“When God created the world, he created ten portions of beauty. He gave nine to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world. When God created the world, he created ten problems. He gave nine to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world” (Amiry). Before taking this class based on the Living Jerusalem Project, I thought that all nine of those problems negatively affected the Israelis. I saw Jerusalem as a Jewish city and believed that Jews, as the chosen people of God, were always and again the victims of great persecution. Karen Armstrong, in her book, Jerusalem, writes, “one of the inescapable messages of the history of Jerusalem is that despite romantic myths to the contrary, suffering does not necessarily make us better, nobler people” (Armstrong, 423). Beginning with Armstrong, I began to see that because of suffering previous persecution, the Israelis have made a concentrated effort to stop being the victim and in doing so, have not necessarily become more noble, but rather, quite often, less noble. This class has shown me, as I have experienced sympathy for both the Israelis and the Palestinians, that neither one, nor the other, is blameless, and neither have become better people as a result of this conflict.
For thousands of years, Jerusalem has been the center of contention between religious groups (Jews, Muslims, and Christians), which attempt to use the city to legitimize their divine connections to God. The Living Jerusalem class helps students to understand the specific importance of Jerusalem in relation to this divine connection. The contemporary Israeli/Palestinian conflict began when the Zionist movement proposed a mass movement of Jews back to the ‘homeland,’ starting after World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. For the Jews, this was the only solution to their need for a homeland. “There was a deep imbalance at the heart of existence, which could be rectified only when the Jews were reunited with Zion and restored their proper place” (Armstrong, 307). On May 14, 1948, Israel declared independence. Neighboring Arab states invaded on May 15 in support of the Palestinians. This course’s focus centralizes on the projects for peace since.
After reading Armstrong, and gaining a basic understanding of the long and conflicted history of Jerusalem, the class was able to video conference Israelis and Palestinians who are working to end the conflict. Each video conference was unique. During each conversation, I found myself wanting to sympathize with whichever side of the conflict was being represented. When Ahmed from PAYLARA spoke with us after being detained unjustly at a checkpoint, I thought the Israelis could not be more out-of-hand and was nearly outraged at the lack of global threat of punishment for Israel if it does not stop some of its current practices which limit human rights. However, since we did not hear the other side, I am not sure how my sympathies would have balanced out.
Since this class has such a potential for influencing thought on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, some changes could be included in the future to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the conflict. If possible, the class taught in the United States should be paired with students at both an Israeli university and an Arab university. This inclusion is integral to ensuring that all views of the conflict are included. In the event that one, or both, of the Middle Eastern universities cannot participate, video conferences could be arranged either with students or others who can share the viewpoint which is missing. For this semester’s class, the viewpoint of the Jews who believe they have a right to Jerusalem and are not acting incorrectly was missing. All of this interaction would be especially helpful on discussion days.
It would also be beneficial to have discussion days which follow the video-conferences. The video conferences were so thought-provoking that class days in between the conferences would have been helpful. A time to debrief and discuss about the conversations in the conferences would have been helpful in allowing equal representation of the conflict. If there is no time, blogging about the conferences is a fine way to debrief; but as we found this semester, discussions in class were usually more productive than those on the blogs. In an effort to secure more time for these discussions, the reading of Armstrong could serve as more of a background to the course rather than a discussion point, which would leave more time for discussions later in the class, following the video conferences. Reading Armstrong’s Jerusalem could even be required before the class starts to meet so that students come to the class with that base knowledge. This would allow time for more video-conferences as well as discussions.
In addition to learning from the conversations in the video conferences, reading articles written by those we were talking with or researching their organizations was an eye-opening part of the class. In the video-conferences, each person talked generally about the conflict and about how their organization fit into working toward peace; but with individual research, each class member seemed to find different aspects of the project which struck us. This personal research would also benefit from discussions between each videoconference.
It was enlightening to see the many ways in which the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can be approached – and how many ways peace is being pursued. In the course of this class, participants were able to talk with Eitan Grossman from the Solidarity Movement, Ahmed from PAYLARA, Aaron from Heartbeat and Mariam Said from the West/Eastern Divan Orchestra. Mariam Said’s husband, Edward Said, had started the orchestra with director Daniel Barenboim as a means of starting conversations between Israelis and Palestinians through music. I enjoyed learning about a project which was effective and positive. Before speaking with Mariam, the class had the opportunity to watch the film, Knowledge is the Beginning, about the orchestra and its role in the peace process of the conflict. Watching the film made the organization and its goals real. I will never forget watching Daniel Barenboim use his acceptance speech for the Wolf Award (given to living scientists and musicians for "achievements in the interest of mankind and friendly relations among peoples”) at the Knesset to question the Israeli government’s actions toward Palestinians:
“Can we, despite all our achievements, ignore the intolerable gap between what the Declaration of Independence promised and what was fulfilled, the gap between the idea and the realities of Israel? Does the condition of occupation and domination over another people fit the Declaration of Independence?” (Knowledge is the Beginnning)
Talking with Mariam via the videoconference was easy and interactive because the class had such background with the organization garnered from the film. I understand that not every organization, which is promoting peace in Jerusalem, has had a film made about them, but I think it would be beneficial to the class experience if more movie nights before the video-conferences were held. Even if films are not directly tied with the conferences, the class could learn about more organizations and projects with a weekly movie night.
To give the class even more immediate relevance, part of the curriculum could be field trips. At the beginning of the class, when discussing the relevance of Jerusalem to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, it would be interesting to meet with religious leaders of all of the groups and hear their views on Jerusalem. Since the class is new to Indiana University, I understand that it is still in the planning to travel to Jerusalem, but I think that the trip would be a wonderful culmination of the class. Students would be able to experience Jerusalem and see the peace projects firsthand.
The learning experience of the class was made complete by the final projects. At first, because the project did not have a rubric or any requirements, I was skeptical that it would be effective, but these final projects ended up helping each student to conceptualize and then produce a specific and detailed project. Each participant was able to choose an area which interested him/her and from these projects, the class, as a whole, was able to learn about so many more topics than would have been possible if the work had not been split between the members of the class. The final project also pushed me personally. I became more invested in the Living Jerusalem project because I was doing my own research, and I became more invested in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict because I was more closely investigating it. The inclusion of the ‘free-choice’ final projects is perfect for this class.
While researching for my final project on the presentation of the conflict through films, I was intrigued by the following exchange in Munich:
Robert: We're Jews, Avner. Jews don't do wrong because our enemies do wrong.
Avner: We can't afford to be that decent anymore.
Robert: I don't know that we ever were that decent. Suffering thousands of years of hatred doesn't make you decent. But we're supposed to be righteous. That's a beautiful thing. That's Jewish. That's what I knew, that's what I was taught and I'm losing it. I lose that and that's everything. That's my soul. (Munich)
This quote expands on one of Karen Armstrong’s themes – that suffering does not make people more noble. It is this idea that peace is needed- not just to end the violence and the hatred – but that peace is needed because peace will allow the people involved to be righteous that I found captivating throughout the class. Through the study of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict’s effect historically and currently and the work of organizations toward peace, we see the effort to save those involved and are encouraged ourselves to work to save them as well.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians are losing their souls because of this conflict. The suffering from the conflict isn’t making either of them a better or more unified people. Instead, the conflict is breaking the groups apart, creating grief and sorrow and “a religious spirit [has] emerged in Israel which foster[s] not compassion but murderous hatred” (Armstrong, 306). I am not convinced that total peace will ever be possible, but this class has motivated me to continue learning about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict on a deeper level by investigating more thoroughly the actions of each side and analyzing what I see and hear about the conflict, rather than unquestionably accepting the information I am given.
Amiry, Suad. “Researching Jerusalem.”
Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem – One City, Three Faiths. 1997.
Knowledge is the Beginning. 2005.