The Meeting of Minds

What you didn't learn about QC's Middle East class last semester.

QC Knight News


Arguably the most divisive issues between Muslims and Jews, Palestine and Israel have long been topics many college campuses have sought to ignore due to the sensitivity each side feels over the issue. This past fall at Queens College, students had an opportunity to dive into the topic, all the while creating the best possible narrative for the side of the conflict they least identify with, forcing students to take a walk in the other side's shoes, in Professor Mark Rosenblum's course, "The Middle East and America: Clash of Civilizations or Meeting of Minds."

Diversity here at Queens College is one of the school's finest characteristics. With each semester, there seems to be more of a Muslim presence on a campus where there is already a strong Jewish presence. This class mirrored some of the diversity now widespread on campus. Of the 15 students who took the course, the split was relatively even between Muslims, Jews and Christians, who trace their roots back to Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Trinidad, Bangladesh, the former Soviet Union, and Yemen. But some, of course, were just from New York. The class also included 12 senior auditors, which included a Holocaust survivor and a former member of Hitler's Youth, providing invaluable moments of history to the class. High school principals and teachers from local Queens high schools were also an integral part of the course.

The curriculum of the class included many different elements as well. There was extensive reading, numerous films, some controversial and others not, and guest speakers, all with actual life experience from Israel and Palestine.

Given all the elements, the class had the potential to be very explosive. The issues being discussed in class often evoked very strong emotions, and often those emotions were very visible on the faces of the students. But the course always remained civil. The discourse in the classroom never became violent or particularly angered, but instead, everyone remained respectful of other students, and more often than not, made each other think about things they previously would not have thought, in ways completely new and challenging. The format of the class forced this different brand of thought, and this type of civility in its discourse. As members of their respective communities, students had to think in terms of the community's best interest and had to put forth its best image, all the while having to really pay attention and remember many of the things the opposite side was saying, in preparation for making their own best narrative for the other side. Sounds challenging? You bet.

Professor Rosenblum believes that differences can be best understood and different groups can be best persuaded when someone from the other side is making a case for your own. One guest speaker, Omar Djani, a Palestinian negotiator, spoke to the class about the Holocaust, and how it compelled and moved him. Many of the Jewish members of the class, particularly some of the auditors, were visibly moved by Djani, and one even commented that it would be great if more people in the area could be like him.

Janine Zacharia, an American Jew working for The Jerusalem Post, spoke about the conditions of the Muslim refugee camps, and how difficult life is for the people living in them. As a Muslim student in the class, it was a very big deal to me to hear that coming from Zacharia. I'd heard it tons of times from my own side. To hear it from the other side cemented its validity in a way, for me at least.

Moshe Halberthal spoke to the class of conditions in Gaza, water rights and settlements among other topics he broached. Halberthal, an Orthodox Jew, was challenged by some other Orthodox Jews in the class that day over the things he was saying. As a Muslim, this was also a very important lesson as well. It gave me a small perspective on how polarizing the issue could potentially be for Israelis, and it also showed me that maybe it is time to address some of the myths in my own community, such as Halberthal did that day.

As some of you may know, this class generated a lot of interest from the media. At a time when the conflict at Columbia University was capturing headlines, news of this class was shadowing that coverage. The Daily News, NPR, CBS, The NY Times, CUNY TV, The Jewish Week, Journal of Higher Education; all of these groups covered the class from different angles. The frames in which the media decided to present the class and some of the editing they did for their pieces was also an invaluable learning experience for the class. In particular, the show broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition highlighted much of what could go wrong, both in the class and the conflict itself. Through their choice of editing, NPR's broadcast of the class alluded to certain ideas and created a frame for the story which could be argued, misrepresented the featured speakers, myself and Professor Rosenblum included, potentially creating a rift between us that did exist temporarily, simply due to the fact that I was afraid to approach him about it.

Professor Rosenblum, when asked about the lessons he learned from the class, said, "The problems and implications of miscommunication can be very profound. It's a reminder how different nations and ethnic groups can be easily put on colliding forces when the two sides don't look for and seek clarification."

Once the clarifications were made, things went right back to normal and I felt silly for having let the matter stew for so long. But it was an important lesson about the media, its power to misrepresent, intentionally or not, and an observer's potential to misinterpret. These are valuable lessons to be aware of, particularly when dealing with conflicts such as Palestine and Israel, or any conflict, for that matter.

There were other lessons Professor Rosenblum learned from teaching the class. Recalling when a Holocaust survivor was brought to tears when she heard such a compelling case made for Jewish trauma by a Muslim student reminded Rosenblum of how very fragile human discourse can be -- and is. Professor Rosenblum says he also learned that you can't be afraid of getting into messy situations where students might feel squirmy or recalcitrant because students will rise to the occasion, as they did in this class, difficult though it may have been for them to communicate what they feel and mean.

Professor Rosenblum says he favors a "Rubix cube education." He believes that there are so many teachers out there teaching what they believe, rather than letting the students come to their own conclusions, the advantages of which were evident in his class. Professor Rosenblum really fostered this approach in his class. Through the readings he offered, the films he showed and the speakers he brought in, the environment always felt very even-handed. As a student, I was unable to get a feel for what his personal biases are, which only made me trust him more. It was intimidating for me, as a Muslim, to be in a classroom in which a majority of the people in the room, including the professor, were Jewish, and we were going to be discussing this conflict. Professor Rosenblum, through his even-handedness, made that less difficult, and made the space feel safe for expressing one's views.

Professor Rosenblum said, "I was inspired by the civility amidst so many disagreements in the class." I believe the civility was a result the environment he created, a respect for what he is trying to do and does, and a good mix of people. The class ended in what I would call a mutual awe. Many of the auditors expressed their appreciation for the students' perspectives, and how much the students were able to learn. Many of the students knew that hearing from the auditors, listening to their histories and seeing their openness to learn and change was probably a rare life experience as well. Most importantly, I think people in the class were shocked at how much they learned about themselves, what they believed, continue to believe and why.

The next phase of this project takes place in the fall semester. Professor Rosenblum will be teaching a course called Arab and Israeli Film.

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