up to head home, I feel somewhat of a sense of guilt. For less than two weeks, we have tasted the world over here, staring up at Dubai’s skyscrapers, back into the history of Jordan and forward at its future leaders, and straight into the eyes of Palestinians and Israelis. We have sought to understand these places a little better, using this window to connect words on a map or in an article to experiences and sensations. And now, we are just going home, where life will be more or less the same as it was before we left. While we can just divorce ourselves from this world by jumping on a plane, the people over here do not have that luxury. And thus, my ability to ignore the daunting challenges and uncertainty here comes with a feeling of guilt. I do not know if I can make a difference in the Middle East, but I do know I can care about it; caring that is the first step to having an impact. Moving forward, I will utilize my abilities and the tools and understanding I have gained on this trip to try to provide that benefit, God willing. But regardless of what happens, this incredible opportunity has guaranteed one thing: I can be sure I will always care.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: