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Bar-Lev vs Abdel-Nour
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2005 blog


Abdel-Nour vs. Bar-Lev
Palestinian professor debates
Jewish one at S.D. synagogue

San Diego Jewish Times, May 4, 2005

By Donald H. Harrison

As a professor at San Diego State University, Farid Abdel-Nour probably had faced classrooms filled with skeptics before, but on Thursday, April 21, the audience facing the Palestinian-born educator clearly was going to be a tough crowd—a gathering co-sponsored by the Men’s Club of Tifereth Israel Synagogue and the San Diego Jewish Times.

The evening’s format made the task for Abdel-Nour, a professor of Islamic Studies, all the more challenging.  It was a debate with  fellow SDSU faculty member Zev Bar-Lev of the linguistics department at a forum moderated by Yiftach Levy.  The moderator had once served in the Israel Defense Forces and later became an activist with Israel’s Peace Now movement.

Imagine if the tables were turned.  Suppose you had accepted an invitation to be the speaker inside a mosque to explain the Jewish point of view in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  How would you proceed?  My guess is that you would try to do exactly as Prof. Abdel-Nour did: you would state your case as calmly and as politely as possible, trying not to be provoked by hostile questioners nor to give offense by flamboyant rhetoric.

I must say that Abdel-Nour succeeded very well.  While he probably made few, if any, converts to the Palestinian point of view; he did provide a cogent explanation of the Palestinian mindset.  More importantly, I think, he left the audience of about 50 people with the hope that a real and lasting peace is attainable.

Bar-Lev also deserved credit for keeping his comments as moderate as Abdel-Nour’s, making the forum one at which two colleagues engaged in an effort to define the situation facing Israelis and Palestinians, rather than one in which each hurled blame at the other.  As Bar-Lev put it, the Middle East situation is not a question of right versus wrong, but right versus right.  I will focus on Abdel-Nour rather than on Bar-Lev because the latter, being one of us, espoused positions more familiar to readers of this publication.

Abdel-Nour suggested that before the time of the first intifada in 1987, the Palestinian people had come to the conclusion that further resistance to the existence of the State of Israel was indeed futile; that they had best forget about “78 percent” of their land in order to establish their own state on the remaining 22 percent—the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

He described the Palestinian willingness to recognize Israel as a tremendous “compromise,” for which his people expected to receive three concessions in return: 1) their own state with sovereignty.  2) contiguous territory on the West Bank.  3) A capital in Jerusalem, a city with which they have emotional, national and religious identification.

According to Abdel-Nour, these are bottom-line demands for the Palestinian people.  Without a state, or the ability to move freely within it, or a connection to their main religious sites, Palestinians simply have no motivation to change the current situation.  All developments in the Middle East conflict, he suggested, are viewed by Palestinians according to whether they further or retard the realization of such goals. 

To the extent that settlement blocs—whether they be “new” settlements or extension of existing settlements—wall off Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and preclude it being a contiguous capital, the more Palestinians despair.

Abdel-Nour did not include the “right to return” as a sina qua non for an eventual Israeli-Palestinian settlement.  He said that one of the formulas that may gain support will be a complicated understanding under which Palestinians technically would have the right of return, but won’t exercise it, unless permitted to do so by the Israelis.  He left unanswered how such a process might work.

He said that the Jerusalem issue also can be handled creatively, with the Arab neighborhoods of that city and control over the Muslim and Christian sites being ceded to the Palestinian Authority with the bulk of the city remaining in Jewish hands.

Even the issue of settlements is open to negotiation, Abdel-Nour suggested, provided that land on the West Bank expropriated by the Israelis be paid for by Israel ceding other lands to the Palestinians.  While he did not specify which lands Israel should cede, apparently they would be either in the Negev or the Galil.

Levy, as moderator, asked how the two professors might change the educational systems of the Palestinians and the Israelis to further the peace process.  Bar-Lev suggested that more emphasis be placed in Israeli schools on teaching Arabic to Jewish students, saying it was important that they know the language of their neighbors (I feel the same way about Spanish here in California).

Abdel-Nour suggested that Arab schools should teach more about the Holocaust so that Palestinians will understand what happened to the Jews and what accounts for some of their sensitivities.   Bar-Lev rejoined that even more important might be to teach Arab students about ancient Israel, and how the land long has been occupied by Jews, not just since the Holocaust.

Audience members questioned how Palestinian parents can send their children to be suicide bombers.  Abdel-Nour said usually the children are taken from parents by militant groups, rather than parents instigating such actions.  He suggested that youth who give their lives are motivated by a sense of hopelessness.  He agreed that suicide bombings are immoral.

Another questioner wondered why Palestinians didn’t adopt non-violence as a strategy in their struggle. Abdel-Nour responded that there are few extraordinary figures in the world like Mahatma Gandhi to lead such a struggle, adding that Palestinians are ordinary people like other people.  Bar-Lev said to tell an enemy how to fight battles is a form of “chutzpah.”