“Go ahead and see what you can do”

Thus Dr. Hassam Dweik wecomed us to Al Quds University in Abu Dis, Palestine, for the second international conference on Dialogue under Occupation.

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Sabri Safadi wasted no time challenging our gathering of academics concerned with matters of occupation &emdash; literally and metaphorically. He was informative, calm, and measured in tone; this allowed most of the audience to listen. Essentially, he asked us: “What are you doing here?” Later in the day, Julia Schlam-Salman approached her study through a social constructionist lens. “The school,” she said, “is just a school”; it is guided by an educational ideology which is institutionalized and thus &emdash; metaphorically if not literally &emdash; determines things that you can and cannot do within the educational setting. The same applies to us, I thought: “the conference is just a conference”, we operate within a professional-academic ideology that is also deeply institutionalized. Julia went on to describe the additional burden of literal occupation on the inevitable educational occupation, while I reflected on how our conference itself is limited by form and the expectations of form.
Take Sabri’s questions. We have listened to the introductory logistics and official welcome, and have come to the end of the first presentation. The moderator, Dr. Munther S. Dajani, has responded and opened the floor to questions from the audience. In fact, Sabri spoke up at the first point in the structure of an academic conference in which audience members are explicitly invited to speak. (He told me his name means “patience.”)
1) What do we mean by “dialogue” in the title of the conference?
2) Do we have the transparency and the courage to speak out loud?
3) Are we legitimizing the occupation or do we want to end the occupation through this dialogue?
4) What happened to the initial, critical U.S. journalistic responses to the first Intifada that questioned what Israel was doing?

How did we (DUO participants) respond to these questions? We enacted group-level dynamics that established the primacy of academic discourse as the main mode of the conference, not dialogue. How did we do this? First, as moderator, Dr. Dajani acknowledged the importance of Sabri’s questions: “Very difficult questions you are asking!” The audience laughed in agreement. Sabri continued. Politely. At the end of his turn, the next woman returned to the official presentation with what she characterized as a “small question.” Twice, Sabri Safadi and his “very difficult questions” were discursively cut off. I am not advocating that we &emdash; those of us in the auditorium at this moment &emdash; ought to have done something different, only that we must learn to notice when we derail dialogue, no matter the reason. Only when we realize how we undercut ourselves can we begin to experiment with other tactics that may lead to political solutions.
I was fortunate to sit with Dr. Dajani during lunch. I asked him about his comment concerning the closure of universities for three days of mourning. ““There is another side of this, also to avoid any clashes between the students, we didn’t want the students to carry those problems to campus.” Was this an admission that the University lacked staff able to guide the students in dialogue? Is this a failure of the education system that they shunt the problem to the streets? “You do not understand the culture,” he explained. The cultural values of friendship and agreement are intertwined. To the extent one agrees with another, the closer a friendship. The fewer areas of agreement, the weaker the friendship. “If you disagree, you are my enemy.” Dr. Dajani described this as “my cousin against my neighbor, my brother against my cousin.”
Few people in Palestinian society, percentage-wise, have learned to recognize this cultural frame, let alone develop perspectives that enable different choices. The strategy, therefore, for addressing a potentially volatile situation are therefore unconventional.
University representatives (I am not sure who, I guess a mix of administration and faculty) met for seven hours on Tuesday with students from Fatah and Hamas, persisting from three in the afternoon until ten pm that night, when the students finally began to joke with each other and laugh, realizing and agreeing that the problem in Gaza was not a problem to bring to campus. I would like to know the moves in the talk that drew these youths along a path from the culture view equating disagreement with enemy and friendship with agreement. Imagine the perseverance, the commitment of time, energy, and patience required to sit in a room together and talk, and talk, and keep sitting, and talk some more . . .
The last event of the day was a viewing of Occupied Minds, followed by a discussion with journalist and co-producer “Jamal Dajani, a Palestinian-American, and David Michaelis, an Israeli citizen, who journey to Jerusalem, their mutual birthplace, to explore new solutions and offer unique insights into the divisive Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (Link TV program information). Dajani stunned the audience by telling us a one-state solution is the most practical political resolution because it reflects “the reality on the ground.” Occupied Minds shows how the preoccupation with ideas one has already been taught – an “occupation of the mind” – is the greatest barrier to peace. Watch and you will witness some of the limits of imagination that lock the peoples of this “bi-national country” in futile animosity.
I was certainly not the only one who had never learned that the Palestinian people are more interested in equality (fair treatment under law) than a separate state. Oddly, the idea has been around at least since 2003 (see this article from The Nation; and this article from The Guardian). Our host later inquired whether we, as non-Israelis, found the idea as “difficult” as she did, admitting that she knew her reaction was irrational and being aware that she is relatively “awake” compared with many (if not most) of her compatriots. Her self-reflection is evidence, I think, of a partial response to Sabri’s searing inquiry: are we – the participants of this conference – here to make a difference or simply to ride an intriguing academic current? It seems we desire to make a difference, even if we are unsure exactly how.

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3 thoughts on ““Go ahead and see what you can do””

  1. Thanks Amanda. I was deliberately selective in the photos I took. The only way I know to contribute to a peaceful resolution is to emphasis the images, narratives, and desire for nonviolence, cooperation, and cohabitation. The urge for an end to the occupation is so palpable in all the Palestinians I met, that it was impossible not to respect the poignancy of principled struggle.

  2. Steph’s numerous posts that we have been reading over the past couple of weeks are all&emdash;at least as I interpret&emdash;all connected to one major topic: conversation. It is something that we have been learning about in class for while now. But the basics have to come to be: there two sides to every argument, both sides have to be heard, and a give-and-take mechanism must reach a compromise at some point. I think that the issues between Israel and Palestine, if stripped down, are essentially one big conversation. Just as Steph realized that the conference that she was attending was just a conference, I interpret the conversation between Israel and Palestine to be just a conversation. Unfortunately the conversation between the two countries has become violent, and it is clear that something must be done. Conversation is part of the backbone of society, therefore, the two countries cannot completely function if they cannot have successful conversations. It will be hard to find a compromise between the two countries, but with the help of the other countries involved Israel and Palestine will be able to have a successful conversation. In one of the pictures a phrase in painted on a concrete wall, “Thou shall not build a wall”. The concrete wall is a metaphor for the disparity of ideas between the two countries and thus keeps them separated socially and geographically.

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