Teaching Israel-Palestine at Columbia

August 26, 2019 13:03
3 minute read.
CONNECT WITH them. Students walk outside the Library of Columbia University in New York.

CONNECT WITH them. Students walk outside the Library of Columbia University in New York.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A simple Google search of the words “Columbia University,” “Israel” and “Palestine” rarely yields positive results. Most likely, it will reveal a torrent of controversies and tensions surrounding what has been described as a “battleground campus” involving students and faculty stretching back decades.

The most recent search results are replete with stories of near-violent hostilities between groups such as Students Supporting Israel and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), of accusations of harassment toward pro-Israel students, pro-Palestinian professors, including comparisons between Israel and ISIS, stories of separation barriers erected by pro-Palestinian students during Israel Apartheid Week, and condemnations over the tactics used by outside pro-Israel advocacy groups such as Canary Mission and CU-Mission.

Throughout my first semester at Columbia, an overwhelmingly liberal Ivy League school, it became clear that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is one of the few topics that deeply divides the community. Small echo chambers permeate the college campus, isolating pro-Israel students from their pro-Palestinian counterparts. The anti-normalization policies advanced by some student groups such as SJP ensure that actual progress and collaborative dialogue seldom takes place.

Some students have even reported avoiding courses in Middle Eastern studies for fear of harassment and academic penalties for their views. Given this discouraging state of affairs, how should campuses such as Columbia teach something as polarizing as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict effectively without alienating entire groups of students? 

Columbia Journalism School’s Covering Religion class serves as an excellent model for teaching such topics. The class, which explores some of the world’s major and minor faiths, has been taught by Prof. Ari Goldman for the past 20 years. Supported by the Scripps Howard Foundation, Goldman has taken his students around the globe, from Italy and Ireland to Russia and India, to augment their understanding of world religions.

This year, we visited Israel and the Palestinian territories during spring break, roughly midway into the semester. The class was primarily focused on religious communities in one of the world’s most turbulent and volatile regions, but politics and geography seemed inextricably intertwined as well. The 10-day trip certainly heightened our cultural awareness of the geopolitical situation, but what made this course unique was its pedagogical structure.

PROF. GOLDMAN, a former religion reporter for The New York Times who is intimately familiar with the Israeli perspective and who has family in Israel, opted not to outline both perspectives of the conflict on his own. Instead, he co-taught the class with Gregory Khalil, a former adviser to Palestinian leaders on peace negotiations with Israel and co-founder and president of Telos, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, DC, that aims to give peacemakers the tools needed to solve seemingly intractable conflicts.

“It was incredibly powerful to hear such stark and different perspectives from our two professors, but also to see them be respectful and understanding of one another,” said Bella Farr, an Australian graduate student enrolled in the class. Farr added, “I don’t think I would have learned as much as I did if I had one single teacher attempting to embody multiple viewpoints.”

Her class colleague, Eloise Blondiau, from the United Kingdom, shared a similar view, adding that this “model of engagement [between Greg and Ari] was in itself an instructive part of the class.”

Along with enabling a rich and comprehensive understanding of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahá’í and Druze, the class illustrated to me the value of constructive dialogue. I believe the wider Columbia community can learn a lot from the class’s parameters and framework. It encourages thoughtful debate and, at times, respectful disagreement.

Undoubtedly, Columbia University attracts the best and brightest across the globe. It should be lauded for its commitment to the creation of a truly diverse, multinational and multicultural community of students, scholars and faculty. But one type of diversity continually seems to be overlooked and neglected: ideological diversity. As liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, “Progressives should have the intellectual curiosity to grapple with disagreeable views.... Campus activists at their best are the nation’s conscience. But sometimes their passion, particularly in a liberal cocoon, becomes blinding.”

The writer is a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an alumnus of Cambridge and Harvard, where he studied Arabic, Middle Eastern history and diplomacy.

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