Faculty Promotes Search for a Better Future, Not Just Condemnation
While many college campuses are aflame over violence in the Middle East, students at Dartmouth College have been invited to a conversation between Jews and Muslims. It’s a conversation that has been going on a long time and could be a pattern for a larger conversation.
Dartmouth student forums started immediately after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and have drawn large college crowds. The quickly organized forums were possible because of ongoing collaboration between the respective chairs of Dartmouth’s Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern programs. An overflow crowd attended the first forum and more than 1,000 watched online.
As they explained on NPR’s Weekend Edition, the heads of both programs jointly teach a course at Dartmouth called The Arab, The Jew and Construction of Modernity. “It’s a packed course, and we have students who are originally from Palestinian background, Arab background, Jewish backgrounds,” says Middle East Chair Tarek El-Ariss.
“These are students who know us, who trust us, who are already part of a conversation,” El-Ariss explains. “And so some of them, of course, were upset, angry, scared. But they brought these emotions, the soul baggage also and expressed it. But they expressed it in a thoughtful way, and things remained really civil throughout.”
Jewish Program Chair Susannah Herschel adds, “It’s very important for us that we’ve worked together as faculty, as student groups, as programs – Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies – for many years. So we have a relationship already on campus. And because of that relationship for so many years, we were able to jump right in immediately and bring the campus together and make sure we would not become polarized.“
Both professors expressed alarm at the open conflict on college campuses that mirrored outrage in public demonstrations and intensified fears of sectarian violence at synagogues and mosques. Their remarks linked a lack of a robust dialogue to antisemitic and Islamophobic rhetoric on the street and in social media.
“These are students who know us, who trust us, who are already part of a conversation.”
Going Beyond Condemnation
“It’s not our job simply to stop at the condemnation,” El-Ariss adds. “We want to understand, want to revisit the historical context, want to imagine a different future. You know, we need to do all this other work around. And we don’t want to stop at just simply saying, this is the bad guy, this is the good guy and then stop just right there.”
“I want people to think in complex terms, not to be satisfied with the reductionist approach, to place the present in a larger context of the past but also to think about a better future, to imagine it,” Herschel says. “I had to give a talk recently about the Sabbath, which is supposed to be a foretaste of Paradise. And the problem is nobody thinks about Paradise anymore. We’re so immersed in the horrors of the present and the past.”
“We don’t have a vision of a future,” Herschel adds. “And that, I think, is true society wide. So what can we envision for a future – and not in a punitive way? That’s also part of the problem. There’s something right now in the response to this current horror in the Middle East that feels very punitive and a bit sadistic. People need to be punished. Israel has to be punished. Hamas has to be punished. Why are we thinking in those terms? We’re talking about human beings.”
Raging War on Streets, Social Media
A raging war has erupted on U.S. college campuses following the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s counter-attack. Protestors have filled campus squares variously condemning Hamas, Jews and Palestinians for terrorism, occupation and brutality to civilians.
In New York City, pro-Jewish and pro-Palestinian students stood yards away. Jewish students bore signs that read “Never again is now”. A Palestinian student called the Hamas attack a “historic moment for the Palestinians of Gaza.”
A Palestinian student shouted, “Why is an entire nationality – Palestinians – being made to answer for the actions of Hamas”. A Jewish student replied, “If you are justifying the murder of innocent civilians, you do not understand human rights.”
Observing the stand-off, Professor Zachary Lockman of New York University said there appears to be “deepening polarization and very little common ground”. On social media, he added, the debate is often framed as ‘They’re either with us or against us’.
A BBC journalist at the scene reported “A few students felt that more nuanced views of the war were being drowned out, and worried the rhetorical battle lines being drawn would not help students gain a better understanding of the conflict – or each other.
“I think it’s very unfortunate, it really saddens me that we’re on opposite sides,” said Stephanie, a 20-year-old Jewish student from Brooklyn who asked BBC not to reveal her last name. “There’s not enough dialogue between these two groups. Everything’s separate.”
U.S. Middle East Policy
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back in the Middle East urging a “humanitarian pause” in Israel’s effort to destroy Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected any type of cease fire until Hamas releases all its hostages.
President Biden has reiterated his support for a two-state solution. Blinken is urging Israelis and other Middle East leaders to think about “what’s next”. Israel’s current government has resisted more independence for Gaza and the West Bank and views Hamas as a terrorist organization backed by Iran.
Hamas says it wants to end Israel’s 17-year blockade of Gaza, halt Israeli settlement expansion and remove Israeli security forces at al-Aqsa mosque, the most sacred Muslim shrine in Jerusalem. Hamas calls Israel racist and colonial in its outlook of Palestinian people.
Historic Overview of Palestine
The region is one of the earliest places where humans lived. City-states were created in the Bronze Age and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the Iron Age. Since then, the area has been conquered by Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. In the 4th century, a Roman emperor declared the region a center of Christianity.
Over subsequent centuries, a succession of Muslim dynasties controlled the region until 1099 when Crusaders captured Jerusalem. A century later, it was back under Muslim control.
During World War I, Britain seized Palestine from the Ottomans and the League of Nations gave it the power to rule over the region. Britain proposed re-establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which ignited sectarian violence between Jews and Arabs in 1922. After the British announced it was relinquishing control of Palestine, the newly established United Nations called for partitioning the region into separate Jewish and Arab states. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, but Arabs rejected it. They have been fighting ever since.
Established in 1769 as one of nine colonial colleges, Dartmouth is a private Ivy League research university in Hanover, New Hampshire. It has 40 academic departments and offers 60 majors in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering. It has four professional and graduate schools in business, engineering, medicine and advanced studies.
Some of its most prominent alumni include Robert Frost, Daniel Webster, Nelson Rockefeller, Jake Tapper, Robert Reich, Mindy Kaling and Rachel Dratch. Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers fame attended Dartmouth but didn’t graduate.