The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Middle East in the Classroom
The three authors of a new textbook, Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East, on the Arab-Israeli conflict discussed the challenges of and strategies for effectively teaching the conflict’s three main narratives: the Israeli narrative, the Palestinian narrative, and the greater Arab narrative. Three scholars also provided critiques of the book’s content and structure.
On November 20, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University hosted an event, “The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Middle East in the Classroom,” a book launch for Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East. The first panel, Asher Kaufman, Associate Professor of History and Peace Studies, The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame; Daniel Kurtzer, Lecturer and S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies, Princeton University; Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland, College Park; and moderator Aaron David Miller, Vice President, New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, critiqued the book. The second panel, Abdel Monem Said Aly, Chairman and CEO, Regional Center for Security Studies, Cairo, and Senior Fellow, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University; Shai Feldman, Judy and Sidney Swartz Director, Crown Center for Middle East Studies and Professor of Politics, Brandeis University; Khalil Shikaki, director, Palestinian Center for Political and Survey Research, Ramallah, and Senior Fellow, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University; and moderator Robin Wright, Wilson Center-USIP Distinguished Scholar, provided a rebuttal to the critiques. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, and Shai Feldman provided opening remarks.
Feldman introduced the book as a manifestation of the class he co-teaches with Aly and Shikaki at Brandeis University. The goals of the book were to address the competing narratives of the conflict, to determine which parts of history are uncontested by the three narratives, and to provide students with the analytical tools to do their own similar analysis of future events.
Miller introduced the first panel by discussing the multiple derivative conflicts associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict, which are fueled by the competing narratives: the conflict in Washington, the conflict in the media, the conflict in U.S. communities, and the conflict in the classroom. Telhami stated that narrative discrepancies are the main obstacles to successful negotiations. He believes that the authors’ authority on the Arab-Israeli conflict provides the work with academic credibility. Telhami said the book is a powerful, contextual teaching instrument because the narratives are addressed at the international, regional, state, and leadership levels. Telhami’s only critique of the book was that it is an ambitious work, and thus the analysis is comprehensive rather than deep. Kaufman said that a new book should only be published when it says something new and in a new way and that this book’s unique structure and unique composition satisfies both criteria. Kaufman praised the book’s balanced perspective because it cannot be labeled as leaning toward one side or another. Kaufman’s critiques were that the book did not provide a solution to the conflict and that it is difficult to call something an undisputed fact. Kurtzer stated that the book’s structural use of the narratives was the most useful contribution in the volume to scholarship, but also noted that not all narratives are equally important, and indicated that it is necessary for teachers to explain the meaning of narratives to their students. He also highlighted that the book omits an American narrative. During the question and answer session, Miller emphasized the importance of the United States in the Arab-Israeli conflict and stated that in the next edition, the authors should consider incorporating the U.S. narrative.
Wright moderated the second panel and asked questions about the book’s content, the issues the authors encountered while working together, the authors’ responses to the first panel’s critiques, and the authors’ thoughts about the future of the negotiations, particularly the application of their work to Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent efforts in the negotiation process. Feldman began the discussion by stating that all three of the authors lived through the Arab-Israeli conflict and noted that their students were born the year of the Oslo Accords (1993). He believes it was the authors’ responsibility to give these students an analytical tool to understand the conflict. Feldman said that they did not include the American narrative (or other narratives) because it would have provided outsiders with equal weight in the conflict; the authors wanted a book that demonstrated the agency of all main parties. Regarding the critique about the lack of solutions, Feldman said that if the authors offered solutions, it may allow critics, academics, and politicians to label the book as promoting one side over the others. Shikaki said that writing this book together allowed the authors to check each other’s biases. He stated that the book was not about predicting the future but instead about ensuring that students and academics are well-informed. Shikaki said the trends in the book indicated that while the Arab-Israeli issue is resilient, it is easier to address today than in was 20 years ago. Aly noted that it was difficult to address these issues in the book and in the classroom; it was most beneficial to the authors to approach the issues like they would any other inter-ethnic conflict, by using international relations analytical tools for example. Aly also addressed several of the criticisms of the first panel: he questioned whether it was possible or ethical to decide which narratives are “not equal,” and noted that the authors had to make trade-offs in the depth of analysis that they were going to provide and chose to present the narratives rather than present total in-depth analysis.
The second panel concluded with a discussion on what it would take to end the Arab-Israeli conflict today. The panelists agreed that the leaders involved must be pragmatic and motivated to solve the conflict; they said leaders with these qualities are more likely to make deals. A final deal will not be reached by leaders who are primarily concerned with ideology.
Written by Julia Craig Romano, Middle East Program
Haleh Esfandiari // Director Emerita, Middle East Program
Asher Kaufman // FellowAssistant Professor of History and Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies, Princeton University; and former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel
Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland, College Park
Aaron David Miller // Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished ScholarHistorian, analyst, negotiator, and former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations, 1978-2003.
Shai Feldman //Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and Professor of Politics, Brandeis University
Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (Ramallah); Senior Fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University
Robin Wright // USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished ScholarJournalist and Author/Editor of eight books, most recently editor of "The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are"
Chairman and CEO, Regional Center for Security Studies, Cairo, and Senior Fellow, Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University