Israeli and Palestinian Histories Explored in Spring Outreach Workshop

Thirty-two area educators gathered April 28 for a CCAS outreach workshop entitled “Israelis and Palestinians: Shared History, Entangled Narratives.” Zeina Seikaly, CCAS Director of Educational Outreach, welcomed the attendees and introduced the day’s agenda. Four presenters spoke about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as its social and political dimensions. Ms. Seikaly also screened the documentary Encounter Point, which focuses on the work of Israelis and Palestinians toward dialogue and reconciliation.

Dr. Sherene Seikaly, Qatar Postdoctoral Fellow at CCAS, gave a presentation entitled “Beyond What Went Wrong: Palestine Before 1948.” She began with a discussion of Palestine under Ottoman rule in the 1870s, when its residents included a majority of Sunni Arab Palestinians, a minority of Palestinian Christians, and a small minority of indigenous Jews. Dr. Seikaly then covered the policies of the British Mandate (1918-1948), which was committed to the facilitation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. She traced the various waves of European Jewish immigration to Palestine beginning in the 1890s in response to the rise of Zionism and growing European anti-Semitism. Finally, Dr. Seikaly pointed out that while the categories of Arab and Jew are today mutually exclusive, they have not always been so and were in fact made such by Zionism and Arab nationalism. Thus, the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an age-old religious struggle, but rather a modern conflict over land.

Dr. Shira Robinson, Assistant Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, spoke about the conflict from the point of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 until 2000. Despite the tumultuous political events of the period, Dr. Robinson said that the essential conflicts over territory and demography have persisted since the 1880s. She also explained the distinction between two major groups of Palestinians: first, the 20 percent of the current Israeli citizenry whom the government refers to as “Israeli Arabs.” In the 1950s and 1960s, this group was regularly depicted as a “happy minority” benefitting from the state’s munificence in democratic political rights, modern medicine, and advanced education. The vast majority of the Palestinian people, however, belong to the second group: refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.

Workshop attendees then viewed Encounter Point, an 85-minute documentary that has been shown in more than 150 cities worldwide and was recently broadcast on Canada’s CBC network and Al Arabiya, a prominent Arab satellite channel. The documentary follows bereaved Israeli and Palestinian individuals, such as a former settler, an ex-prisoner, and various family members from both sides, who work to promote a nonviolent end to the conflict. The film’s co-director, Julia Bacha, attended the workshop and answered questions from the audience.

Dr. Ilana Feldman, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University, focused her lecture on the formation of Israeli and Palestinian identities. She cast a distinction between two types of Israeli immigrants: first, the European Ashkenzai Jews, who were often better educated and wealthier than the second group, the Mizrahi Jews, who primarily emigrated from the Middle East. Ashkenazis were often portrayed as supplying “quality” immigration, while the Mizrahis, it was believed, provided the essential population density integral to the fledgling state’s legitimacy. Throughout history, these identity markers and stereotypes have been morphed and contested. As for Palestinian identity, Dr. Feldman continued, perhaps the existence of hundreds of thousands of refugees, stateless and located in the diaspora, are its most integral component.

Dr. Michael C. Hudson, Director of CCAS, delivered the final talk of the day in a speech entitled “The Politics of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Is the End in Sight?” Dr. Hudson spoke about political division among the Palestinians, the challenges facing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, U.S. involvement in trying to revive the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and the unpromising prospects for the future. He also commented on the severe social, economic, and security conditions being endured by Palestinians, especially in Gaza.

Participants had many opportunities to ask questions of the speakers during the sessions and over a Middle Eastern lunch. Everyone received a resource packet with background information about Israel and Palestine, including a list of books and websites to consult for further information.