Farrah Bdour couldn't have been more skeptical when she stepped into the "Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East" in September.
The 14-week seminar, what may have been the first of its kind in the country, brought a trio of Middle East scholars — one Israeli, one Palestinian and one Egyptian — here to Brandeis University to team teach a multilayered course on the region's combustible politics.
Bdour, a junior from Amman, Jordan, had her dou bts that the course would genuinely reflect the different perspectives of the region. But the reading list was the first sign the experimental course would be demanding and that a variety of perspectives would be explored, she noted in a phone conversation in late December shortly after turning in her final paper. The 18-page course syllabus included 13 required texts — ranging from Palestinian nationalist Edward Said to Israeli diplomat Abba Eban to post-Zionist historian Benny Morris — several weekly periodical reading assignments and a suggested further reading list.
"We all shared a lot of myths about the different wars, and for the most part, we came in with different views," Bdour said of the 23 students in the class. But she said she came away feeling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "can be analyzed and resolved. We all came with certain attachments to the region, but this taught us to think in more depth.
"I can honestly say it could not get any more balanced," Bdour said.
At a time when Middle East studies programs often are mired in accusations of bias, the new course at Brandeis may be bucking a trend. The three scholars — who brought to life three different perspectives, all within the four walls of one classroom — are hoping to prove that it's possible to study the volatile, complex region without drawing lines in the sand and playing the blame game.
"My ambition for the course is to demonstrate that it's possible to actually conduct a balanced, relatively dispassionate discourse on the Middle East," said Shai Feldman, who developed and co-taught the course with Abdel Monem Said Aly, an Egyptian scholar, and Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian researcher.
Feldman says that to his knowledge this is the only course of its kind on an American college campus. And while the course will not be repeated this spring, Feldman said that he, Said, Aly and Shikaki plan to team-teach again next fall, focusing this time not on conflict but on the history of peacemaking efforts in the Middle East.
A native of Israel, Feldman heads the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis, and was director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University for seven years before coming to Brandeis in February.
Said Aly, who has written extensively about the Arab world in both English and Arabic, is director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, a prestigious think tank, and the largest in the Arab world; Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, has conducted more than 100 public opinion polls among Palestinians since 1993.
The three unlikely fellow travelers have known each other, co-authored books and studies, and worked together on a variety of Middle East projects in a number of Mideast and American locales for the more than two decades, Feldman said.
The first half of the semester, which Feldman co-taught with Said Aly, focused on the regional dimension of the conflict, looking at Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, while the second half, which ended last month and was co-taught with Shikaki, shifted discussion to the Palestinian-Israeli dimension of the conflict.
Jewish observers suggest that the best way to overcome anti-Israel bias is through a serious approach to the subject. "The best response lies in true academic scholarship, exploring questions with complete academic freedom," said Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee. He added that such an approach "encourages students to think for themselves and reach their own conclusion." He praised the goals of the Brandeis course as "the most effective antidote to increased politicization of the subject matter."
But the mere mention of the names of these professors drew a sharp jab from Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, known for his widely published news columns espousing a conservative point of view. Pipes said that Shikaki had ties with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Feldman, who said he had not heard this accusation before, emphasized that Shikaki and Said Aly are highly respected voices whose views and research are widely sought after.
At the next-to-last class meeting of the Brandeis course, Feldman kicked off the day's discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the first of dozens of questions he and Shikaki would pose.
"Where do we go from here? What are the options?" he asked the class.
"Status quo," piped one student. At the chalkboard, Feldman started a list. In the next 90 minutes, the first half of the three-hour seminar, the Socratic question-and-answer teaching approach led to a staccato-paced discussion of the so-called "quartet negotiations," the "road map," unilateralism and violence. Students were attentive and responsive, familiar with the terminology, willing to take risks in offering their own analysis and able to follow the twists and turns of each other's arguments.
During a short break, Sam Siegel and Josh Shifrinson, both seniors, carried their enthusiasm for the classroom discussion into the hallway, both saying they were still amazed at the access they had to experts in the field who brought different perspectives. "The professors have challenged us on some things and made us probe deeper," Siegel said.
When the class resumed, it was Shikaki's turn to take the lead in a presentation of the Palestinian domestic scene. He moved to the subject of the skyrocketing rise in the Palestinian stock market in the year since Yasir Arafat's death. It is one among several significant indicators of a growing optimism among Palestinians, Shikaki asserted.
In response to an e-mail query sent after he had returned to his home in Ramallah, Shikaki agreed that most people in the United States are unaware of the existence of the Palestinian stock exchange, even the American business owners he's met, who were pleasantly surprised to learn about it, he wrote.
Amit Saar, a first-year graduate student from Israel, was taken by surprise with Shikaki's revelation during class that recent polls show that the economy, and not the conflict with Israel, is the No. 1 concern among Palestinians. "This is something you don't hear most of the time," says Saar, who was recently awarded a Slivka Foundation fellowship to pursue his master's degree in coexistence.
Saar said that a similar course for Israeli and Palestinian students would be most effective "because this is a course that makes you ... reconsider all the things you are taught about the conflict."
In fact, Shikaki wrote that his center and Tel Aviv University are launching a three-year cooperative venture, which will alternate Israeli professors teaching Palestinian students, journalists and public officials, with Palestinian professors teaching Israelis.
Points Of View
Some critics question whether having three different professors sends a message that a single professor is incapable of teaching a balanced course."
"It's a valid point," Feldman said in response, but the distinction is between text and texture, he said. "If I do this well, the students can get a good sense of the competing perspectives and narratives that exist on the various development in the Middle East.
"But I think we had the ability to provide students the extra privilege to hear from two other competing narratives, from people who come from the people we're talking about."
Said Aly wrote in a follow-up e-mail that he enjoyed teaching with Feldman and was impressed with the seriousness of their students. He said co-teaching was beneficial. "We developed with the students how an Israeli and an Arab are capable of developing a better understanding of highly complicated historical, strategic and geopolitical narratives," he wrote.
Feldman said the future may be the best measure of the value of the Brandeis course. "These are very bright students," he aid, noting they, like other Brandeis graduates, may go on to become world opinion makers. "So maybe some of them, in 10 or 15 years will look back and think, ‘You know, this experience I gained, I will not forget it.' That is my modest hope." n
Penny Schwartz is a freelance writer in Medford, Mass.