I’ve recently met Thomas Keenan, a Bard College professor who teaches classes on human rights. We’ve exchanged information respectively on Partners’ “Interns in Israel” program with human rights NGOs and Bard’s involvement in the Palestinian West Bank. Bard sponsors an honors college within the rubric of Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, next door to East Jerusalem.
Keenan informed me of a recent book by Neil Hertz, Pastoral in Palestine, based upon an email newsletter/diary Hertz wrote and illustrated with numerous photographs he took, while teaching at al-Quds/Bard and living in Ramallah. An account of a talk Hertz gave at Johns Hopkins University, in September, impressed me for his humane, non-polemical voice. This is the central portion and gist of the article:
Hertz read excerpts from his book, where he recounted conversations with his neighbors about the murder of a Jewish family in Itamar, an Israeli community in the West Bank that Palestinian allies and others in the international community consider an illegal settlement.
“The Israeli government’s response was to immediately approve the building of 500 more housing units on the West Bank,” Hertz said. “This was drearily predictable, but so, I discovered, was [the neighbor’s] response: what about all the children the Israelis had killed in Gaza?…[Another man said] one of the killers was a man whose son had been shot by settlers two or three years ago. . . Had I challenged this report, I would have been asked what difference it made whether it was actually this man’s son or some other man’s son. Victims are interchangeable units in the prevailing local calculus: it’s not this eye for that eye, but any eye for any eye, any tooth, any arm, any child.”
Hertz said that a lack of constructive, friendly interaction between Israeli and Palestinian civilians contributes to hostile impressions of the opposing side in each respective community.
“The effect of the separation of the two communities is that many Israelis have never seen a Palestinian other than a taxi driver or a construction worker,” Hertz said.
Hertz also believes that the American Jewish diaspora’s lack of awareness of conditions in the West Bank contributes to the conflict, citing Peter Beinart’s article, “The American Jewish Cocoon,” from the Sept. 26 issue ofThe New York Review of Books.
“The effect of the [Jewish community’s] imagined intensity of the conflict is keeping people from knowing what life in Palestine is like,” Hertz said.
Hertz also spoke at length about the dysfunction of the Palestinian educational system, which he believes is one of the most challenging issues facing West Bank residents.
“The educational structure under the Palestinian authorities is dreadful,” he said. “It’s worth having non-Israeli, non-Palestinian teachers on the West Bank to make a serious change in the Palestinian public education system. It’s an admirable endeavor that will take a long time to catch on.”
“Kids have to be very energetic and want to learn English to be able to write well,” Hertz added. “There are lots of obstacles [because] there is an ingrown hierarchy within the Palestinian educational system.” . . .
“One of the reasons that Bard went [to Al-Quds] was to produce a different mode of elementary and secondary education,” Hertz said. “They felt that they needed to introduce into Palestine the entire notion of the curriculum, the notion of how to conduct a class in conversation rather than in rote memory.”