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Small Steps Toward Bridging Middle East Chasm

A Palestinian and a rabbi, who have become friends, teach a class about both sides of the passionate dispute over the Holy Land.

June 04, 2003|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and Palestinian graduate student Shawki El-Zatmah make an odd couple at UCLA.

Seidler-Feller, 55, director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, is an urbane native of Brooklyn with deep family and religious ties to Israel. El-Zatmah, a 32-year-old with a passionate speaking style and a secular outlook, grew up in a Gaza refugee camp and advocates forcefully for his people.

Together, however, they have tried to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide by co-teaching a sociology course on the conflict called "Voices of Peace."

In the process, they have become friends and appear to have eased some of the ill will on campus over the Middle East dispute -- at least among their own students.

"Now students are sitting and talking with each other, and they are respecting each other," said El-Zatmah, a doctoral student in Middle Eastern history. "The Jewish students start to realize there's a Palestinian people, and they have the right to exist within a safe state, and a fully sovereign state. And the Arab students start to understand, there was a Holocaust and it was a very horrible experience, and Israelis have the right to have their own sovereign state."

The 80 students came to the course with widely varying perspectives. Class members include American and Israeli Jews, Arab and non-Arab Muslims and other U.S. and foreign students with no ethnic or religious ties to the conflict. During breaks, some of the students chat in Hebrew, Arabic or Persian.

The two instructors have generally similar views on settling the conflict, with each supporting the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. They regard the "road map" peace plan -- to be discussed today by leaders at a summit in Jordan -- as a crucial historic opportunity.

Still, the teachers have often disagreed sharply in class. For example, when Seidler-Feller said in a lecture this week that Jewish tradition calls for exercising the greatest possible restraint even when the use of force is necessary, El-Zatmah cut him short, interjecting that violence is inevitable when people are ruled by an occupying force.

The course was designed to push students to look at the dispute from new points of view. The midterm paper required them to "select a book which expresses a view contrary to your own" and write about it. The final project calls for students to work in groups of about half a dozen teams and requires each to come up with a solution to a specific aspect of the conflict.

Weekly lectures, often featuring guest speakers, covered such topics as the evolution of Zionism, the emergence of Palestinian nationalism, the rising role of religious fundamentalism on both sides of the conflict and grass-roots efforts to promote peace.

The balance of viewpoints "is as objective as you possibly can get," said Gustavo Gutierrez, a graduating senior majoring in history and sociology, whose father is Christian and mother is Muslim.

Seidler-Feller -- known as "Rabbi Chaim" to the students -- began developing the course more than two years ago when Arab and Jewish students approached him for help in promoting peace between the groups on campus. At first, he feared that UCLA administrators would frown on a class that wasn't purely academic. Still, he started to help the students in drafting a course outline.

Then, after an Arab student wrote a column in the UCLA student newspaper supporting the Palestinian cause but also expressing understanding for the Israeli side, Seidler-Feller e-mailed the writer to say, "You're my brother in peace." Their follow-up conversations spurred him to go ahead with the class.

Last summer, in preparing to offer the class a second time, Seidler-Feller approached El-Zatmah about teaching the course together. El-Zatmah, although sometimes uncomfortable with religious people, was won over by what he regarded as Seidler-Feller's forthrightness and concern for human welfare.

"He can see religion in light of humanity, and I give him credit for it," El-Zatmah said. "So I never feel uncomfortable with him when he speaks about religion. It's a great experience to teach with a religious Zionist."

At the last regular session of the full class Monday, students offered ideas on what they would do to further the cause of peace. One was to form teams to speak at mosques, synagogues and elsewhere about peace-making. Another was to establish a campus forum for ongoing discussions about the Middle East.

Although no students said their outlooks were radically changed by the course, many said they had become more understanding of the other side.

"You're raised a certain way.... I've been raised with the notion that we're right and Palestinians are wrong," said Michelle Levian, a third-year student majoring in sociology and neuroscience.

"I always thought it was a one-sided story, but once I had the opportunity to hear the other side, to hear the struggles and hardships of occupation, I realized there should be a resolution. It makes me want to create peace."

Sofia Mazgarova, a Muslim student from Russia who wears a hijab over her head, said she started the class with pro-Palestinian sentiments and little hope for a peaceful settlement to the conflict. But the fourth-year student majoring in cognitive science said she came to appreciate the diversity of thought in Israeli society.

She said she no longer believes that political discussion in Israel is dominated by right-wingers "who don't leave much space for Palestinian rights ....I appreciate the individuals, the people who can speak up on behalf of Palestinians, even if it's not the politically correct Israeli point of view."

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