August 27, 2007
The journey continues
Stephen Bowen, dean of Oxford College.
There is a kind of knowledge that can be gained only by being in a specific place. The purpose of a recent journey to Jordan, the West Bank and Israel by a group of Emory faculty, staff, administrators and alumni was to learn about the Arab-Israeli conflict through engagement with the people and places caught up in the conflict.
It was an intense 11 days. We met with policy advisers to the Knesset and the Palestinian Authority and with a leader of an opposition party. We met with the officers of several NGOs: some supporting broad efforts to build peace and others focused on very specific issues. We met with a settler who is a strong advocate for the Israeli settlers’ movement, and with the organizer of a group that supports the expansion of settlements. We visited a Palestinian family whose farm is near an expanding settlement, and a Palestinian refugee camp south of Bethlehem. We learned the etiquette of coffee service for guests to a Bedouin tent and visited three Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert.
For years I read about this incident or that summit and got the impression that the tide of peace in the Middle East is either rising or falling, but the overall picture remained vague — not grounded in a coherent geography. On the third day of our trip, we left the hills of Amman, Jordan (2,356 feet) and wound our way 40 miles down to the stark desert of the Jordan River Valley. We stopped at the Dead Sea (at 1,300 feet below sea level, the lowest land surface on Earth), had lunch in the ancient city of Jericho, and then traveled back up mountains to the hills of Jerusalem (2,500 feet). All along the way there were people living their lives — some in tents, some in partially completed concrete block houses, some in mansions faced in Jerusalem limestone with elaborate columns, arches, and verandahs.
Small irrigated gardens and goat herds suggested many people were living on the fringe of the market economy, yet even a few tents had satellite dishes staked in the earth next to them. The simplicity of single villages contrasted sharply with Jerusalem as epitomized by the Old City where Jews, Muslims and Christians swirl together among temples, mosques, churches and marketplaces thousands of years old. None of these observations answers a question, but together they give depth, meaning and support empathy, without which the situation in the Middle East would be even less intelligible.
There is a kind of understanding that can be gained only by meeting people face to face. I found that the people of the region are pretty much like the rest of the people I know. They care about their families and friends, they are worried about the future, and they hope to find something to be happy about each day. But daily life in Israel and the West Bank is exceptionally difficult when you are wondering where the next rocket will fall or whether you will be able to get a sick child through the checkpoints to the hospital. This pressure brings out the worst and best in people. The worst makes headlines; the best you learn about when you hear peoples’ personal stories of survival and hope. Ultimately, life goes on.
Travelers often reflect that they learned as much about themselves as about those they visited. This perspective is particularly salient since our travel was motivated by the need to better address one of the major moral issues of our time.
I had the privilege of learning from 17 companions whose keen moral sensibilities were variously scholarly, practical, intuitive and creative. During hours on the bus and over extended dinners, we discussed the relevance of Kant’s categorical imperative and we noted the heartbreaking struggle of a Bedouin leader to smile even though his home is scheduled for demolition. Much of my moral growth was due to my generous companions.
The journey is not over. The group will meet soon to decide how we can best share our experiences with the Emory community. That will be another mountain to climb.