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How two Dartmouth professors are addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Anger and fear are felt on many college campuses since the October 7 attacks on Israel. A student at Cornell University in upstate New York has been arrested and charged with threatening the lives of Jewish students. And both Jewish and Arab students at a number of schools say they're reluctant to express their views publicly. At least one campus, though, has tried to do what educational institutions are supposed to do - teach. Dartmouth College is putting on forums where faculty from the Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies programs answer questions about the conflict and its roots in history. The forums have drawn packed auditoriums, and many hundreds of people have also watched the events online. The two professors who've organized these forums, Susannah Heschel and Tarek El-Ariss, join us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

SUSANNAH HESCHEL: Thank you.

TAREK EL-ARISS: Thank you for having us.

SIMON: Let me ask you both - I gather you were on the phone shortly after the October 7 attacks and decided we need to do something. What was your thinking? Professor El-Ariss?

EL-ARISS: I was actually in Cairo when the events happened. And we immediately talked - Susannah and I - and said we need to address these issues. We need to create a forum for students to come and understand and think and reflect and ask questions. And we're also, you know, teaching courses about these topics. We wanted this conversation to extend to the wider community and engage with what people were feeling, thinking, engaging with.

SIMON: Professor Heschel?

HESCHEL: It's very important for us that we've worked together as faculty, as student groups, as programs - Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies - for many years. So we have a relationship already on campus. And because of that relationship for so many years, we were able to jump right in immediately and bring the campus together and make sure we would not become polarized. So we wanted students of a range of political views - Jewish students, Arab students, Palestinian students, Christian students - to come together and talk together with faculty in an academic setting.

SIMON: Were you concerned about events getting out of hand, for lack of a better word, becoming even unsafe for people?

EL-ARISS: Susannah and I teach a course called The Arab, The Jew and the Construction of Modernity. And it's a packed course, and we have students who are originally from Palestinian background, Arab background, Jewish backgrounds. And these were the students who came. And these are students who know us, who trust us, who are already part of a conversation. And so some of them, of course, were upset, angry, scared. But they brought these emotions, the soul baggage also and expressed it. But they expressed it in a thoughtful way, and things remained really civil throughout.

HESCHEL: I'll just say that when I started to hear about the slaughter that Hamas was perpetrating against Israeli civilians, I was shattered and terrified. And I have to say I was overwhelmed emotionally. I did not expect the kind of rage and polarization on college campuses. I didn't anticipate that. I don't think anyone did. And I'm horrified by what's appeared around the country. We've also - both of us - have been consulted by colleagues at other universities, thanking us for what we're doing and asking us what they can do - what advice. And the problem is that in many colleges, Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies have not been allied, working together all these years the way we have. That's a problem.

SIMON: I want to play a question for you that I gather was asked at the second forum. And I say this as someone who was once a reporter in the Middle East - I don't know how I'd handle it. The question is, is Israel - can it be fairly called an apartheid state? Here's the question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: My question - all major international human rights organizations - Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, even Israeli ones like B'Tselem, use the term apartheid to describe the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. But it seems like in a lot of these spaces, apartheid gets kind of dismissed and ignored, as though it makes people uncomfortable. I would like to get your direct thoughts on apartheid and stop skirting around the question. Thank you for your time.

SIMON: Two of your colleagues took that question, I gather. What would you have said if you were there that night?

HESCHEL: So I was there. Our colleague Ezzedine Fishere, who is, in fact, a former diplomat from Egypt, responded to the student and pointed out that the definitions and the international law of apartheid do not apply in that blanket way to Israel, first of all. And second of all, he asked the student, what are you trying to accomplish? So what's the purpose of calling Israel an apartheid state? It becomes an epithet to arouse people's rage in Israel. And what does that accomplish? More anger, more tension, more conflict, more war. What is the point? So we have to think about the kinds of questions we want to raise here and think about the goal we want to achieve. And the goal is ultimately peace, two people living in peace next to each other.

EL-ARISS: Yeah. You know, when does the conversation stop? Or when does recognizing the power differential becomes the end of the conversation, you know? OK, now I identified who's the bad guy and who's, you know, being violated, and we stop there. And it's - and this is not our job - is simply stop at the condemnation. We want to understand, want to revisit the historical context, want to imagine a different future. You know, we need to do all this other work around. And we don't want to stop at just simply saying, this is the bad guy. This is the good guy, you know, and then stop just right there.

SIMON: Let me ask you both if there - as the great teachers you are - if there's one thing you could isolate now to tell all of us during this time, what would that be? Professor Heschel?

HESCHEL: I want people to think in complex terms, not to be satisfied with the reductionist approach, to place the present in a larger context of the past but also, as we've been saying, to think about a better future, to imagine it. I had to give a talk recently about the Sabbath. The Sabbath is supposed to be a foretaste of Paradise. And the problem is nobody thinks about Paradise anymore. We're so immersed in the horrors of the present and the past...

SIMON: Yeah.

HESCHEL: ...We don't have a vision of a future. And that, I think, is true society wide. So what can we envision for a future - and not in a punitive way? That's also part of the problem. There's something right now in the response to this current horror in the Middle East that feels very punitive and a bit sadistic. People need to be punished. Israel has to be punished. Hamas has to be punished. Why are we thinking in those terms? We're talking about human beings.

SIMON: Professor El-Ariss?

EL-ARISS: I grew up in Beirut during the civil war, and I've experienced bombing and displacement. And actually, I just wrote a book about it. And I also had to teach the Middle East in New York on 9/11. I was supposed to meet with my students on that day. So I learned the hard way of how to deal with these - talking about the region, talking about conflicts but also engaging when conflicts arise and how to really listen. And this is not the first time. For many of us, this is an ongoing spectacle, which - but every time it fills us with sadness. But also, it is something that we need to engage and allow, you know, those emotions, as well, to make us reflect more and do more work, to teach more courses and bring more people into this conversation.

SIMON: Susannah Heschel is chair of the Jewish Studies Program, and Tarek El-Ariss is chair of Middle Eastern Studies - both at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Thanks for being with us.

EL-ARISS: Thank you, Scott.

HESCHEL: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIBRAN ALCOCER'S "IDEA 10") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: November 5, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous web summary of this report misspelled Susannah Heschel's name as Heschell.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.
Fernando Narro Roman