Higher Education Webinar: Navigating Academic Discourse on Israel and Palestine
Tarek El-Ariss, James Wright professor and chair of Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College, and Susannah Heschel, Eli M. Black distinguished professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, lead the conversation on navigating academic discourse on Israel and Palestine.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to CFR’s Higher Education Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic, if you’d like to share it with your colleagues. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Tarek El-Ariss and Susannah Heschel with us to talk about navigating academic discourse on Israel and Palestine. Tarek El-Ariss is the James Wright professor and chair of Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College. Susannah Heschel is the Eli M. Black distinguished professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. And they teach together a class at Dartmouth called “The Arab, the Jew, and Constructions of Modernity.”
So, with that, I’m going to turn the conversation over to them to talk about how they teach this class, and how they’ve worked together to address discourse on Israel and Palestine in Dartmouth, and best practices, as we all think about how to discuss these issues. So, over to both of you. Thank you for being with us.
EL-ARISS: Thank you, Irina.
Just to backtrack a little bit on the idea of the class, and our collaboration, I’m originally from Beirut. I’m trained in philosophy and literary studies. And I grew up during the civil war. And what we’re going through right now is extremely difficult to watch, to engage in, but this is something that we need to do. And this is something that I’ve been very interested in thinking about. And I just wrote a book on the subject, called Water on Fire: A Memoir of War, which really starts in Beirut, what was then called West Beirut, and ends in New York on 9/11, where I was actually teaching a course on the Middle East at NYU. And specifically on that day, I was teaching a course—a class on Islam. And needless to say, that these crises, these catastrophic events that happen from the region that I’m associated with, where I come, has been really fundamental to the way I think about scholarship, to the way I think about pedagogy, the way I think also about teaching and the community building that I think is really fundamental for the conversation today.
So, I just wanted to kind of situate that within that context. And how do you think and deal with these questions? And how do you incorporate them? And where does the personal scholarship and the pedagogical engagement come, and so on? My work has been really dealing also with the question of the universal and the questions of the Enlightenment tradition. I mean, this is very important, and questions of modernity. Also wrote on the subject in the context of Arab modernity, in the context of what’s called the Nahda, or the nineteenth century Arab renaissance, and which is this kind of engagement with European modernity. So, this question of the universal, or the experience, of the European enlightenment tradition and how it kind of affects different parts of the world, how it allowed us to understand questions of human rights or questions of the universality is also at the core of this conversation here, and also of my intellectual training. So, this question has been really fundamental.
I’ve also been interested in how a lot of these Arab intellectuals and scholars went to Europe in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and how they experienced this modernity. And that is not just simply an intellectual experience where they’re thinking about the ideas of the West and trying to translate them or reject them or accept them, but it is also an embodied experience. It’s also—I’ve been working on this question of the somatic, on the affect. And my work has also been, again, tracing this question of the universal of modernity to also think about it in the context of the digital age. And my last book is called Leaks, Hacks and Scandals. It’s on digital culture and the Arab Spring, and also digital culture that’s transforming some of our concepts of writing, political protest, community, the public sphere—all that is associated with that kind of eighteenth century that has been reverberated and had major influences across the region.
So, I think I just want to kind of trace that genealogy. I think it’s important to also see where we come from and what are the things that have shaped a little bit our work, and where we have come, and then how we end up collaborating and also teaching this course that you mentioned.
HESCHEL: Thank you, Irina. My name is Susannah Heschel. And, as you mentioned, I am chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College. And my work together with Tarek stems in part from my academic scholarship. Also, perhaps from the experiences that I had growing up. I grew up in New York City and my father was a Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel. And he was involved in the civil rights movement, in the Second Vatican Council, and the movement against the war in Vietnam. And those were important experiences for me on many levels. For one thing, the civil rights movement and Dr. King made me fall in love with the Hebrew Bible. But, it was also an example for me of how to talk to people from another community, from a completely different environment. When I saw my father and Dr. King, and their relationship, or my father’s work with Cardinal Bayet at the Second Vatican Council and so on, I learned something about how to function in this world when you’re talking about very difficult, very painful issues.
My own scholarship looks at Germany. And, in fact, I’m in Hamburg, Germany right now on a research fellowship at the Maimonides Institute. And I’m interested—my first book was a study of a Jewish historian in the nineteenth century in Germany who wrote an important book on the Koran showing parallels between Judaism and the Koran. And then later, he did work on Jewish rabbinic texts and the influence on the gospels, the New Testament, and Christian origins. So, I was interested, as you see, in how Jewish studies overlaps or interacts, and creates a synergy with other kinds of fields. And that continued with a book I wrote on Nazi theologians who supported Hitler. So, the question of how does the academy respond to political crisis, to fascism in this particular case? And now I’m working on another study, on the history of Jewish scholarship on Islam. But again, about interactions.
I’m in the department of religion, as well as in Jewish studies. And the work that we do together, Tarek and I, on campus, has become very important for both of us, and also for our students. We teach the class together, the Arab, the Jew, and constructions of modernity. And we have a wonderful collection of students with different kinds of backgrounds—Palestinian, Jewish, from all parts of the world. And we try to create an atmosphere in the classroom of community and engagement with one another. We want the students to see themselves as working with us to do academic investigation, discussion, analysis. So, it was in that context then, that on October 7, when I was hearing the horrible news, I got a phone call from Tarek. And his voice sounded as horrified and devastated as I felt.
And we planned two forums on campus that week of faculty—open to students, faculty, everyone. And the response was overwhelming. Far more than I expected. I think what was important—we can talk more about those forums—but I just want to say that we sought to model for the campus how we speak to each other, what kind of a tone we take, even in the midst of a crisis. Four of us from Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies, we speak with respect, of course, with dignity. But, also, in doing that, we modeled for the students. So, they asked questions that were sometimes difficult to hear. But they asked respectfully, politely. And so going on from there, we’ve established a series of dialogues. And we find that in our work together, having two professors teaching courses on difficult topics creates a much better atmosphere in the classroom. It unites students. It shows students how to talk to each other, even when they disagree, to have the dialogue taking place right there.
So go ahead, Tarek.
EL-ARISS: And the idea, we also have—we’ve worked—this is my seventh year at Dartmouth. So, this is really—we’ve been working a lot together also on inviting people and trying to bring different programs and departments to sponsor events, to bring authors, to bring filmmakers, so also there is—even to bring a rock band. We brought Mashrou’ Leila at some point to Dartmouth right before COVID hit. (Laughs.) And so, I’m coming to New York to see Hamed Sinno’s concert at the Met this weekend. So, this is—you also have to create a community within the classroom and outside of the classroom. And maybe Dartmouth, also the—where it is located, the size, also the resources, I mean, there are differences. Not every place has the same culture, or the same abilities, and the same—but this is our experience. And this is what we worked very, very consciously on building, is that we need to create this community that operates—that connects to culture, intellectual processes, learning, music, that brings all these bodies and different departments and programs together in an interesting way.
And this is also what we teach. And we have Ezzedine Fishere, my colleague, who co-teachers, a course, with Bernie Avishai in government on the politics of Israel-Palestine. Susannah was teaching in the fall a course on 1967 with a colleague, also who works on Arabic literature, Jonathan Smolin. And the administration has been very receptive and encouraging to these kinds of models that allowed us to come up with these courses and bring different disciplinary backgrounds. Like, I come from literature and philosophy. And Susannah comes from religion, and so on. And bring these different backgrounds also that are cross disciplinary and that open up the subject matter in an interesting way.
And our course, I mean, this is also where our research overlaps, is this question of the nineteenth century, which is very interesting in this part of the world—eighteenth/nineteenth century—is how Jews and Arabs deal with this question of modernity, which I think is very important. And because this is the question, also, of language, how Hebrew becomes modernized/standardized, how Arabic becomes standardized, how you rethink questions of community, questions of political institution, writing genres, but also how certain issues that deal with questions, for instance, of racism and xenophobia and antisemitism—begin to influence or affect some of these relations.
And I edited an anthology on this question, where you have a lot of—called The Arab Renaissance—that we teach texts from it. And you have all these Jewish intellectuals from Beirut, from Cairo, engaging with the Dreyfus affair in 1894 to 1895. I mean, the Dreyfus affair is a huge global scandal at the end of the nineteenth century. And you have Reuters cable for the beginning—the beginning of mass communication—media. Technology that are starting. So, people in Beirut are reading what’s happening in Paris to Dreyfus as the cables are arriving. So, then you see these questions. And then you have Zola, you have this Jewish woman from Beirut, Esther Moyal, who’s writing about Zola and how Zola is defending Dreyfus in his famous article, in J’Accuse…!.
So, you also have solidarity among Muslim scholars saying: Where is the French universal now? I mean, where are these human rights and equality and fraternity of the French Revolution in the face of this xenophobia, antisemitism that’s coming out of France? So, it’s also interesting to create genealogies. Like, how do we connect the genealogy from Zola, through Beirut, through Esther Moyal, to the intellectuals speaking truth to power, to Foucault, and Sartre, and Edward Said? And how do you kind of bring different narratives to the students that expand, also, our understanding of what’s happening in the Middle East, and the kind of perspective of conflict? So, I think when October 7 happened, the students were part of the community thinking about these things in multiple ways, in diverse ways, and students coming from different backgrounds.
HESCHEL: Yes. I would just to add to that, that it’s important for me, as the chair of the Jewish Studies Program, that we have alliances with the different departments and programs on campus, many different ones. So, I want courses that we teach in Jewish studies, but that are cross listed in African American studies, in sociology, history, religion, and government, and so forth, women’s studies. That’s very important to me. And not only because of the alliances that we can create, and in some sense reproduce what Tarek was just talking about in the Nahda, but also because this sheds light on aspects of Jewish history, of Jewish religious thought, that we wouldn’t otherwise recognize.
We see, for example, the parallels between Jews coping with European modernity and Arabs coping, in very similar ways. And also, being horrified at some of the same things. So, the construction of our identities has some parallels. There’s a way in which teaching this class also demonstrates to students that there was a very different trajectory from what one might imagine, looking back from today and all of the conflicts and terrible events and catastrophes that are going on, even at this moment. But to see that there was something else that was blossoming. It didn’t last, but it may come back. And that also is an important element here, to give our students some hope. And to show them, also, that the situations, the conflicts that we look at, are terribly complex.
So, we tell the students, don’t look for a simple narrative. Try to learn to hold onto complexity, something that can’t be unraveled easily. There is no bad witch and fairy godmother, bad guy and good guy. Don’t divide the world that way. That just exacerbates the polarization that’s affecting all of us. See the complexity. And look at the future. Imagine, optimistically, what you would like to see in twenty, thirty, fifty years. How can we get there? What are the roadblocks? What do we need to do? What can you, students, do? What problems can you tackle and overcome so that we can achieve something? Too often we are so mired in the present that we don’t think about the future. And we have to offer our students that possibility and encourage them to think about a better future for themselves.
EL-ARISS: And this is—pedagogically, it’s really very important, especially now. When I look at the pictures coming out of the region, I mean, I’m devastated. But how do I deal with this devastation? And how do I transform it? Do I bring it to class as is? Because I feel like I always—I also write on monsters and really kind of dark things that are happening in the world. But also my cynicism and my sometime despair—I feel like when I’m in the classroom, I also have to give hope. I can’t also just bring it as it is to the classroom. I feel like in front of them, I want to be hopeful. I want to—and I do it organically. It is not almost by design, but it is almost something—because I feel like I owe it to that generation also. And this is also kind of a question about where our personal research and what we teach, how they come together, or they might differ. And how thinking pedagogically also is very important, especially in these moments of crisis.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. I want to go to the group for questions and comments, and then we can continue the conversation.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
So, the first question we’re going to go to Mark Tessler.
Q: This a great discussion. And I hope I can ask a question to each of the speakers to push a little bit.
The end of the nineteenth century that Tarek has been talking about is really an important period. And he did a good job of describing it. But, it’s in the context of a region where there are centers and peripheries. And, I mean, I went to school in Tunisia, and I would say that’s part of the center, surprisingly. Egypt is the center, but Tunisia was not too far behind.
But Palestine was the periphery. And it wasn’t totally untouched, but relatively speaking change was much less and much slower. And there’s an analysis by a number of Arab scholars, one of them was my professor a long time ago when I went to grad school, that this—I hesitate to use the word backwardness—but this relatively unchanged circumstance in Palestine, with a traditional inward-looking elite not really interested in the kinds of changes that are taking place in Egypt with the reopening of Ijtihad and so forth.
And so, the argument is that that’s an important part of the story about why Palestinians fared so poorly in the context of their emerging confrontation with Zionism. And so, I cover this period a bit in my own course on Israel-Palestine. I forgot to say I’m at the University of Michigan, where I teach about the Middle East. And so, it’s interesting to think about this period and the larger implications that Dr. El-Ariss has been pointing out, very significant. But, if we kind of see what does that mean for Palestine, the story is going to be quite different.
If I could ask a quick question, I’ll try to be brief, to Professor Heschel. And I read your father’s work, and glad to know a few. This is a really interesting story as well, in how the two people are struggling together to—I’ve done some writing on this myself earlier in my career—to find their way, to not lose their identity, to balance tradition, but to be of the modern world. This is not so much about Israel-Palestine, but this is an important story.
But if we focus on, in particular, North Africa—and this would apply to Egypt to some extent, as well—this meant for the Jewish populations of those societies less of an alliance in the service of a joint struggle that they’re both engaging in, and more—it gets mixed up with colonialism. The Jewish elite, and to some extent, the Jewish masses becomes very European in their orientation. And so as we look to the evolution, the story isn’t quite as happy as—both of these peoples have common concerns. They’re facing them at the same time in history in response to the same stimuli from Europe. And, my goodness, the dialogue between them is enriching. And we have examples of that.
But, I would say that it isn’t—and for at least the Maghreb, where there are half a million Jews—it’s not the most important part of the story. This quest for modernization in the end doesn’t build alliances with the Muslims in those countries. There are exceptions, but as a generalization. But rather, puts them if not politically—and sometimes it is political—but at least culturally on the side of the Europeans. And the divide between the indigenous Jewish population and the indigenous Muslim Arab population actually grows. So, just a few things to—food for thought. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Tarek, let’s go to you first, I think.
EL-ARISS: Yeah. I mean, Mark, I think it’s a—I also need to push back against your comment. (Laughs.) But, I think it’s obviously a more complex story. I mean, a lot of the Palestinians are also studying at the Syrian Protestantn College in Beirut, a lot of Lebanese from out Lebanon are in Cairo founding Al-Ahram. So, the way you locate cultural development or Nahda, but the way you define center and periphery, I kind of—I contest this binary. And I think it’s a much more complex picture. And you have the movement across that region. I mean, you have also people who are writing in exile in France. You have people who are in Russia studying a lot of Lebanese Greek Orthodox, for instance, and Palestinians.
So, we need to think territorially, but also in terms of that region itself as kind of engaging with these questions of modernity in interesting ways. And of course, it’s a complex relation to modernity. I mean, there is a pull. There is a rejection. There is a fascination. But if you look at it as a whole comprehensively, you see those kind of movements that we try to capture in our class.
HESCHEL: So, Mark, of course I know who you are, and I know your work and admire it greatly. And far be it for me to—(laughs)—answer the questions that you yourself write about.
I’d just say that of course I agree with you. And we—in our class—when we do talk about these issues, we range from everything from Jessica Marglin’s work to The Rabbi’s Cat. And I think one of the big problems we focus on is the Crémieux Decree, and that has larger resonances, in fact; the significance—the political significance of something like that, how that is to be evaluated and how something like that actually recurs throughout the course of Jewish history with often very dire consequences that you pointed out. So, thank you for the comment, and thank you for your work.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to take the next question, a written question from Alison Brysk at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s a professor of global governance. She appreciates your model but has had different disturbing experiences teaching contemporary poli-sci, and IR, and human rights classes on a very politicized campus. My whole agenda is universalism, context, international humanitarian law for all sides. But, about half of my students are simply locked into preexisting identities and convictions and will complain when I try to present a basic range of perspectives and evidence on roots of the conflict. Do you have any suggestions for the beleaguered public university when students experience humanistic history as hate speech?
I don’t know who wants to start.
HESCHEL: Go ahead, Tarek.
EL-ARISS: This is something we also struggle with. I mean, this question of the universal; come back to it. That’s, of course, the critique of the universal as Eurocentric, as only covering or being framed along very specific political lines that exclude the other or that does not represent people who might come from, to come back to Mark’s term, the periphery in some way, whatever that periphery is.
But again when you are thinking about conflict, how do you work outside of that framework? I mean, this is also the question. So how—we need it in order to think of a community of—we need to think of—do the critique of universality, but also take the good things, because we also have human rights. So, how are we going to talk about human rights? How are we going to talk about things that matter for everyone that we all need to care about and be mobilized if we only situate forms of identity or rights in the particular, and the particular that is defined in very specific ways?
And I think there should be teachable moments like, OK, you don’t think—let’s ask the students or let’s organize teach-ins about, what do they mean by certain terms? I mean, I think we use terms and concepts really without knowing what they truly mean, or what their histories are. I mean, we are at the university. This is the place to actually engage and say what this kind of humanism or universality that is seen as Eurocentric and exclusive in many ways, then what is its history? How—did it not also influence the way people in that part—in Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, different parts of the world where they also think of themselves as modern subjects and as claimants to particular rights and traditions, and so forth?
So, I know where we are. I mean, I understand the, kind of, current moment. But, how do we try to bring it to a level where, OK, what do you mean by this? Ask questions. Listen, but then ask questions, and open it up to a conversation. Maybe the class is about something else, but maybe because of the crisis, the class has to pivot or shift to a different moment that deals with a particular event that is unfolding in the world.
HESCHEL: But let me just add that I understand a hundred percent and have experienced it, too. My sense is, first of all, students are very lonely. Identity—that kind of insistence on one’s own identity—is a very lonely position to take. Students will end up saying: You will never understand what it feels like to be me. And that needs to be challenged. It may be, I will never understand you and your identity, but I can help you understand yourself better. I can help you accept relationships with other people, and even be loved by other people. So, there have to be ways to open up and not end with the declaration of identity, and that is a problem.
I also would say that a lot of students have a very strong sense of injustice, and I admire that and appreciate it. But, sometimes they get into a state of despair over it, and we need to make sure that we can lift them up and not let them sink into a hole of despair, but to talk in more concrete terms about what they can do and make it a viable engagement with injustice—overcoming injustice.
So, those are just a few things. There’s so much more to say about it. But we both have experienced this, and we’re with you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Next question from Margaret Lewis, who’s at Seton Hall University.
Q: Thanks so much. I’m both a professor and an associate dean, so I think about this from several angles.
So, I wanted just to think more broadly about navigating the academic discourse. It’s one thing to do that in an intimate course setting where you know the students, they know you. But, I wonder if you have thoughts, both about how to create community conversations or spaces outside of a class when we do have a situation that emerges—for example, not just one we’re having now, but go back to Freddie Gray or anything that’s really rocked our students.
And then maybe separately, but if you have thoughts about university messaging, the emails that our students expect us to put out after events and the extent to which those are helpful. And, if so, how to craft them in ways that: Is it expressing care just for the students? How do we try to bring in different stakeholders to give us language that will work across different stakeholders? Any of that would be hugely helpful as we all navigate this. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Tarek, or—
HESCHEL: Yeah. I’m not sure it’s a single answer that will address every institution because there are important differences. You say you’re at Seton Hall, which is Catholic, and it’s a different culture on campus. I’m familiar with that; I actually lectured there a few months ago.
In terms of the statements, I found that the outrage over many university president statements puzzling initially. And then I realized, I suppose, people were psychologically/emotionally so devastated that it was a displacement, and then a lot of argumentation arose over the precise language of statements. I’m not sure if statements are the way to address emotional devastation or catastrophe. And the statements that were quite formal in the language, or politically oriented, perhaps that wasn’t the way to do it. I’m not sure—I haven’t been an administrator—exactly how to formulate it, but I think that’s—in those kinds of moments, that’s what people are looking for, some sense of support.
I also think it’s important at the convocation in the fall—Tarek and I were discussing this earlier—for the university to make its message clear, the mission: What are you supposed to be doing here, undergraduates, at this university for the next four years? This is what we want to offer you. And then, at some point later on, have the students write something. What they’re looking for because the only essay you have from them really is for the admissions. And once they arrive, it would be good to hear from them: What do you want to get out of these four years? What do you want from your classes, from your professors, and so on?
And then finally, I’d just say that the atmosphere in the classroom is very important—friendly, happy, a joyous atmosphere throughout the semester—to keep the students together as a group having a good time, feeling that they’re there for each other, forming a community. We find that very important when we’re teaching a class that can, in fact, give rise to terrible conflict. We want to avoid that. So, we bring cookies. We have an open door in our office. We have conversation. So, again, the atmosphere.
Tarek, go ahead.
EL-ARISS: Yeah. No, and I think also we need to rethink, I mean, outreach. We also go to the students. We go to different religious groups, different houses. I went. Susannah went. We go also into their own spaces. We don’t just organize the event and say come; we go to them. And when we bring people—we’ve organized a couple of forums and we brought some people from outside, and we said—we organized breakfast with the students. We have organized places where the students also feel comfortable. And it’s very important, this question of space and you going to them. And they, then, are hosting you on their own—their own dorms or their own whatever—houses and so on. I think that’s very important.
And also, the administration is not—the more I think about it, it’s not one thing. It’s not like the administration is this abstract thing, like a tower in the middle of campus that’s—I mean, I’m also the administration. Susannah is also the administration. I mean, my office is open to these students. They come. I listen to them. Some of them are not happy with the way things are going. I comfort them. I sometimes transmit their messages to higher-ups and say this—and who ask me, actually, how are the students doing? And I say, I met with so-and-so, and he said this, or she said that.
And also, I have say, okay, I have this kid that said, you’re going to run the Arabic Club this term, or you’re going to help me on this research dealing with these questions, because I also have the ability to recognize some of the things they’re struggling with. So, the administration, we have to—or how the university responds—has to be rethought, and also support organic processes that are already happening. Who among the faculty are in conversation? What can the administration do to give them more support, to highlight more what they’re doing?
So, I mean, we’re seeing some efforts that are coming from high up, from the top down; like, OK, we’re going to have a task force and start dialogue. But, I think it’s important that the administration responds to what faculty are doing and supports it. So, support these organic processes, these community-building processes that, I think, are much more effective and are more likely to produce results than some sort of, kind of a, let’s bring a consultant and tell us what we have to do, and then form this committee, and then make everyone go through more drills about how to be a good citizen in this university. I don’t think that is effective. I don’t think it’s effective in—also in other contexts that we’ve been experiencing on campuses.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to take a written question from Mark Diamond which is—I think follows onto this, from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles: Could both of you share your thoughts about academic freedom on college campuses, especially as it relates to discourse on Israel and Palestine? When, if at all, is student or faculty discourse on campus out of bounds and poses a threat to others in the university?
HESCHEL: Well, I can’t address the legal issues. I know that each university has a set of standards and so forth, and they may well vary. I know one college president of a Catholic university told the students: You may hold a prayer vigil, but you may not hold a demonstration. And that was that. So, that I don’t think happens everywhere, but that was one example.
What is out of bounds? What’s out of bounds is, I would say first of all, people who don’t know very much about the topic that they’re addressing or screaming about. So, I begin with that. I was talking to some colleagues about this. Don’t teach a course if you don’t really know the subject or limit the course to what you know. I would encourage students who are deeply concerned about a political conflict to take courses on that conflict to get some background.
We also encourage our students to think about what they can do in the future. Making a demonstration on a college campus is exciting, but actually, it can be more important to work for a political candidate, for example. To do canvassing and do work for an NGO, or come to Washington and be an aide at a congressional office. So, pointing that out to an 18-year-old is sometimes very helpful. Telling them that they can actually do something very concrete and powerful—not just on the college campus, but on the national level of politics.
And then, I would say, yes, in terms of the kind of language and out of bounds, that’s really our point of our work. We wanted to demonstrate to the campus how to have a dialogue that’s respectful, that’s polite—even if we disagree—and that we talk to one another at a university in a way that’s different from the kind of conversation one has at a restaurant with your friends.
We also emphasize that there’s a distinction between private and public. I may have some pretty strong views that I tell my family or my close friends—I’m not going to tell the whole world. That would be highly inappropriate. I think faculty need to be professional, and so do students. Once you’re in a university, you have to be a student. That’s a particular role, an academic role, and that, also, should be outlined to students when they’re admitted to the university, or at the fall convocation. Professional behavior is something we expect from everyone—from a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, an electrician. I don’t want vulgar, sexist jokes when I’m consulting a physician, for example. And I don’t want a certain kind of language from faculty colleagues. So, these are basic standards of behavior that I think have been eroding in recent years, and we need to come back to them.
So, also, we have to acknowledge that there is something about the university that—the humanistic tradition and the liberal tradition—that perhaps is no longer functioning in the same way that we imagine it to be. And we need to take this challenge seriously. And is the green a place where you take your students when it is nice out if you are in Ithaca or Ann Arbor—(laughs)—in April or end of April to do the class outside because you are missing the sun, or is the green a place of protest now, or identity affirmation.
So, there are real fundamental questions about the university, and about our mission, and about our classrooms, and it’s not an either/or, it is not either this or that. How do we kind of bring the community into a space of negotiation where I understand that this is what the students are feeling right now, and they are angry, and they want to express themselves in an embodied fashion, and really do something about the world because we also expect them, when we ask them to apply how they are going to change the world. So, we also set them up for it.
And so, we need to have a conversation about that. This is a moment of crisis, but it’s a moment of self-reflection that I think is really important to have—every university needs to have it, and it could have been some other crisis unfolding. But, I think this is an opportunity to ask these questions and have these conversations among—and Susannah was just we were talking today that we should have these conversations about—with faculty, with colleagues, cross-generationally, what do people think, how are they teaching, how do they come to the subject that they come to, what are their assumptions, what is the point of the classroom? Is it the political platform? Is it the place of intellectual inquiry? How do they come together?
So, these are important questions I feel like, and this is the moment to ask them and engage them.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Heidi Lane.
Q: Thank you very much.
The question I have relates to things that I don’t actually experience in professional military education, but I have in teaching in universities like Dartmouth. And the question is, what do you think Dartmouth, or universities in general, should be doing to help faculty like yourselves engage in this kind of open, trust-building course? That’s the first question—because that really is a pressure that I think a lot of universities and administrators are feeling and navigating that for their faculty is maybe even as difficult as the relationship between the faculty and the students. That’s the first thing.
And then the second question is, how do you change your model when you are teaching in, let’s say, an open session that’s like a lecture that is not part of the course? Because it’s one thing to build that trust within your class, within maybe twenty or so students over a semester, but it’s another thing to apply that same model when you are going into an open session and maybe even people from outside the campus are coming. So, thank you.
HESCHEL: Those are big questions—thank you. There’s much to say. I’ll just say briefly, so on October 9, Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. my phone rang. It was the dean of faculty at Dartmouth calling to tell me that the president of Dartmouth—who was new, Sian Beilock—had asked her to get in touch with me because the president wanted to have dialog on campus. So, too often, I am afraid administrations aren’t really aligned with their own faculty. They don’t know who is teaching what, or who has what expertise, and they don’t turn to faculty in moments like this. And I actually—I’ve seen that happen after October 7 at times when I thought why didn’t the president call the faculty? Get the faculty, who are the ones working with students, to set up the kinds of forums that we held. I think it would have been very helpful.
There is sometimes not a close enough relationship at some colleges and universities between administration and faculty, and faculty can actually help a great deal since we’re spending every day with the students in the classroom. So, that’s one thing.
I think another issue is, when we hire faculty, we have to make sure we are hiring people who are willing to engage in dialogue. Who are willing to sit down and talk to people, or teach with people, from other programs, people who have different backgrounds with whom they may disagree. If they are willing, and enthusiastically, willing to do that kind of teaching, then I say bravo, hire them. But, those who are unwilling—that’s a problem at a university. If we aren’t talking to each other as faculty, then the institution is going to fall apart. We need to have that engagement; that includes in the sciences, the biologists and the geologists talk to each other. So, we have to foster that and make that an imperative, actually, a criterion for faculty. Are they engaged with one another? Are they open, willing to talk?
There is more to say, but Tarek, you go ahead.
EL-ARISS: No, I mean, basically recognize where there are efforts and where there are conversations—productive conversations—and see how you can support them; support them financially, support them logistically, get assigned space, fund—I mean, we’re lucky, really. We’re really lucky, I mean, in many ways, to have each other, but also to have an administration that was very receptive and very supportive, and said, what do you need? How can we help you to continue to do this? And that was very important. And they understood that, and they recognized—they knew us but we were kind of, I would say, a bit under the radar, and there is a new administration and new kind of leadership. So, again, it’s like, immediately they recognized that, OK, they are doing something, and what can we do to support it? How can we make it grow? How can we—and they continue to do that.
And we took the initiative. We also went on a retreat to think about courses, to think about people we want to invite. So, I mean, I think it’s important that you have an administration, who are on the ground—(laughs)—are talking to faculty, who have their hand on the pulse and see where these collaborations are, and then try to figure out ways where—again, the changes are not coming from some cookie-cutter model that’s coming from the outside and being imposed on the campus, on the faculty, but actually—I mean, I’m a literary critic, and I always tell the students read the text; like do a close reading. So, do your close reading and see what is happening, and then from there, you move to the theoretical. No, don’t impose the theory on the situation, but rather let it come out of what is happening on the ground.
And I think—so, this requires this different administrative direction from what we’ve been witnessing, which is bringing people from outside and training us in all kinds of ways to be better teachers, and more humane, and so on. And that’s taking the place of a lot of the things we do like the humanity especially—(laughs)—which is supposed to be doing that.
So, recognize and build these infrastructures of support by recognizing what is happening on your campus, and the particularity of your campus, and your student body, and your geographic location.
HESCHEL: What Tarek is trying to emphasize is that what’s important for the college is teaching that engages students in a dialogue, that brings students from different positions together, that that’s what should be recognized as the most important innovation in teaching and the most important thing for the future of the college and for the students, and not the size of the classroom, let’s just say, yeah?
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to take the next question from Karen Jackson-Weaver who is associate vice president of global inclusive faculty engagement and innovation advancement at NYU, and she also comes as a former dean at both Princeton and Harvard Kennedy School. So, she thanks you both for the important framing of your collaboration in the work you’ve done at Dartmouth. My sense is that the kind of sophistication and complexity that Professor Heschel mentioned that is very much needed is missing in academic discourse and in many conversations taking place on college campuses. Do you have any suggested guides or resources that you can share, which have been useful in the Dartmouth community and elevate the discourse in a meaningful way?
HESCHEL: Look, that’s a great question, and it’s going to be waking me up in the middle of the night because I’m going to think of some things to tell you.
But I would just say that I come to this because I wrote book about a Jewish scholar writing about the Jewishness of the New Testament, Jesus in the context of Judaism, and so on. Abraham Geiger was his name—and how the Christians responded to his arguments—very negatively, very critical—and he responded to them, and so on. So, there was a kind of engagement that I analyzed very carefully, something primarily from the late 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, and that gave me a way of sort of understanding the subtlety of arguments, how they were perceived in the moment.
So, that trained me to look for things like this, and I think that’s what I bring to this kind of situation: this way of trying to engage in—yeah?
EL-ARISS: Yeah. I mean, my simple answer would be us. (Laughs.) But, we’ve actually been working on coming up with some dialogue, reflections on dialogue, or some resources that might—about this because this is also something that we’re thinking about—not about what we’re doing, but also as some sort of values that I think are important, not just for us, for our campus, and for the different constituencies on our campus who want to engage in this, who want to organize events dealing with these questions.
So, I think eventually we will develop something, but this is not—I mean, really, we were just doing our normal work and—(laughs)—working on the—(
HESCHEL: Yeah, but I would say that we understand that fields develop by engaging with different disciplines, with different theoretical models. That’s how we move ahead in a field.
So, I would say, first of all, to any faculty member, think about how your field has developed and what has generated new ideas. What’s made it exciting is to engage with others; not to simply hide in its own corner. OK.
FASKIANOS: OK, I’m going to go next to Stephen Zunes, with the raised hand.
Yeah, we can hear you. Can you hear us?
Q: OK. How about now?
FASKIANOS: Yes, we can.
Q: OK, hi. I’m Stephen Zunes, University of San Francisco.
I’ve been teaching Israel and Palestine for over thirty-five years now, and there’s been a big shift in, sort of, the assumptions that students come in with. I mean, when I first started teaching, pretty much every student was familiar with the Israeli narrative, but not really aware of the Palestinian narrative, so I had to bend over backwards to make sure they knew that, as well.
Today, if anything, it’s the other way around. It’s been quite striking, the shift—generational shift. I mean, maybe because the larger percentage are people of color. These people—this is a generation where black lives matter, indigenous rights—whereas our generation where the nationalism was a progressive force, and many of us saw Zionism as a national liberation movement for Jews. Nationalism seems more of a reactionary force to today’s youth of the Eastern Europe, and everything else, and Israel is seen more as a colonial settler-state.
And, I was wondering, since it appears you all have been teaching this for a while, too, I was wondering if you’ve noticed similar shifts, and how you might have adjusted your teaching in light of this.
EL-ARISS: I think—I don’t know, I think a lot of our students come—they don’t know a lot about this, and maybe this is where we are, or different campuses. I mean, there are some students who know and who are engaged.
But I think what we try to do is that we try to kind of give them the longer history of this, so take them back to the eighteenth century, nineteenth century, and to see where they ended up—so not to kind of focus—like, we have colleagues who teach, like, Israel—the politics of Israel-Palestine and focus on the contemporary conflict, so they are more—(laughs)—they can tell you more about what the students say about those particular narratives. But, the students who come to us really don’t know anything beyond like the contemporary conflict if they know anything.
So, we try to take them to places that really are uncharted—Damascus affair, the Dreyfus affair—I mean, Max Nordau on early Zionism. I mean, so texts that are foundational—and then they take politics of Israel-Palestine, and then they engage it, and they have a different understanding.
So, we try to do the kind of earlier work to open up those narratives, so we’re not just simply pro-Palestinian, or pro-Israeli, or outside of these just simple binaries. We kind of take them even to open a wider horizon.
HESCHEL: I would just add that I think—I’ve also noticed what you’ve noticed. There seems to be, also, just a wide rift generationally on these political issues and on many others as well, of course. And what I found in the course that I taught together with Jonathan Smolin in the fall on the 1967 war, sometimes called the Six-Day War, students came in and they thought they knew something—on both sides, by the way—but it turns out they didn’t. So, that’s one thing—to show students what they don’t know; that what they know is only a drop in the bucket, and there is so much more. Also, to show them that whatever you think there is something new that comes in that actually contradicts that assumption because there is so much evidence coming from so many different parts of the world—because it’s not ever really about just Israel and Palestine; it’s about nearly every other country one can think of, from the United States to China. So, the complexity is something.
And then another—finally I want to say, sometimes students come in and they are looking for somebody to blame. That’s something important for us to address. This is not about blaming one side or the other, and sometimes, for example, yeah, one side is bad and one side is good. Sometimes both are bad. And when both are bad, I tell them. Even someone who has committed a terrible crime, don’t you still care about that person that is still a human being, who should be treated with dignity? So, let’s keep that in mind as well. Let’s remember that even those who do terrible things, nonetheless, these are human beings. There are reasons for it. Let’s figure that out, let’s see what we can do about it. But, don’t just dismiss it and say, oh, well, they’re terrible; let’s walk away—so to keep the students engaged all the time, to show the complexity, to show that it’s more and more and more complex, involving so many different groups, and not try to reduce it to bad guys, good guys, this one is to blame, this one is the innocent.
Nobody ultimately, in politics, is innocent, and nobody is a hundred percent guilty. They become interlocking as we know, and they are doing that dance. What was the line about Fred Astaire danced with—who was it? Not Jane Crawford—Ginger Rogers, but she did everything he did but backwards and wearing high heels.
So, there are ways in which each side influences the other, and we have to think about it in those terms as well. They are not separate from each other.
So, those are some of the ways we try to overcome the biases that they walk into the classroom with, and we ask them sometimes, how has your mind changed in the last few weeks of the course? Every few weeks ask them that. What changes here when we bring you this document, or this fact that you didn’t know about? And hopefully they will experience the class as something uplifting and exciting, and that they will know that they are coming away as a different person with so much more knowledge.
So, thanks for the question.
FASKIANOS: And with that, we are at the end of our hour. I’m sorry that we couldn’t get to all the questions, raised hands, but I can say that I wish I were at Dartmouth and could take your class. (Laughs.) So, maybe perhaps you should do it and have it be available online to a broader group. I don’t know. (Laughs.) It’s a thought.
Thank you very much, Tarek El-Ariss and Susannah Heschel, for this wonderful hour. We do appreciate it. And to all of you for your questions and comments. And we encourage you to follow us at @CFR_academic on X and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analyses on global issues. And we look forward to your continued participation in CFR programs. So, thank you again.