My first foray into the secular world was an SAT boot camp. Beforehand, I ripped the "ish" out of "Jewish" and evolved into Super Jew. My day school, my friends, my after-school blintzes — every ounce of life sang "tradition." Later, when I went to Swarthmore College, baggage bristling with skepticism, I never predicted one of my favorite professors would be the P-word: Palestinian.
An alum of the college, professor Sa'ed Atshan was a lightning bolt of positivity and scholarship. He leaped down the hall by the slap of his high fives and ring of his cheery catchphrase, "You rock my world!" I enrolled in his Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies course expecting to coast as a ragged, sagacious junior. Instead, I faced rigorous towers of texts, even by Swarthmore's standards. I completed two more of his courses. Once I asked him to be my adviser, I wrote my capstone thesis on the power of Jewish comedy for nonviolent reconciliation under his tutelage. Far from the violent, vengeful stereotype I had believed, Atshan was a wonderful mentor.
Without having met any Palestinians in real life, I painted broad, monolithic strokes about Palestinian people. In my mind, gay, Christian and Palestinian could not fit together. Yet Atshan was all three. "Every Palestinian is anti-Semitic" made more sense than "Palestinians are as diverse as any other group of human beings." Yet Atshan responded to his Jewish students with special care, arranging assignments, discussions, speakers, films and office hours to represent and process our just-as-varied views. Accusations like "hateful" and "intolerant" bounced off him and stuck to me.
Watching Sa'ed (as I know him in the post-graduation world) blaze through campus with a fiery passion for coexistence reflected back the segregation of my own upbringing. Aside from sensationalized news stories, I experienced zero interaction with the proverbial "Other." I huffed and I puffed my imagination of a Palestinian into a parade balloon of a person. Meanwhile, Sa'ed was living testimony to the power of an open mind. Now, I wonder why I waited so long to seek out connections like ours.
In her book "Pedagogies of Crossing," M. Jacqui Alexander writes that "the classroom is Sacred space." That notion has always resonated deeply with me. I feel a spiritual connection with my students, and it is in the classroom where I feel most alive. The exchange of ideas, the affirmation we extend to one another, the ways that we challenge one another to become better versions of ourselves, and the bonds we forge are all truly sacred. In each context on campus, Maya Cohen lived into embracing the power of these connections. I have worked with many Jewish students from across the political spectrum over the years, and that has always been a particularly profound and rewarding experience. This is partly because of my Palestinian background, and all of the insights Maya has named. It is also because most Jewish students like Maya ground their social and global consciousness in the Jewish teachings of tikkun olam, or healing/repairing the world. That always has moved me viscerally.
My pedagogical approach in my courses on controversial issues is to assign a range of readings and to invite guest speakers from diverse ideological backgrounds. It often can elicit strong pushback from the left and right alike. I am accused of doing too much and too little, constantly caught between a rock and a hard place, especially in teaching about my ancestral homeland. There are many forces from across the political spectrum trying to drive apart Palestinians and Jews, and I cherish every opportunity to cultivate deep and meaningful ties with the Jewish individuals in my life. I feel blessed that Maya has joined such endeavors so beautifully.
I distinctly remember early on when Maya once shared that she found herself feeling exacerbated by the subtle and overt forms of anti-Semitism that she faced or witnessed since childhood. As a result, she had considered changing her last name from Cohen to something less obviously Jewish to avoid being stereotyped. I rooted for her not to succumb to this and to instead celebrate and take pride in her rich heritage and the communities that have shaped her into such a remarkable person. This reminded me of my own time as a student at Swarthmore, when I was ashamed of the apostrophe in my first name, which is a legal part of my name for the Arabic letter hamzeh. I went through a phase where I considered omitting the apostrophe altogether but a mentor convinced me to embrace it instead. These parallel experiences helped solidify the identification and solidarity Maya and I share.
COHEN AND ATSHAN:
The respect and admiration we have for each other is reciprocal, palpable and, most importantly, unequivocal. We recognize both our differences and commonalities. And we realize how much the world around us is yearning for more human relationships like ours.
Too often, our communities are pitted against each other as adversaries. People point fingers, shift blame and focus mainly on lines that divide us. Our relationship as professor and student, and later, as fellow alumni and friends, have proven to be profound forms of connection. When we look for where we identify — a common history of struggle and perseverance, a mutual love of education — we put down our verbal arsenal and move forward to a shared vision of peace and justice, truth and coexistence.