March 8, 2005

Class Requirement: Crossing Lines on the Middle East

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Mark Rosenblum's course has drawn praise from Jewish and Muslim students and others who say it has made them rethink their views. "I thought I already knew everything, but we got some perspective," said one.


Decades before the rest of the world followed suit, the United Nations briefly lived in Queens. The Secretariat building may now tower over Manhattan, but the borough across the East River has arguably done a better job of bringing together people born under every flag on earth - including a few banners once carried by warring armies.

Being the city's most diverse borough could be intimidating, given the potential for ethnic conflict over slights real or imagined. But one glance at any subway car shows people are too busy going to school or work (or both) to get caught up in any nonsense that would set them back.

Better yet, take a look at Queens College, where Prof. Mark Rosenblum sees duty amid diversity. On a campus where increasing numbers of Muslim students study alongside Jews, he has been able to foster a civil dialogue over one of the era's most divisive issues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Avoiding the strident debate on other campuses, most recently Columbia University, he has gotten students on opposite sides of the issue to make their best case - for the other side.

No one has flipped position. Then again, no one has flipped out, either. Instead, both sides are learning about each other in ways that Professor Rosenblum hopes can one day go beyond the campus.

The students who took part in last semester's class were so affected by the experience that they have continued to meet, even though they are not receiving any academic credit for their current efforts.

"Queens College is an educational gift," Professor Rosenblum said. "It is not a Torah academy or a Koranic school where you have segregated populations. This is a secular place where people voluntarily come together to get an education. That is the heritage of this city. I have to try to take advantage of the real demographics here in New York, not as the melting pot, but as the entry point to the United States. A global city in a global world."

Professor Rosenblum brings a quiet passion to his work, whether it is teaching Middle East affairs or convening roundtable talks with Palestinians and Israelis. When he taught courses on the Middle East 15 years ago, most of his students were Jewish. But as the borough and the campus changed, so did his classes.

The change was felt on campus after the collapse of peace talks led to more violence in Israel in September 2000. A year later, the attack on the World Trade Center, which the professor and his students witnessed from their classroom, polarized both sides on campus to the point that dialogue was almost impossible.

"After 9/11, there was some hostility toward some members of the Muslim groups," said Michael Kohan, a political science major. "Some people thought they were all terrorists."

Professor Rosenblum said that Muslim students, while denouncing the attack, felt it was important to understand the grievances of Muslims overseas. That position, however, earned them the scorn of those who felt the only appropriate response was a swift and military one.

"It was hard to teach in a classroom where students had such preconceived ideas and had essentially become propagandists for their own side," he said. "It was quite nasty and ruthless in the classroom."

The course was his response.

His idea was to get students to examine their feelings on the Middle East, then use the rest of the semester to make the best possible case for the other side. He brought in Israeli and Palestinian speakers, and United States government officials. Within a few weeks, classes were running nearly twice as long as scheduled.

"I did not expect anybody to change their position," he said. "My job is just to get you to feel a little bit of confusion by revealing that what you thought was a black and white struggle has a little more gray."

The class itself had a range of students, from Orthodox Jews to Muslim student activists. Several high school teachers whose own students were divided on the issues also were enrolled, as was a group of the elderly auditing the class.

Iman Khan, who was born in the United States to parents from Bangladesh, said he had never had so much dialogue with people whose opinion differed from his. While still pro-Palestinian, he says a lot of myths he once held were dispelled.

"People stop spreading legends and start talking the truth," he said. "It is so easy to hate people on the other side when you don't talk to them and you don't have to know them. But when you engage in discourse with them, you see they feel the way you do about your people. It's not so easy to hate them anymore."

Mr. Kohan said the course had ultimately left him feeling encouraged.

"I am Jewish and support the Israeli side," he said. "I thought I already knew everything, but we got some perspective. I used to believe that the conflict could be solved militarily without a Palestinian state. But now I realize, whether I like it or not, there has to be one."

One recent day, the class gathered for their latest effort: to move their dialogue beyond the campus. Several high school teachers hoped they could involve their students, since the high schools are changing rapidly, like the rest of the borough.

"This is something we have to do," said Carrie Sanchez, who teaches American history at Forest Hills High School. "We have students whose families live in Israel or in the West Bank. They carry on the political debate at home, and then it comes through the students when they say things and not realize they are being hurtful to the other side."

The idea of these dialogues might strike some cynics as na´ve. Others might assume it is impossible. Yet Professor Rosenblum continues to plan for the coming years.

"The Middle East came to the America in the most murderous way on Sept. 11," he said. "We have to build this bridge to the Middle East in a hopeful, not Pollyannaish way. New York is increasingly made up of people who have deep personal connections to that part of the world."

His words have a special meaning for one student who lived through a murderous era in the 1940's. Inge Etzbach grew up near Cologne, Germany, and was once a member of the Hitler Youth. She lives in Queens, where she has audited many classes at the college. It is part of a lifelong process of learning and atonement.

"I have a load on my conscience because of what my people did to other people," she said. "It was the defining thing in my life."

In her 72 years, she has gone from Germany to Queens, with several trips to Israel in between. The class at Queens College was part of her commitment to learn as much as she could about a conflict whose proponents on both sides sometimes claim an absolute hold on the truth.

"In Germany I had been told something was the truth, that some people deserved to die and others deserved to live," she said. "But when I saw those half-starved human beings who could hardly walk yet helped each other, I saw with blinding light what I had been told was one big lie. I swore to myself at that moment I would never again believe anybody unless I had checked it out myself."

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