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But what most impressed us about the accumulated effect of these American failures was how such mistakes were recognized, and how the nation resolved not to repeat them.
Truthfully, it was difficult to know if Israelis and Palestinians would be able to study such subjects together, and what they would take from the experience. Certainly, they have distinct civic traditions themselves.
Israel has practiced parliamentary government since its founding 62 years ago, and boasts an independent judiciary that protects a basic set of civil rights formally guaranteed to all citizens regardless of race, creed, or religion.
Palestinians, in contrast, have yet to declare their independence. After 1948, most of their governing institutions functioned outside the territorial borders. Only since the Oslo Accords of 1993 have they drawn their legitimacy from popular elections in a Palestinian “Authority.”
There are other differences as well. American politics and culture provoke considerable suspicion, if not outright hostility, within Palestinian society, including in academic circles. American democracy largely appears there to be a contradiction in terms because of America’s ongoing support of an Israeli occupation that prevents Palestinians from establishing political sovereignty over their own land and assuming social responsibility for their own lives.
A Palestinian professor of American Studies thus finds himself having to work hard to counter this enmity, balancing it with recognition of the seriousness with which Americans discuss such notions as liberty, freedom, and equality.
In Israel, the pedagogical challenge is strikingly different. There, the United States is commonly perceived to be a most worthy model of emulation, whether because of its system of government, its free market economy, or dynamic popular culture. An Israeli professor of American history thus often finds himself struggling to balance such adoration with a more critical account of failed hopes and unkept promises.
What kind of common language, then, would our students speak once they were divided into teams and assigned with preparing group presentations on a central issue of democratic life?
The fact is, no one had time to wonder. Two intensive, strained, fretful, and fruitful weeks of study followed, devoted to such problems as the role of lobbies in the political system, the responsibility of the media in ensuring citizens’ access to information, the justifiability of preferential treatment for minorities, the limits of legitimate protest, the affect of boycotts on public life, the possibility of creating a democratic foreign policy, and the private morality of public officials (the last project comparing recent sex scandals in each of the countries).
There was no lack of a shared language, in other words, just as there was no lack of disagreement and debate (that often crossed national boundaries). All these subjects proved highly relevant to both of our societies, at once underlining common political realities as well as differences.
Ultimately, however, what was most important was not the democracy being studied by the students, but the democracy that they themselves created in working and arguing and listening to each other, and ultimately in cooperating on a final project that had to embrace (sometimes acute) differences of opinion.
This is what made our seminar a true practicum on peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, under the auspices of America’s own rich experience with the dilemmas of democracy.
The stakes of our seminar do not compare to what is presently on the table at the direct talks now under way. But the lesson still applies: For peace negotiators on both sides to effectively represent their interests, they must speak to one another in a universal language of democratic moderation and mutuality, one that will bring out the best of both their respective national traditions.