Out of Jenin’s Rubble, Well-placed Hope

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse May 11, 2015 

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter @bfry1981) May 11th 2015

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EILAT and AMMAN — Before the last few days, whenever I heard the word Jenin, only images of utter devastation filled my head and saddened my heart.  Like most Americans who had heard of Jenin (and most have not), a panorama of devastation would flash into my consciousness.  That was what made the West Bank town of Jenin noticeable to Americans like me who follow international affairs.  Death, destruction, occupation, terrorism… this is what Jenin was to us.  It was not so much an actual place with actual people as it was a symbol of the violent horrors of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  People like me had heard little else of Jenin after and nothing before those terrible, tragic days of the battle there in 2002.  It was as if Jenin only existed to remind us of suffering, and nothing more.

At thirty-three years of age, I find myself increasingly losing hope on a number of fronts, clinging to it because I am fearful of what it would mean to lose hope.

That is why, after this weekend, I must thank the people of Jenin and particularly the people who are part of an institution known as the Arab American University of Jenin (AAUJ) because I found hope where I had expectations of not finding it, which is not something I find myself able to say too often these days.

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I have been to mainly-Arab East Jerusalem, some of the Arab areas of Israel, as well as to Palestine’s West Bank.  I have lived in Amman, Jordan, for over a year now.  I find that there is a great degree of similarity in these Arab cities and villages in terms of feel and architecture, so that my inexpert eye would not be able to tell you if a picture of an Arab village or city was of a Jordanian, Palestinian, or Israeli-Palestinian village.  So when I was invited to present some of my research at AAUJ for a conference on conflict transformation and peacebuilding, I had expectations of staying in a modest hotel in the middle of a city and of the campus of the University being in the same environment.

What I saw took my breath away.  Firstly, our hotel was on the other side of a forest on the outskirts of Jenin.  The approach to the hotel is quite beautiful, and there is an amusement park nearby.  The hotel itself was incredibly beautiful and of a very unique design, at least four and possibly five-star in quality.  It felt like being in a country estate, which is certainly not what I was expecting.

When I finally got to see the campus, though, my expectations were exceeded.  The campus is on a large hill overlooking what can only be described as a beautiful panorama of the rolling hills of Palestine.  The campus was very neatly laid out, very clean, well designed with bright white buildings, lots of trees and green shrubbery, pleasant courtyards.  It was all very sophisticated and with up-to-date technology, and appearing nicer and more modern than some college campuses I have seen in America.

It seemed as if most of the young women were not wearing headscarves (granted there were lots of stylish jeans but no skirts without leggings), and I did not see any of the young men styling any kind of Salafist beards or traditional religious garb.  These students seemed liberal, progressive, and not at all fundamentalist fanatics.  I saw a lot of people who looked pretty trendy actually, smiling, buzzing with conversation.  In short, the AAUJ student body reminded me very much of a typical American student body in its appearance.  The few students with whom I did speak seemed very bright, seemed to speak very good, maybe even fluent, English, and were eager to engage in conversation.  In short, I saw a rising generation in whom both Palestinians and even Israelis should have confidence.

Apparently, AAUJ has the only master’s program in conflict resolution or the like in the entire Arab world.  Perhaps there is some sort of poetic justice that it is in, of all places, Palestine.  The conference sponsored by that master’s program turned out quite well, with interesting, well prepared presentations and a conference room that for much of the time was mostly full, the students eager to take it all in.  Most of presentations were interesting and well-crafted.  I was truly inspired to hear one of the more local presenters call out his countrymen, saying that what they as Palestinians were doing was not working.  He called for Palestinians to seek out Israeli liberals of conscience who are aware of their own country’s mistreatment of Palestinians, and to work together with them so that they to empower each other because that is how progress towards peace and justice could be made.  He called on Palestinians to study Israeli and Jewish history and society, culture, and religion, and to make a serious effort to understand and respect the Israeli perspective and to understand that Israelis, too, have suffered even if not in the same way as Palestinians.  The conference ended with the master’s program head echoing this and passionately calling for more critical thinkers and philosophers to challenge the existing models of discourse and action that have failed the Palestinian cause so spectacularly, and for such students to help build a future for Palestine.

Other foreign speakers, including myself, echoed such sentiments, but it was far more important that several Palestinian speakers made these points.  I was deeply inspired by one freshman who approached me after and said that he was really inspired by one of my comments during a panel about Palestinians needing to know how important it is to frame their desires in a way that can be acceptable to Israelis rather than cause then to stop listening and turn away.  He passionately explained to me that he wanted to live with Israelis as neighbors and to share the land in peace.  He told me most of his friends disagreed and continued to dream of reclaiming all of historic Palestine, that this made him feel sad an alone, but that he really appreciated what I had to say.  For years, I had been inspired by other speakers at other academic conferences as a student and an audience member.  That I had somehow managed to inspire him as I had been inspired in the past was itself inspiring for me, and I knew without a doubt that it was the right decision to attend AAUJ’s conference.

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After the conference, a small group of us were taken on the tour of the refugee camp in Jenin, the heart of the fighting and destruction in 2002 during the Second Intifada.  Posters of people the locals refer to as martyrs, slogans of resistance, scenes of previous death and devastation were what greeted us.  It was heartbreaking.  The young woman showing us around lived near the camp at the time and was ten years old when the battle occurred.  A missile or a rocket hit the building next to her home, and she was wounded in the leg.  For a ten year old girl, his must have been traumatizing beyond belief.  It took her months to recover.  Now, she is in her mid-twenties and a student in AAUJ’s conflict resolution program.  She ended our tour with a view from the hills above the camp, Jenin and its environs breathtaking in their beauty.

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From the rubble of Jenin in 2002, we can see hope springing in 2015.  The hope lives in people like the two students I mentioned, the wonderful growth of AAUJ, and in the passion of AAUJ’s conflict resolution program head.  More than anything else I have seen in my two trips to Palestine, he and his students give reason for there to be hope for Palestine’s future.

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