by Isabel Knight
This story originally appeared in the Daily Gazette on 16 February 2016.
This past winter break, students in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict class taught by Dr. Sa’ed Atshan ‘06 went on a trip to Israel and Palestine for 10 days. The trip, funded by the Lang Center, the President’s Office, and an anonymous donor, was offered for an optional .5 credits. Of the 24 students in the class, 19 decided to go. Students in the class described the trip as an emotional experience that humanized the conflict after a semester of learning about the conflict from an intellectual standpoint.
Professor Atshan made a point in his class to de-exceptionalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having taught at Harvard and Brown, he regularly brings classes of around 100 students on a trip to Israel and Palestine during spring break. This trip, the Swarthmore group, chaperoned by Religion Professor Yvonne Chireau, spent about half their time with a group from Boston College.
“I guess I expected to see what was there, but I think it really hit me once I actually saw everything, like the separation barrier and how it’s higher than the Berlin Wall,” said Yein Pyo ’16, a member of the class.
Students described scenes of tear gas canisters hung as decoration and entire villages reduced to rubble. One Palestinian woman who organized a weekly protest of the Israeli soldiers took the class into her home and treated them to a home-cooked meal while she showed them footage of her brother being shot in the chest with a tear gas canister and killed.
“Personal narrative was emphasized throughout the trip. We went to a theater company, a man who studied to be a pharmacist and then he started his own theater company. And it focuses on teaching Palestinian children to use an ”I” narrative instead of a “we” narrative, because a lot of times personal stories get clouded by the collective Palestinian narrative,” Killian McGinnis ‘19 said.
Emily Audet ’18 described a scene when the class visited Hebron, Palestine, in which the class was walking in an open-air market in the center of the city. Local Palestinians told them the market was usually bustling, but Israeli settlers had moved into adjacent second-floor apartments and had recently begun throwing trash such as glass and feces out their windows onto the shoppers below, leaving the market deserted.
When asked about the dynamics of teaching such a politically charged topic, Atshan remarked on the importance of creating a safe space that welcomes all points of views. He said he always gets very excited when students in his class volunteer to play devil’s advocate.
“While at Swarthmore, I was a Mellon scholar and a Lang scholar. The Mellon Scholarship is all about becoming good academics so I wear the academic hat, and the Lang scholarship is all about doing good in the world, so I care deeply about research, teaching, scholarship, but also about activism, and engagement in the world. But in my classroom, the classroom space is not about creating activists as much as it is about creating an intellectual environment.”
At the same time, students said they had to strike a balance between that intellectual space and the fact that they were learning about the lives of real people.
“[In class], it can seem very theoretical but to actually talk to the people and carry their stories and to visit the sites puts a very real and human face to the pain and suffering and injustice,” Mosea Esaias Harris ’17 said.
Many students described the trip as one that they will likely never forget, filled with intense emotions and heartfelt stories. It left them thinking about how they had been changed and how they would go about their lives once they returned to Swarthmore.
“It’s really tempting, after you have seen all this, to want to change everything and be the activist and be the voice on campus or in the world, but I was encouraged by the solidarity of my classmates, just knowing that there are little issues within the conflict that you can focus on,” McGinnis said.
Many students expressed a desire for for more trips of this type to be incorporated into humanities and social sciences classes to give them an experiential component, similar to labs in natural science courses. According to Atshan, this type of learning is called “embedded study abroad” and brings vibrancy to the kinds of experiences that humanities and social science students can usually only read or watch videos about.
“Humanization was a huge objective of the trip,” Atshan said. “We are very privileged to be able to sit in the ivory tower and turn people and their struggles and realities into objects of our analysis, and I think it is really important to restore the humanity of those subjects to see them as fellow human beings.”