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Crown Center for Middle East Studies hosts six speakers to discuss Arab-Israeli conflict

This past Sunday, the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis hosted the “Looking Back, Looking Forward” event centering the Israeli-Arab conflict. The panel featured six speakers from diverse backgrounds who addressed three topics: Zionism and the Arab World, the future of Palestine and the future of Israel.

The event emphasized several landmark developments in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Shai Feldman, the director of the Crown Center and professor of Middle East politics, organized the event, held on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. In the Balfour Declaration, the British empire stated their support of a Jewish national home in Palestine. 2017 also marks 70 years since UN Resolution 181, known as the Partition Plan, and 50 years since the Six Day war.

The first two speakers, Jehuda Reinharz, seventh president of Brandeis, and Abdel Monem Said Aly, the senior fellow at the Crown Center, addressed Zionism over the last century. Reinharz spoke about the pre-state Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and his vital role in turning the Balfour letter into the ‘Balfour Declaration,’ arguing Weizmann turned “one more piece of paper not of central importance” into “the basis for the establishment of the State of Israel.”

Said Aly addressed the complexity of the Arab-Zionist relationship post-1948. He noted that “creations of realities on the ground have always been stronger than legal or moral arguments,” which he used to explain the difference between the Israeli and Palestinian political situation. Zionists were successful in laying the foundations for a country because they were able to create social, political, and economic institutions. He concluded by arguing Israelis and Palestinians should stop blaming each other because they “are sharing the same land, and probably the same destiny” and will likely end up as a single entity due to their dependence on one another.

The second panel addressed the Palestinian future. Ziad Asali, president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, explained why neither a One-State solution (Israel annexing the West Bank and granting some forms of citizenship to Palestinians) nor Two-State solution (Palestine becoming an independent state that exists peacefully alongside Israel) are completely viable, and called for the international world to keep supporting the Palestinians to help them get to a place of empowerment, which could lead to statehood. He called on Israel to recognize that “occupation is incompatible with long term stability.”

George Bisharat, professor of Law at UC Hastings College of Law, took a different perspective. He called Palestinians “the first victims of Zionism” and Mizrahi Jews (Jews originating from the Middle East) the second. He also said that Palestinians need a “justice reboot,” restoring core rights for Palestinians and ensuring Palestinians receive justice when it comes to family property lost to Israeli Jews. Bisharat stated that Palestinians should affirm “protective justice” for Israelis, meaning that because Jews are now as a historical fact living in Israel-Palestine, they can remain there. Bisharat is an advocate of the One-State solution.

The last panel addressed the future of Israel. Asher Susser, Stein Family Professor of Modern Israel Studies at the University of Arizona, opened his talk by calling Israel “a place of justice for the most oppressed in the aftermath of World War II.” Susser went on to say that that Jews “will not be a free people in our country until the Palestinians are a free people in theirs,” and said that the end of the Israeli occupation was necessary for remaining both the nation state of the Jewish people and a legitimate member on an international scale as a nation state. He advocated strongly against a One-State solution, calling it a euphemism for the undoing of Israel.

Martin Kramer, the founding president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, offered a different approach. Kramer argued Israel’s situation would not improve even if they evacuated Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In a time of relative peace, he said, Israel should not remove its people from the settlements, that should only give “land for peace, not land for nothing” which he says would be the outcome of a withdrawal from the territories.

Young Israelis are optimistic for the future, Kramer said. “You can’t sell fear for Israelis. You can only sell hope.”

Feldman felt that the convergence of the three anniversaries served as an impetus to reflect on the future. He was proud to have hosted an event that addressed important topics in a calm manner and hopes that this respectful dialogue can be applied to other areas as well. Feldman stated, “We were able over six hours to talk about sensitive issues in a civilized way. That goes beyond the subject matter.”

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