The Israeli political narrative, especially the way it’s often conveyed in the U.S., tends to be overly simplistic, expressed as a history of conflict. Each side, we’re told, perceives the other as the enemy.
For Israelis, their opponents are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers who want to push all the Jews into the sea, two visiting professors in Charleston said. For Palestinians, their opponents are oppressive colonists stealing the land and denying basic rights.
As with most such popular narratives, there is a grain of truth but also a lot of detail that’s skimmed over or ignored.
Two Israelis have purposefully come to town to complicate things further. They are visiting professors teaching courses in the College of Charleston’s Jewish Studies Program, and both are emphasizing, in their own way, the social and religious nuances of the region, the rich cultural inheritance, the many examples of cooperation and mutual respect, the various historical perspectives and the disconnect between American conceptions of the Middle East and reality.
Naomi Gale is an Iraqi-born Israeli and scholar who has joined with Ghazi Abuhakema, a Palestinian professor at the college, to teach a course called Cultures of the Middle East. The chance to learn from this unlikely pair prompted nearly 40 people, some auditors, to sign up for the class.
Gershom Gorenberg is an American-born Israeli and journalist who has contributed articles to magazines and written three books, the latest called “The Unmaking of Israel.” Gorenberg is teaching a course called Writing Israel’s History.
Their subject matter might be different, but their message is the same: To understand Israel and the Middle East, open your mind.
Drinking the same water
The idea to offer Cultures of the Middle East was inspired by a small film festival at the college, which was to feature a couple of Israeli-made and a couple of Arab-made movies. Abuhakema was asked to help make the selections, he said.
One thing led to another, and soon he, Jewish Studies Director Martin Perlmutter and others were talking about developing a course. Abuhakema got together with Gale, who had been invited to teach at the college for the 2012-13 academic year, and the two of them worked out a plan.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Abuhakema said. “The course develops as we are doing it.”
Gale said students are assigned regular readings, asked to study some aspect of Middle Eastern culture and offer a presentation, expected to engage in dialogue and required to write papers.
James Holden Green was the first to make a presentation. He discussed the variety of musical instruments that originate in the region: the oud, tambur, doumbek, riq, finger cymbals, baglama.
Some questions followed, along with praise. Then Abuhakema touched on the differences between religion and culture and explained the Sunni-Shia schism. The course continued with a discussion of the Prophet Muhammad’s humanism.
Gale, who also teaches a course called Israeli Law and Politics, emphasized the need to temper current assumptions with an appreciation for the many contributions of Islamic and pre-Islamic culture: algebra, poetry, scientific study, backgammon and chess.
“It is very important where we come from,” she said, determined to widen horizons, fill in large gaps in knowledge and draw connections between cultures and ideas. In an interview, she compared the beignets she recently ate in New Orleans to the doughnuts she grew up with in Iraq. She pointed out how falafel is more a regional food than an ethnic one since it’s ubiquitous throughout the Middle East, from North Africa to Iran.
She emphasized how the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have cohabited for centuries, often peacefully.
“If we speak about culture, we must talk about the common denominators,” she said. “If we drink the same water, I cannot poison it or I will kill myself.”
Gorenberg takes another approach. His course examines how history is recorded, interpreted and understood, especially when conflicting experiences and ideologies create divergent narratives. A writer’s perspective matters, and it is incumbent upon the reader to take it into account, he said.
An orthodox Jew who supports liberal democracy and separation of synagogue and state, Gorenberg is viewed as something of an anomaly. People see his yarmulke and bushy beard and assume he is hawkish on the Palestinian question. In fact, he is a vocal advocate of a two-state solution, which, he said, is the only way to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic.
His writings are far from radical, however. He goes to some lengths to acknowledge and explain differing points of view. In his latest book, “The Unmaking of Israel,” he writes:
“There are two common ways of portraying Israel. The first stresses its successes. It has given Jews refuge and sovereignty in their own country. Six decades after its establishment, Israel is a rarity among countries that gained their independence in the era of decolonization. It is a parliamentary democracy.
“The second portrait is of conflict — of terror attacks against Israelis, but also of roadblocks, walls, settlements, and Israeli offensives in Gaza and Lebanon.” The focus in the media and in academia is on the Israeli occupation. “The most concise criticism is that Israel is an ‘ethnocracy’ ” that promotes the expansion of Jewish society under the guise of democracy.”
This approach is characteristic of Gorenberg’s attitudes about history: It’s complicated. In class recently, he engaged students in an animated discussion not only of the various perspectives that have generated Israel’s historical narrative, but of the many nuances that often go overlooked.
Gorenberg discussed Amos Oz’s 2002 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” which recounts the author’s childhood in 1940s Jerusalem; he talked about the revolts and military responses, illegal immigration, conflict with the British and some of the contradictory documentation describing the founding of the state.
“We are limited by human perceptions” and dependent on others, he said. The writing of history, therefore, is an exercise in interpretation.
Ted Levin, a retiree living in Charleston who is auditing Gorenberg’s class, said the experience has been eye-opening. “He makes you think,” Levin said.
On a recent afternoon, Gorenberg stood in his kitchen preparing food for the coming week and talking about his interests and concerns.
At 20, he bought a one-way ticket to Israel to study at a yeshiva, learned Hebrew and decided to stay.
“I enjoyed being in a place where Jewish issues and public issues were the same thing,” he said.
Soon he was employed by the Jerusalem Report, where he could pursue his interests at the intersection of religion and politics. He wrote a book called “End of Days,” which was about Christian Zionism in America and millennial theology. Then he wrote a book called “The Accidental Empire,” which considered the history of Israeli settlements.
His latest, “The Unmaking of Israel,” is a thoughtful indictment of current Israeli policies that mingle religious doctrine with secular ideals, compromising democracy in the process. Israel, he contends, is on a dangerous path that could lead to the end of the Zionist experiment.
“I make this critique not as an opponent of religion, but as a religious Jew,” he writes, citing Genesis and Exodus and the fundamental biblical principle of freedom and equality. “The purpose of Jews living together in their land, and the condition for them to do so, is to ‘pursue justice’ as a society, and not just as individuals.”
Perlmutter, director of the Jewish Studies Program, said it was important to present a range of views on culture, politics and history, especially concerning Israel.
“To my mind, it really is a testimony to the power of a university, where we can build bridges and have a dialogue,” he said.
Increasingly, Jewish Studies looks to Israel as a resource, Perlmutter added.
“We want to bring Israelis over here to interact with students and faculty. It’s important to provide students with a diversity of views that’s commonplace in the Middle East but not so common here.”
Follow Adam Parker at www.facebook.com/ aparkerwriter.