One of the greatest concerns among academics who teach Middle Eastern studies is achieving balance between the various perspectives on the conflicts in that region. To combat this problem, Prof. Shai Feldman (POL), director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, sought an inventive method for incorporating Arab and Israeli perspectives into a class this semester. He created "Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East," a class taught by an Israeli, a Palestinian and an Egyptian scholar.
"[The class] is actually all derived from the general concept that I defined for the Crown Center, which is to present balance," Feldman said. "[The goal] is to provide students the ability to ascertain the complete interpretation of the conflict. We did not want to limit the class to any particular perspective."
Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian, and Abdel Monem Said Aly, an Egyptian, are both prominent scholars on the Arab-Israeli conflict. They joined Feldman, who provided the Israeli perspective in the class. Shikaki is the director of the most prominent, independent Palestinian think-tank and Aly is the director of one of the most prominent think-tanks in the Middle East, Feldman said.
"By bringing a senior Palestinian and a senior Egyptian, [students] could interact at close range," Feldman said. "The students really had unprecedented access to getting a survey of the conflict."
Feldman said he feels that bringing scholars like Shikaki and Aly to teach along with him was the best way to bring balance to teaching the material.
"You can try to achieve [balance] simply by providing a balanced reading list," Feldman said. "But reading lists can't give students the texture of the conflict."
The reading list was, however, extensive for this class. Students were assigned in-depth readings for each of the three perspectives. Despite this, Feldman says that only two or three students dropped the class.
"This was an unusually difficult syllabus," Feldman said. "You really had to read to keep up with all the perspectives. People really did all the reading and participated very actively in this class."
The class was divided into two parts. The first half focused on the general regional dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The second dealt with the bi-lateral talks between the two sides and the efforts to resolve the conflict. The class stayed away from policy recommendations and the role of the United States in the peace process. Feldman said one of the most valuable aspects of the class was its demonstration of how different policy decisions affected each of the groups involved in the conflict, but did so without trying to solve the problems themselves.
Besides providing a balanced perspective, Feldman says he focused on exposing the danger of placing blame on one side or the other.
He said it is important that students understand the futility of what he likes to call the "blame game."
"This class is not about deciding what is right and what is wrong," Feldman said. "'Blame games' are really a waste of time because they don't get you anywhere."
Students say they found "Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East" to be a unique and valuable experience. Josh Itzkowitz-Shifrinson '06, a politics major, said he chose the class because it came highly recommended by the politics department.
"The tripartite teaching method was excellent," Itzkowitz-Shifrinson said. "[The instructors] had very different views and they all got along well."
Itzkowitz-Shifrinson said while he did not dislike anything about the class, he would make one suggestion.
"I would actually frame the class differently," he said. "One group [of students] reads one set of reading, one group reads another. It's not quite role-play, but you get a more direct feel for what's going on."
Overall, Izkowitz-Shifrinson still gives the class a rave review.
"It was a fantastic course," Itzkowitz-Shifrinson said. "It was absolutely one of the most intelligent I've had in the politics department."
While this was the first time that Feldman taught a class with Shikaki and Aly, it was not the first time they have worked together. The three scholars have met several times over the past 15 years to engage in what is known as Track Two negotiations. These discussions try to focus on the issues not covered in the main peace talks, and sometimes serve as a guide for the primary issues at hand.
"We've been doing that for a long time," Feldman said. "We've been holding such talks for 15 years. We've also cooperated on smaller issues in the past. But we've never done something as elaborate as teaching a class together."
Although Feldman said the class was a success, he he is not sure if it will be offered again. Instead, he may offer a course that goes into more depth than this general class did. For now, Feldman plans to keep trying to seek middle ground in his teaching about the Middle East in a follow up class called"U.S. Policy in the Middle East," that will be taught next semester.