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Skidmore College

The art of listening: Skidmore community engages Israeli-Palestinian issue

December 6, 2023
by James Helicke

With appeals to avoid stereotypes, to reach out to those with differing perspectives and learn from them, and – most of all – to listen, faculty, staff, and students are using the tools of Skidmore College’s liberal arts education to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian issue, to move beyond simplistic understandings, and to engage in meaningful dialogue.  

Skidmore has organized several recent programs, including a faculty panel that brought together five Skidmore professors offering multiple scholarly perspectives, and the webinar “Peacemakers at a Time of War,” presented by the Jewish and Palestinian peace group Roots/Judur/Sorsashim on Nov. 27.  

President Marc C. Conner offered opening remarks at the Nov. 29 faculty panel, which included experts in fields ranging from religious studies to international affairs to environmental studies. Noting the importance of respectful discourse, the president emphasized Skidmore's unwavering commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech, thought, and expression. He said being challenged by views differing from one’s own is what a liberal arts education at Skidmore should be all about.  

“For our faculty to be able to speak candidly, bravely, openly about the matters on which they have expertise — that is what academic freedom is,” Conner said. “Each of us may likely hear things tonight with which we disagree. And indeed we should say that each time we set foot on the Skidmore College campus and engage in a liberal education.” 

Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dorothy Mosby, who moderated the faculty panel and was among its organizers, offered community guidelines meant to foster respectful dialogue.  

“Listen actively with an ear to understanding others’ words,” Mosby said at the packed gathering in Skidmore’s Davis Auditorium. “Comment in order to share information, and not to persuade. Avoid blame, speculation, and inflammatory language. Avoid assumptions.” 

President Conner stated that the College is committed to protecting its students, staff, and faculty from religious discrimination, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, as well as discrimination on the basis of national origin and shared ancestry. 

“We continue to categorically repudiate and reject antisemitism and Islamophobia,” he asserted. “All forms of bigotry, racism, and hatred are inimical to who we are and what we value at Skidmore.” 

Associate Professor of Art History Saleema Waraich, who specializes in the art of Muslim majority areas of South and West Asia, started the panel with a discussion of the concept of Orientalism (a concept developed by the late Palestinian activist and literary critic Edward Said), its relationship to contemporary Islamophobia, and the ways that both concepts have often skewed Western attitudes toward the region.  

“Islamophobia silences productive conversations about difference and diversity, race and bigotry, and specific histories of oppression, and often results in debates mired in insults, slurs, and bigotry,” she said. 

Teaching Professor of Religious Studies Gregory Spinner, a specialist on the Bible and the history of its interpretation, discussed messianic politics surrounding Israel – both ancient and contemporary – as well as the divergent ways that Jewish and Christian groups have articulated modern Zionism in both religious and secular terms. 

“Zion is the cornerstone of Jewish collective memory,” said Spinner, who pursued advanced studies in Jerusalem for several years. “I am not saying that ... somehow Israelites' history should trump any sort of Palestinian claim to self-determination; I am saying that it (a theological perspective) is relevant information for understanding some of the dimensions of the conflict. Even if the Bible is not important to you personally, its interpretation nonetheless impacts public life globally.”  

Zankel Professor of Management for Liberal Arts Students Pushkala Prasad, who teaches in both Skidmore's Management and Business Department and its International Affairs Program, explored geopolitical dimensions of the conflict and sought to dispel dominant foundational “myths” surrounding its origins. Instead, Prasad offered a much more nuanced and complicated history.  

“There are no perfect victims and there are no perfect villains at the level of populations in this situation,” Prasad said. “All parties in the conflict should be encouraged to focus on what needs to happen, rather than what they want to have happen. Compromise may be a dirty word, but it can sometimes produce the most humane outcomes.”  

Sarah Friedland, a teaching professor and director of Skidmore's Storytellers’ Institute (part of the John B. Moore Documentary Studies Collaborative or MDOCS), showed clips from her recent film “Lyd,” which presents the transformation of a once predominantly Palestinian city into an Israeli one following the establishment of Israel and the outbreak of war between Israel and Arab countries in 1948.  Friedland contrasted the ease of her access to Israel, the West Bank, and Jerusalem as a Jewish American with the denial of any access afforded to a Palestinian documentarian living as a refugee in southern Lebanon a short distance away.   

“If we cannot see this place through the many lenses that experience it as home and create and disseminate images for the historical record that would represent all the experiences, then it is not possible to see the whole picture of experience, which will make it hard to find a path forward,” Friedland said.  

Nurcan Atalan-Helicke, associate professor of environmental studies, reflected on the Oslo Accords, their unraveling following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli extremist in 1995, various institutions and organizations representing Israelis and Palestinians, and her own experience growing up in a Muslim majority country and later traveling to Israel.  

"Amidst the current crisis, we hear more about the failed attempts at peace negotiations and why there was never a resolution to the conflict. We hear about Israel’s position. We hear about the Palestinian position,” Atalan-Helicke said. “We do not necessarily hear about a long-term resolution of the conflict and how to end human suffering – for both Israelis and Palestinians.”  

The Office of the President, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, and the Office of the Dean of Students sponsored the faculty panel, “Starting Conversations on Israel-Palestine.”  In addition, Skidmore’s Center for Leadership, Teaching and Learning recently brought together faculty and offered them support in discussing the topic in the classroom. Several student groups have also offered programming of their own. Skidmore has additional courses and programs planned for the spring semester. 

Earlier in the week, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life in partnership with the Office of the President and the Racial Justice Initiative organized the webinar with Roots/Judur/Sorsashim.  

The program was held virtually, but a number of Skidmore community members, including representatives of Jewish and Muslim student clubs, opted to attend the webinar together in Wilson Chapel. (A recording of the program is available.

During the program, Belal Arar, a Palestinian, described his initial reluctance to engage with Israelis when a friend first invited him to a Roots event shortly after he graduated from high school in 2014.  

“At that moment I thought ... he had lost his mind. Why would you want to go meet the enemy — the people who had caused all the suffering and pain to you?” he recalled wondering then. “In our meetings, we began to realize that there were many things we didn’t know about the other side. And actually many of the things you thought you knew about the other side were wrong … You understand that the other side has feelings of pain and trauma; not just you are the absolute victim of this conflict.” 

He and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who visited Skidmore previously, also described how their peacemaking efforts have been challenged during the most recent war. Schlesinger emphasized the idea that both Israelis and Palestinians hold their own truths. He said reaching out to others and listening to them would be essential to move everyone closer toward reconciliation. 

“Don’t define.  Don’t accuse. Don’t react. Rather listen — and listen until it hurts then listen some more — and lastly describe your experience of your people and your side. The idea is for each side to understand what the other side is seeing, experiencing, feeling,” he said. “My job is not to prove that you’re wrong. It’s actually to listen to you and find room in my heart to recognize the truth that you’re speaking and that it doesn’t necessarily erase or nullify the truth that I’m experiencing.” 

"These programs exemplify how a liberal arts college can offer multiple perspectives on this enormously complex conflict,” President Conner remarked. 

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