Emory Report
May 7, 2007
Volume 59, Number 30

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May 7, 2007
Hopes for peace unite all sides in campus debate on Mideast

by carol clark

As leading figures in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continue to voice headline-making opinions, a low-key group of students and faculty from both sides of the issue gathered for a heartfelt panel discussion.
“It’s healthy whenever anyone has a chance to be exposed to different cultures and ways of thinking, especially starkly different ones,” said Emory College student Bentley Brown, president of Emory’s Arab Cultural Association, which organized the event. “It gives you a chance to challenge your own way of thinking and it makes you a stronger person.”

Brown should know. He is a Christian from Dallas who moved to Chad with his family when he was 11. He said he spent the first year in the capital eating Doritos, drinking Dr. Pepper and researching American football stats online, until his physician father took the family to a remote area to open a clinic. Brown became fluent in Arabic, the dominant language of the area, and fast-friends with locals his age.

“I would say that I can identify now with Chadian-Arab values and culture,” he said. “I can’t really imagine how I would have been if I hadn’t gone to Chad.”

To help start such transformations at Emory, the Arab Cultural Association planned the Palestinian-Israeli panel discussion, with the support of Emory Hillel, the Muslim Student Association, Emory Christian Fellowship, Emory Students for Israel and the Persian Club.

“This is a diverse group of panelists and a diverse audience,” said Emory College student Maria Town, moderator of the event. “I would ask that everyone keep as open a mind as possible.”

Following are excerpts from some of the panelists’ key points:

On the main obstacle to peace:
“The main obstacle is there is so much ideology affecting this conflict from both sides,” said Ramadan Assi, a Palestinian graduate student in the Rollins School of Public Health. “There is a lot of desire from people on both sides to live in peace, but there is failure in the leadership.”

Daniel Charles ’09C, who was born in Denver to Israeli parents and maintains Israeli citizenship, cited two main obstacles to peace: the refusal of Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist and the idea of giving Palestinians the right of return to Israel. “The right of return is demographic suicide among the Israelis,” he said. “The purpose of the establishment of Israel was to protect the Jewish majority.”

“I disagree with anyone here who says there is a Palestinian side and an Israeli side,” said Rabbi Joab Eichenberg-Eilon, a lecturer in Hebrew at Emory who was born in Jerusalem. “We now have the peacemaking side and the non-peacemaking side. There are people who work for peace among Arabs and among Israelis, and about 75 percent of people on both sides want peace. And still the leadership on both sides fails to do it.” He said that more grassroots efforts and outside pressure are required to force politicians to act.

On former President Jimmy Carter’s book, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid”:
“I personally think [the book] is a pathetic excuse for academia,” said Ben Decker ’09C, an American of Israeli ancestry and outgoing vice president of Emory Students for Israel.

“This book writes about what we have to go through as a Palestinian every day,” said Ramadan Assi. He said that a law passed by the Israeli Parliament, requiring Israeli Arabs who marry Palestinians from the West Bank to move to the occupied territories or live apart from their husband or wife, directly affects him. “I can’t live with my wife anymore and be legal,” he said. “This is my own life.”

“The basic reason [Carter’s] using the word ‘apartheid’ is to evoke emotions to sell books,” said Eichenberg-Eilon. He said that the word’s close association with the racism of the former regime in South Africa was an unjust comparison with Israel, since the segregation in Israel is done for security reasons, not due to an ideology of superiority. “Borrowing something that’s invoking another reality is a distortion of the reality,” he said.

“A wall is being built inside the Palestinian residential area [of Jerusalem],” said Susu Zaghaeir, a Palestinian and a post-doctorate fellow in Emory’s School of Medicine. “So between my brother’s house and my mother’s house, where I could walk across in 10 minutes, now there is a major checkpoint and a huge wall that separates my family. If this is not apartheid, I don’t know what you call it.” She added that her mother lost property she owned when Palestinian lands were confiscated by force to build roads connecting Israeli settlements. “No Palestinians are allowed to drive on these roads.”

On the possibility of compromise after so much hostility:
“Compromise is not only possible, it is imperative,” Eichenberg-Elion said. “There is enough will for it on both sides. The corrupting force of political power will not be able to stand before this process.”

“Yes, of course, it’s possible,” said Zaghaeir. She said that she would prefer that the Palestinians and Jews lived together in one state, but that two states living peacefully next to each other would also be acceptable. Key issues for her included ensuring that water resources are shared, along with the city of Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is a very special place,” she said. “Let’s have Jerusalem as an international city for everybody.”
“I don’t think that any single person would be in this room right now if they didn’t think [a compromise for peace] could happen,” Decker said. “We need to engage in dialogue like this. Let this be a first step. Get someone’s phone number here, make a friend with someone who’s unlike you.”