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LA Times Reports Seidler-Feller/Shawki El-Zatmah Class at UCLA

The June 4 "Los Angeles Times" carries a report on the UCLA class being co-taught by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and Palestinian graduate student Shawki El-Zatmah.

By Leslie Evans

Under the heading "Small Steps Toward Bridging Middle East Chasm" the June 4 Los Angeles Times carries an account of how "a Palestinian and a rabbi, who have become friends, teach a class about both sides of the passionate dispute over the Holy Land." (See our posting of the UCLA Today article on this: http://www.international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=4037)

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein, tells his readers that "Seidler-Feller, 55, director of the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, is an urbane native of Brooklyn with deep family and religious ties to Israel. El-Zatmah, a 32-year-old with a passionate speaking style and a secular outlook, grew up in a Gaza refugee camp and advocates forcefully for his people. Together, however, they have tried to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide by co-teaching a sociology course on the conflict." The course is called "Voices of Peace: Perspectives on Confrontation & Reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli Conflict." The course is sponsored by the International Institute's Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.

Silverstein comments that this "odd couple" have become friends "and appear to have eased some of the ill will on campus over the Middle East dispute — at least among their own students."

El-Zatmah, a doctoral student in Middle Eastern history, like Seidler-Feller, gives voice to a moderate position on his side of the dispute. Silverstein quotes him as saying, "The Jewish students start to realize there's a Palestinian people, and they have the right to exist within a safe state, and a fully sovereign state. And the Arab students start to understand, there was a Holocaust and it was a very horrible experience, and Israelis have the right to have their own sovereign state."

The unlikely course has an enrollment of about 80. It includes Americans, Israelis, Arabs, and Muslims from non-Arab parts of the world.  "During breaks," Silverstein writes, "some of the students chat in Hebrew, Arabic or Persian."

Both Seidler-Feller and El-Zatmah support the Bush administration road map and its proposed two-state solution to the conflict. That does not mean there are not disagreements. Each instructor is seen by the other as at least somewhat understating the violence of the side he supports in the region.

The class requires the students to write a book report on a book that "expresses a view contrary to your own." There is also a class project where students break up into small teams and hammer out proposed solutions to specific parts of the conflict.

The course goes into the history of Middle Eastern and European Jews as well as of Arabs and specifically Palestinians. The students are said the view the discussions as very objective.

Silverstein writes:

"Seidler-Feller — known as 'Rabbi Chaim' to the students — began developing the course more than two years ago when Arab and Jewish students approached him for help in promoting peace between the groups on campus. At first, he feared that UCLA administrators would frown on a class that wasn't purely academic. Still, he started to help the students in drafting a course outline.

"Then, after an Arab student wrote a column in the UCLA student newspaper supporting the Palestinian cause but also expressing understanding for the Israeli side, Seidler-Feller e-mailed the writer to say, 'You're my brother in peace.' Their follow-up conversations spurred him to go ahead with the class."

This first Palestinian student, Fadi Amer, co-taught the first year's class with Seidler-Feller before moving on to Harvard Law School. Shawki El-Zatmah is the second Palestinian to work with Seidler-Feller, in the second year of this unusual class. "He can see religion in light of humanity, and I give him credit for it," the Times quotes him as saying. "So I never feel uncomfortable with him when he speaks about religion. It's a great experience to teach with a religious Zionist."

No student claimed to have completely switched sides as a result of the class, but many said they had become more understanding of the positions of the other side.

Michelle Levian, a junior majoring in sociology and neuroscience, is quoted as saying, "I always thought it was a one-sided story, but once I had the opportunity to hear the other side, to hear the struggles and hardships of occupation, I realized there should be a resolution. It makes me want to create peace."

Silverstein cites senior Sofia Mazgarova, a Muslim student from Russia, "who wears a hijab over her head," who said "I appreciate the individuals, the people who can speak up on behalf of Palestinians, even if it's not the politically correct Israeli point of view."

Burkle Center for International Relations