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
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
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
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
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