Minds on Middle East

Queens College has Unique Course on Crisis

The New York Daily News


QUEENS COLLEGE senior Sadia Mohammed thought that, as a Muslim, she understood the thorny Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But seven weeks into a class that is part of a four-year project called "The Middle East and America: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds," she has been forced to reassess.

"I realize that I can't just blame everything on Israel and America," said the 21-year-old from South Ozone Park. "It is forcing me to listen to the other side."

Mohammed joined 14 fellow undergraduates - four Muslims, five Jews and five Christians - in this unique program that brings students of different religions - but all with ties to the Middle East - together to delve deeper into the crisis.

Also part of this learning community are 10 senior citizens, plus one assistant high school principal and six teachers, including Martina Grant, 37, of Forest Hills High School.

"I have students from both sides, so I wanted to find a way to be fair and teach it accurately," said Grant, who instructs pupils in global studies and in a class titled "Facing History and Ourselves."

Queens College professors Mark Rosenblum, Jack Zevin and Michael Krasner came up with the idea for the project soon after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

"It was clear to me that America was wholly unprepared, not only in intelligence, but also in public discourse on the meaning of what happened," said Rosenblum, professor of history and director of the Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change.

"We wanted to construct a learning community from communities [with personal and religious ties to the Middle East] . . . that instead of walking in this black-and-white world of us versus them, would understand the us versus them and explore the possibility of shades of gray."

Over the next two years, topics will include religion, politics and the Iraq situation.

Students not only draw on films and books, they also have policymakers such as Omar Dajani, a former senior legal adviser and member of the Palestinian delegation at Camp David in 2000 and 2001, come and speak to them.

Other speakers include Jerusalem Post Washington bureau chief Ganine Zacharia, who talked about media coverage, and Rob Danin, director of the Arab-Israeli International Security Council, who will touch on the U.S. role in the region.

At the end of 15 weeks, the high school teachers will craft lesson plans on how they will teach about the Mideast conflict. Meanwhile, the college students will write 10-page papers arguing the points of view that they had opposed most.

"It's hard to put emotions aside," said Ezra Herskovits, 21, a senior majoring in psychology and Jewish studies. He is finding it difficult to take the Palestinian position. "There is a lot of history on both sides." lnguyen@edit.nydailynews.com