Palestine in Palladium: NYU Program Seeks Middle East Peace

It’s a five minute walk for Dana Salah to reach The Bean coffee shop on 12th Street and Broadway on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The 22 year-old young woman is cozily bundled up in a maroon sweater, thick scarf, and hijab against the dreary December weather. In Dana’s hometown, the village of Bethlehem in the West Bank of Palestine, it’s a balmy 73°. But the weather isn’t the biggest difference that Dana notices — it’s that five minute walk.

“In my country I get up two hours before the university because there are checkpoints. It makes life difficult,” Dana says. “The life here is totally different than Palestine. Totally free.”

This semester is Dana’s first as an NYU student. She’s here as part of a university program which brings four Israeli and four Palestinian students to the school for a semester of classes and intensive dialogue about the conflict in their homeland. The program’s mission is made clear by its name: Paths to Peace.

“I want to have this chance to talk to Israeli people,” Dana says. “I wasn’t allowed to go to Israel so I never had the chance to talk to Israeli people.”

This semester provided that chance. The eight students live in two rooms in Palladium, where they share a bedroom with a student from the opposite territory. The entire group participates in dialogues led by two P.h.D. students twice a week, when they tackle the whole range of issues: “the conflict, the history, the legitimacy of the country, the definition of terrorism,” as one program participant put it.

Paths to Peace was launched in 2007, imagined and funded by Stern ’67 alumnus Howard Meyers. Today, Meyers runs Quexco Incorporated, a recycled lead distributor and battery producer. In a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, he explained that he sees the program as an opportunity to develop new leaders in the conversation around co-existence by providing an opportunity for dialogue between young people from both sides of the conflict. “If we can get one of these leaders to go back and create some understanding, it will be worthwhile,” Meyers told the Journal.

For the woefully uninformed, a sanitized history of the conflict in fewer than 100 words: in 1948, the United Nations formalized decades of British colonial policy by codifying the state of Israel in what had formerly been the British colony of Palestine, and before that part of the Ottoman empire. Surrounding Arab nations invaded, but Israel was victorious. Over the next decades, between the influx of Jewish settlers from around the world and the ongoing regional violence, millions of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes. Meanwhile, Israel slowly expanded outside the borders established in the 1948 declaration, then beyond the borders agreed to in a 1967 truce.

About 6 million people remain in the Palestinian Territories: the West Bank and the tiny Gaza Strip, a densely-populated territory between Israel and Egypt. In Gaza, Palestinians recognize Hamas as the ruling party; Israel calls them a terrorist group. Palestinian militants launch rockets against Israel, and Israel responds with warplanes and crippling sanctions in a cycle of violence seemingly without end.

Within Israel, 20% of the population identify as Arab Israelis. Amal Aun, a Paths to Peace participant this fall, is one of those 1.5 million citizens. She lives in Nazareth, said to be the childhood home of Christ.

“We’re not refugees,” Aun says. “We’re just living there as a minority — an indigenous minority.” The three months she’s spent in New York City have changed Aun’s perspective on Israel considerably. “I don’t want to go back there,” she said. She tells me there’s only one reason that she’ll still return: her family, whose names are tattooed in Arabic on the sides of her fingers. Then, Aun pauses a moment. “Well, two reasons,” she continues. “not losing my land.”

Aun especially misses her sister, who she’s watched grow worrisomely radical in the last few months. “She says, ‘I hate all Jews,’” Aun said. “I tell her, ‘no, don’t say that.’ I’m afraid I will go back to the university and feel that. I don’t want to feel that.”

For some in the program, the situation back home is even worse. “Two Gazans are living with us,” Aun told me on the fifth day of Operation Pillar of Cloud, Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza this November.  “It’s very personal to them. Their families are dying. Their friends are dying. It’s very real.” After a week of attacks from both sides, the BBC reported 103 civilian deaths in Gaza and 4 Israeli civilian deaths in Israel. Approximately 55 Hamas fighters and 2 Israeli soldiers were also killed.

“The war period was the most difficult part of the experience,” Dana from the West Bank told me a few weeks after a cease-fire was reached. “We didn’t talk to each other. I was very worried for my family and friends.” For those students from Gaza, it was even more difficult. “They were always angry, nervous,” Dana said. “You know, their families are under attack, under fire. It’s very difficult for them.”

Transitioning to New York City and dealing with a roommate can prove challenging for any student, so the university goes above and beyond to make sure the Paths to Peace students are taken care of. Wanthani Briggs serves as the administrative director of the program, and works full time to support the students while they’re here. “There can be a tension that builds,” Briggs said. “It helps to bring our participants together in a lighter way.” Briggs leads the group on trips to Broadway, the United Nations, even Washington D.C. (where one Palestinian student told me she set foot on a boat for the first time).

Since the program was funded with a $10 million gift in 2007, 75 students have participated. “It’s a full scholarship program, which means that pretty much everything is covered,” Briggs said. “They get quite, quite a lot.”

Over the course of the semester, Briggs watches the students’ transformation. “They grow and learn so much as adults, as human beings,” Briggs said. For many, that’s a product of the unique opportunity to develop close personal connections with individuals from the other side of the conflict. “Many of our participants have never had a chance to meet the Other, to talk to the Other,” Briggs explained. Now, they share a bathroom.

Often, real friendships are formed. Amal Aun, the Palestinian Israeli, said that she and one of the other parcipants – who she described as a Zionist Israeli – have become very good friends. “I do believe in coexistence,” Amal said. Dana was surprised to find out how much she had in common with her Israeli roommate. “There are a lot of similarities between my religion and hers,” Dana said.

The hope is that after the students return home, the close personal connections they developed with young people on the other side of the wall will help form a foundation for more conversations between parties in the future, hopefully leading to a lasting peace. The program’s 75 alumni give reason for optimism. “They still remain in contact with one another,” Briggs said, “even if their ideals still differ.” During Operation Pillar of Cloud, Briggs said that alumni reached out to her to check on the wellbeing of their friends in Palestine who had been cut off from communication.

What’s next for this batch of students? Amal Aun says she plans to pursue activism or nonprofit work dedicated to improving education for Arabs living in Israel. Dana Sala will shortly be receiving a degree in Biology from Al Quds University, and thinks she may work in a hospital in the West Bank.

One day, these women could be leaders in a movement to lay down arms and find peace. But of course, the program’s director must be pragmatic: “I’d say it’s probably too early to tell.”

Editorial Note: This story was reported from students who participated in Paths to Peace  in Fall 2012. Besides Amal Aun, the Palestinian Israeli, the other three Israeli participants declined to speak to NYU Local. 

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    12 Comments

  1. says

    I was quite intrigued to read that “Besides Amal Aun, the Palestinian Israeli, the other three Israeli participants declined to speak to NYU Local.” I think I understand why. They are obviously in deep shock, after living with the Palestinians, to learn first hand the result of Israel’s deep hunger for Palestinian’s ancestral lands, and the abominable effect the Israeli checkpoints have had on Palestinian civilians, and the misery Palestinians have endured.
    Yesh Prabhu, Bushkill, Pennsylvania

  2. Yonatan Kaplan says

    My guess is the Israelis declined to comment because the author was so hostile to them. Its a real shame that the reporting on this article completely fails to respect the mission of the program it is covering. Instead of objectively writing about an amazing cross cultural program that seeks to unify young leaders across sides of a conflict and work towards a future of peace, the author has added his own highly opinionated jibes towards anything remotely zionist, most evident in his revised history of the establishment of the state of Israel.

  3. Anna McLeary says

    Yesh, I think what you are saying is exactly what this program is attempting to work out because that’s a highly simplified and biased version of reality. It is true that the Palestinians often live in abominable circumstances, but you fail to realize that Israelis have their own issues as well (never mind the fact that many Israelis do not agree with the treatment) and it is naive and unfair of you to simply label them all like monsters. Furthermore, the Israelis students may have had legitimate reasons for not participating in the interview, which in turn has no way of including the Israeli “side” of the issue, despite its legitimacy. The conflict is highly complicated on both sides, and I think it is amazing what the Palestinians and Israelis in this program are trying to do since I imagine it’s often uncomfortable. Perhaps you could benefit from sitting in on some of those intense dialogues and help spread knowledge of practical solutions instead of resorting to biased name-calling.

  4. Ilan Nathanson says

    Well said Yonatan:) And to Yesh, I highly doubt the Israelis declined to speak because they are wallowing in guilt… If I had to put money on a reason I would say they declined to speak because Brett is clearly Pro Palestinian and is very unkind to Israel and its policies. To further address your ridiculous comment, “Israel’s deep hunger for Palestinian’s ancestral lands,” the only thing Israel has a deep hunger for is peace and humus. On a side note, what the Arabs and Israelis really should be arguing over is who currently holds the record for largest bowl of humus, last I heard, the Lebanese took it from the Israelis. Are these Palestinian ancestral lands not just has ancestral and meaningful to the Israelis/Jews? This article really fails to address the beautiful point of this program.

  5. Ilan Nathanson says

    You also have to look at the reason for checkpoints, the security wall, or other of Israeli’s policies. They do not get to balance freedom vs. security like the U.S. does and is a nation under constant threat. At the end of the day Israeli policy makers do not think, “hmmmm how can we oppress the Palestinians more….” they think, “how do we keep our citizens safe and prevent violence. Before the security wall was put up there were almost daily suicide bombings and hundreds of people were dying, both Israelis and Palestinians. After the wall was erected that number dropped close to zero. Is not living under threat of rockets or suicide bombings miserable as well?

  6. Brett Chamberlin says

    Thanks for your comments, Yonatan and Anna. I agree that it’s regrettable that I wasn’t able to include those voices. I wanted to respect these students’ right to not participate in the story. Even without that perspective, I still thought it was a valuable story worth sharing.

  7. Rodney Kamp says

    It’s a shame the author injected his own strongly held political views making this article part of what is wrong with the conflict. Both sides are unable to commiserate with one another.

    It’s a pity that you make it seem that Israel is a predator. Yes, Israel attacks back– and it is a shame that precious lives need to be wasted. I hate to see people killed. But, also have you been to the town of sderot? Did you know that over the years almost all houses in that town have built bomb shelters in their homes. Israelis have 15 seconds to find shelter when a rocket alarm goes off.. Did you know that the all schools in sderot have playgrounds with several bomb-shelters scattered throughout the space? Did you know that Hamas now is able to shoot their rockets further, now putting in danger other towns that do not have these bomb shelters to escape to? Did you know that Hamas does not care where these land? Hamas just wants jews dead, civilan or non civilian. Did you know that most israelis that live in sderot have a trauma/stress disorder? Have you seen, in person, the rockets that Hamas shoots aimlessly? I have.

    Both sides of the story must be told.

  8. Carrie Barton says

    Mr. Chamberlain,

    After recently visiting Israel and seeing the devastation of over 13,000 missals that have been launched onto a border town, your misinterpretation of Israelis is beyond explanation. The ruling power in Gaza, Hamas, is a terrorist group that uses the power of media to make many, like yourself believe that Israel is the culprit. Fact of the matter is that Israel is trying to preserve itself as a free state while other groups, such as Hamas seek to wipe it off the map. Your article makes it seem as though Israel is the culprit when in actuality IDF forces are just defending their land. You should really try to get both sides of the story when writing an article as heated on this one. If the Israelis you spoke to did not want to comment, I can think of several Israelis living on my floor, in Palladium nonetheless, that would be willing to share their side of the story.

  9. Crabby Appleton says

    What a ridiculously stilted history of the region. First of all, Palestine was never a British colony, and when you start looking into the history and details of the post-WWI system of mandates for Ottoman territory—but oh, you didn’t, and you chalked up the UN referendum to formalizing “decades of British colonial policy.”

  10. James Williams says

    With regards to the brief history of the territory- a good portion of the land that became Israel was purchased starting as early as 1901 by the Jewish National Fund. Further, the “slow growth” of the state is the result of winning wars levied against them.

    Hamas as a terrorist organization- read their charter. They are without a doubt a terrorist organization.

    On the Israelis not commenting- there are very real safety concerns with being publicized talking about this conflict. Given the ubiquity of the internet and general interest people from home would likely have in their trip to the US, making statements of any sort could have real ramifications on their personal relationships. This is even more poignant when their quotes and statements have a high probability of being taken out of context by the journalist.