Co-Teaching a Class on Israel and Palestine

For the past two years, at Dartmouth College, I have been co-teaching a course called The Politics of Israel and Palestine with Ezzedine Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat who served under the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. Our work in the class—a civil, exploratory dialogue sustained over eighteen sessions—anchored a

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For the past two years, at Dartmouth College, I have been co-teaching a course called The Politics of Israel and Palestine with Ezzedine Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat who served under the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. Our work in the class—a civil, exploratory dialogue sustained over eighteen sessions—anchored a series of public forums at the college in the aftermath of the horrors of October 7th. These drew several hundred students and faculty into the college halls, and were watched by two thousand more online; they proved sufficiently helpful in preëmpting the polarization that has afflicted other Ivy League campuses to gain the attention of various national media. I spend half the year in Israel, and have since returned to a country at war. I’ve been thinking more about our miniature peace process, about how a university might organize for difficult subjects—and about what, after all, universities are.

Ezzedine and I had been teaching versions of our course separately; I started in 2src11, he in 2src16. We had a mutual friend in Álvaro de Soto, the former U.N. Special Coordinator under whom he served, and Ezzedine did his doctorate in Montreal, my home town, so our relations were warm from the start. But it was only after the eleven-day Gaza conflict in May, 2src21, when I returned to campus from Jerusalem, that we determined that we would team up. The catalyst was a statement put out by some faculty members who had organized into the Consortium of Studies in Race, Migration, and Sexuality, or R.M.S. Their statement was in solidarity with Gazans but was infused with viscous rhetoric (“For RMS, this means ensuring that our shared epistemologies and ethics of anticolonial relations are capacious”) and seemed rather hypothetical about attitudes toward sexuality in Gaza under Hamas rule; it also called for “supporting Jewish scholars who have vowed that their future teaching of the Holocaust will be in dialogue with the Naqba, Black scholars who have put Ferguson next to Gaza,” and similar notions in this vein. Ezzedine and I feared that this statement would prompt a counter-statement from other faculty members who might accuse pro-Palestinian activists of antisemitism. “If this became a thing,” Ezzedine recalled recently, “it would have undermined the spirit in which we’d been operating.”

He was referring to efforts by the head of Dartmouth’s Jewish-studies program, Susannah Heschel, and the head of the Middle East-studies program, Tarek El-Ariss, to organize curricula coöperatively, aligning and cross-listing courses and including the faculty of both programs in seminars. Dartmouth is isolated and nested in an almost unnervingly lovely New Hampshire river valley, so faculty tend to think that friendships derive from shared academic interests and that, even when those interests might lead to disagreement, the friendships should not be fouled by intemperance. The government-and-economics department had already sponsored a course called The Future of Capitalism, team-taught by colleagues whose views range from social-democratic to laissez-faire. The dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the biologist Elizabeth Smith, allocated special funds to support Ezzedine’s and my proposal based on a single e-mail to her.

Whatever the catalyst, joint teaching immediately felt like a relief to both of us. There were moments when I had felt queasy purporting to represent the evolution of Palestinian nationalism, or the influence of Nasserism, the state socialism of Egypt’s second President, Gamal Abdel Nasser. I did not doubt my sources, or even my general claims, but I worried that they would land with some students as unreliable. Ezzedine felt much the same teaching about current Israeli political divisions. “I thought, and still think,” he told me, “that having both an Israeli and an Arab would offer students more safety to be open-minded—would reduce the likelihood of them shutting themselves down when they hear something they don’t like.”

I had publicly asked foundational questions about my own, well, side, and Ezzedine had raised corresponding questions about his. We hoped our students would find the symmetry stimulating. In past years, I had assigned parts of my 1985 book, “The Tragedy of Zionism,” in which I ask whether Israel’s democracy was fettered not only by the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, since 1967, but also by residual Zionist and theocratic institutions, since 1948. I decided to continue to assign the book and various other articles about, say, the prospects for a two-state confederation, or the economic impact of occupation. Ezzedine, more scrupulous than I was in separating the roles of teacher and analyst, assigned none of his own political writings (he’d contributed regularly to the Washington Post), yet he was equally frank about his political journey: after leaving the diplomatic world, he had become a liberal columnist in Egypt, and had participated in the Tahrir uprising, which, in 2src11, ended the thirty-year rule of Hosni Mubarak. Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, briefly replaced Mubarak, until he, too, was toppled by Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who proved no more respectful of human rights. Ezzedine came to New Hampshire, in 2src16, feeling the years of frustration. “You would talk about the horrors of living under occupation, and I about my consternation about Arab dictatorships,” he said, recalling this point of collaboration. “When students see us voicing criticism to the communities we identify with, it encourages them to adopt a more critical view of their own community.”

Yet the prospect of merging our courses excited me for a kind of parochial reason, as well—the converse of the reason for my past queasiness. I would be able to teach Zionist origins to students I might not otherwise have reached, and in a way that Arab-studies scholars without a command of the Hebrew language likely would not. In most standard accounts of that history, in the late nineteenth century Jews needed refuge from persecution, so they became determined to build a state in their Biblical land. A book we assigned, the late Ian Black’s “Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2src17,” put the Zionist narrative this way: as a “quest” to build a “sovereign and independent Jewish state in their ancient homeland, finally achieved in the wake of the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazis.”

But this was not the idea that brought the original Zionist pioneers to the land in the early decades of the twentieth century—most Jews seeking safety then went to the U.S.—or that explained how, though Hebrew was nobody’s mother tongue at the time, Israel became a Hebrew-speaking country that had, indeed, a “politics,” a multigenerational culture war pitting liberals against theocrats. In fact, the Zionist pioneers, the precursors of Israel’s liberals, were secular modernizers who were appalled by the rabbinic strictures that alienated Jews in Eastern European cities. They wanted to reëstablish Hebrew as not just a language of scholastic debate and liturgical ritual but the means by which Jews might preserve the materials of the traditional culture yet cultivate their individual scientific and aesthetic imaginations in a new, emancipated Jewish nation. This would be something which diaspora Jews, assimilated into the English or German language and culture, could not aspire to. Zionism, in short, was a labor of love before it became a defensive crouch. The standard version is the projection onto the past from Zionism’s post-Second World War dilemmas and self-justifying rhetoric.

Crucially, Ezzedine and I agreed to complement, if not challenge, each other’s teaching on the topics that we knew best. He would present the evolution of Palestinian national consciousness with nuances and affections that would have escaped me, lacking Arabic. I would show how in the early nineteen-twenties—when the Jewish National Fund bought land for Zionist farming collectives, often from absentee landlords in Beirut and other cities—pioneers reasoned that the resulting displacement of indebted Palestinian leasehold farmers seemed an inevitable price, similar to what was happening at the time to poor farmers in every modernizing economy, including the United States. We assigned, as if in response, large portions of Rashid Khalidi’s “Palestinian Identity” and “The Iron Cage.” And Ezzedine would show that the Naqba of 1948 was the culmination of a colonial project that had thwarted Palestinian leaders ever since Britain betrayed them by carving Palestine out of the promised pan-Arab country, and also with the Balfour Declaration, of 1917, which committed to a “national home” for Jews. Palestinian identity was a mounting grievance against Zionist incursion and imperial fiat—an interrupted, frustrated modernizing project in its own right.

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