One Professor's Bold Experiment

Walking Towards Peace In Unlikely Shoes

Queens College Magazine

“When I grew up, two things were in the window of our modest little place in Park Forest,” recalls Mark Rosenblum of his childhood in Chicago’s suburbs. “We had a picture of Ben Gurion and a picture of Adlai Stevenson.”

One is remembered as a tireless champion for the creation of a Jewish homeland, the other as an advocate of reason in settling conflicts between nations. This, perhaps, tells much about why Rosenblum labors indefatigably for a cause others might consider futile: creating a bridge of understanding between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.

Nearly three years ago, Rosenblum, a history professor and director of the college’s Michael Harrington Center for Democratic Values and Social Change, began collaborating with Jack Zevin (Secondary Education) and Michael Krasner (Political Science) on a public education project. This ultimately led to his designing and teaching a course which takes a radically different approach to exploring the conflict in the Middle East.

Debuting last fall, “The Middle East and America: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of the Minds,” includes films, readings, lectures, and guest speakers with firsthand experience in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its most controversial element— which has garnered considerable media attention, including a feature nationally broadcast on the CBS Evening News January 8—is its requirement that Jewish and Muslim students immerse themselves in the opposing group’s history relative to the Middle East conflict and construct a compelling “narrative” that supports the opposing viewpoint. It’s a process Rosenblum calls “walking in the other’s shoes.”

Taking the First Steps

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 2003 Rosenblum received a Queens College President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. A visitor to his class quickly notices that he connects with his students in a way other instructors might envy. The students are attentive and well prepared, and he has an easy rapport with them. To achieve the necessary balance for the class, Rosenblum actively solicited the six Muslim, five Jewish, and four Christian students. Also attending are an assistant principal and six teachers of world studies and history courses from Queens public high schools. They observe in hopes of learning more about the Middle East conflict and, ultimately, to find a compelling way to teach the topic to their own students.

Twelve senior auditors from the community also attend. They are mostly Jewish and include a holocaust survivor. One woman has an even more startling history: born in Germany in the 1930s, she had been a member of the Hitler Youth. The revelations of the holocaust at the war’s end jolted her into a lifetime commitment to Israel, including service in the Israeli army.

Class begins with an announcement that the course’s final guest speaker, the Middle East desk officer from the White House, will be visiting on December 19. Then it’s on to the important work of the final two classes: students reading their narratives. This is the culmination of weeks of immersion in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Rosenblum’s constant admonishments to balance every partisan observation with a counter-argument.

Alternating between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli speakers, students offer detailed arguments supported by particular incidents and historical analysis—arguments they might never have imagined themselves making. Each presentation is followed by a critique from other class members with occasional prodding from Rosenblum.

In the course of his narrative, Iman Khan, a Muslim student, bravely mentions how his belief in the Palestinian cause was shaken after two members of the Israeli security forces who roamed into Ramallah were seized by Palestinians and lynched. “It was a turning point for me to see how Palestinians joined in, were happy about it; it almost seemed festive.”

In the follow-up discussion, Ezra Herskovits, a Jewish student, responds, “On both sides there are so many attacks, there are so many incidents. I don’t really think it has a long-term effect on history. But I guess it has an emotional effect.”

Time allows for a half-dozen more presentations. One Muslim student, Sadia Mohammed, has so much material to offer in support of the Israeli side she rushes to cover it all within her allotted time.

After class Gisele Adamski, one of the senior auditors, is obviously moved by what she just witnessed. “I’m pleased by how much they learned, how much they picked up—what happened, what led to everything. I thought they did a wonderful job.” Referring to Iman’s narrative, she offers, “I am a holocaust survivor and I’m glad he brought it up—why they [Jews] needed a homeland. And this wasn’t a Jewish boy. I was very, very impressed.”

For his part, Iman, whose heritage is Bangladeshi, observes, “I find that the more I learn about the other side, the more I am learning about my own side.”

Decades Devoted to Dialogue

Since the 1980s Rosenblum has combined academic research and policy analysis with direct involvement in resolving the Middle East conflict. He attended the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and has monitored all subsequent peace talks. He has organized and moderated six major conferences with leaders of the PLO and Israeli national figures; hosted a roundtable discussion series, “From the Battlefield to the Negotiating Table,” on U.S. television; and founded the Israeli-Palestinian Youth Dialogue program, which brought together Palestinian and Israeli junior high and high school students.

Rosenblum has also had a long association with Peace Now, a pro-peace group founded in Israel in 1978 by former Israeli military officers. He describes them as “Machiavellian doves”—very tough and security oriented, but also very pragmatic in their desire to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians. In his work with this group, Rosenblum became a bridge when Israel enacted a law (now defunct) that forbade direct dialogue with the PLO. “I found myself playing a facilitating role, bringing messages back and forth—not violating the Israeli law but finding those open spaces where I could bring together those in the PLO who had begun to reject violence with peace-minded Israelis.” Perhaps in recognition of this work, the Forward newspaper selected Rosenblum as one of the 50 most influential American Jews.

The author of scholarly and popular articles, Rosenblum has appeared as a Middle East analyst on many networks, including CNN, CBS, NBC, and National Public Radio. He has met with virtually all the major players in the region, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, King Abdullah II, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Quria, and Syrian cabinet ministers and foreign ministry officials. He had a two-hour meeting with President Bush in 2001 and met numerous times with PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat, including sessions at his largely gutted compound in Ramallah. He has also often met with Arafat’s successor, the recently elected president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

In his many years at Queens, Rosenblum has addressed the Middle East conflict in different ways, but he attributes his new, more radical approach to two pivotal incidents. The first was the collapse of the peace negotiations initiated by President Clinton in July 2000. These ended, he recalls, “not with a whimper, but with a horrific bang of murder and mayhem as Israelis and Palestinians returned to the battlefield. It dragged on and then, bang! one year later, the second incident, September 11, 2001. The Middle East had come to visit us in a very unexpected and deadly way.”

These events, combined with increased friction between Jewish and Muslim students (“They felt they had to present a public relations campaign which presented their side as totally righteous and the other side with complete ridicule”), forced Rosenblum to think about “What do I do as an educator? How do I teach about this with an increasingly diverse student population?”

The answer, as played out in his classroom, may be viewed as a logical progression, given Rosenblum’s years of devotion to maintaining a dialogue between opposing factions, even in the face of open hostilities. Ultimately, he hopes his work at Queens becomes the foundation “for the creation of a learning community” where the lessons of his class would extend through undergraduates, senior citizens, high school teachers, and their students. Ideally, he would like to be able to bring Israeli and Palestinian high school students to serve as mentors in both his classes and others in New York City.

“The point is,” he says in a calm, deliberate tone that belies the urgency of his cause, “to bring the Middle East here in a more systematic and positive way.”