University Provosts and Deans Blog Day 5

December 10th, 2016

Note: A delegation of University Provosts and Deans is in Israel with AJC Project Interchange. The delegation is accompanied by Melanie Maron Pell, Director, AJC Director of Regional Engagement.

Day 5

There is something extraordinary about how the ancient and modern are juxtaposed at every turn in Jerusalem. History is preserved and protected but modernity sneaks in to fill all of the gaps.

At Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus campus, which was our first stop of the day, you are surrounded by the buzz of students from around the world who are there learning, discovering and creating the future, and yet you step outside onto a balcony and see ancient Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley in the distance. One can imagine the excitement of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud and Martin Buber, all founders of the university, at seeing their dream realized.

We met with administration officials, toured the beautiful campus and the provosts met with counterparts from their respective fields. We also paused at the memorial for the seven lives lost and dozens of wounded in the horrific cafeteria bombing during the second intifada. It was another interesting campus experience, and several of us left wistfully wishing we could enroll in some of the courses.

From Hebrew University, we began our journey to Ramallah. It is not a far distance but the traffic and security make it a much longer trip. Our Palestinian guide, a Ramallah local, joined us on the bus and drove us through the crowded main city square where the streets and markets and shops were packed with people of all ages getting ready for the weekend. One participant noted that he did not see stress on the faces of the people of Ramallah, which was a pleasant surprise.

We spent the next several hours hearing from Elias Zananiri, vice chair of the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, and Faisal Awartani, CEO of Alpha International for Research Polling and Information. We heard about the frustration of Palestinians at the stagnation of progress and the failure of consecutive US governments from delivering on helping Israel and the Palestinians reach an agreement. Elias challenged Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state claiming that this issue is not a priority for the Israeli public and moreover, the question of “who is a Jew” remains unsettled.

When asked about the relationship between Hamas and Fatah, he said that the real division is between Hamas’ political wing and its military wing. He also expressed frustration and disgust with Hamas who he described as “thugs” and conceded that they will not go quietly if Hamas is voted out of office.

Faisal, an academic as well as a pollster, talked about higher education in the Palestinian Territories and noted that 97% of Palestinians are literate. With a highly educated and literate population and yet with low prospects for real professions or jobs, despair runs high and needs to be addressed. He also advocated for removing religion from all textbooks and described religion as a “public health factor” in the region as it has lead to so many deaths. He believes that Israel can take measures to make the lives of Palestinians better and in turn, Israel will be more secure.

One intriguing idea to some of the participants was to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for a study abroad program in Israel.

We eventually returned to Jerusalem for our final meeting of the day with Emmanuel Nahshon, the spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we heard a different version of the story. He believes that the era of the nation state is ending and that the post World War I order has failed. Democracy cannot be built on nothing - it requires civil society and culture and equality between men and women. Extremism thrives on instability, and he noted that global warming and the “desertification” of much of the earth is leading to migration and instability. We are in for a very messy period. He agrees that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians must be resolved because it is crucial for both sides but feels that it will take a long time to rebuild trust.

These back-to-back conversations were intense and draining, but important. There is much to contemplate and to mull over as we prepare for tomorrow, our final day in Jerusalem.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Project Interchange.