A visiting religious studies professor gave a talk Wednesday on challenging traditional perspectives and sparking dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yakir Englander spoke to a crowd of about 70 people in Fisk Hall at the event, “New Paths in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Politics, Actions, Dialogue and Theology.” Students in Englander’s class this quarter, Theology in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, organized the event, which included members from Students for Justice in Palestine, Wildcats for Israel and J Street U.
Nida Bajwa, one of the organizers, said Englander offers his class of about 30 students the chance to learn how theology operates in the conflict.
“It’s been a very transformative experience for a lot of students in the class, and I wanted to bring that transformative thinking to a bigger stage,” the Medill freshman said.
Englander is a specialist in modern Jewish philosophy and has a Ph.D. from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also serves as the vice president of Kids4Peace International, a global peace organization that aims to educate children of all faiths on religious and cultural tolerance through summer camps and leadership programs.
Englander spoke about his involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by sharing his experiences of fear and violence while growing up in a Hasidic Jewish family.
“I grew up in a family with a lot of love and a lot of love for God, but in that same family, we never wanted to meet anyone who was not Hasidic,” he said. “I grew up with a lot of fear for Jews.”
Englander said when he was 15, two Palestinians were killed by a bomb they had placed next to his synagogue.
“It made me, of course, hate more and fear more,” he said.
However, Englander said his perspective changed when he left his Hasidic community at 22 and was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, where he had the job of collecting both Israeli and Palestinian dead bodies while fighting was going on.
“What changed was a slap in my face because for the first time I understood what it means to be with my enemy and to understand that my enemy looks exactly like me,” he said. “What do you do when you are under fire and you need to decide how many parts of the body you are going to take time to pick up to bring home to Palestine or to Israel?”
Englander said his experience in the middle of the fighting was a moment where “all the narratives just changed,” and insight into a second narrative began to grow for him very slowly. He said it will take years to reconcile the differences.
He continued his talk by speaking of his work with Kids4Peace in Israel, where he brings both Israeli and Palestinian children together to do an “internal critique,” which he described as a dialogue in which individuals critique themselves in an effort to understand where their hatred stems from.
“Internal critique means that something in my story changes, from the time I start working with Palestinians and I listen to them and they listen to me because it means that they sacrificed something to listen to me,” he said.
Englander addressed the Palestinian issue of right of return and said he is partly responsible, as a Jewish man who grew up in Israel, for the Palestinians who were displaced from their homes.
“I, Yakir, don’t have any right to continue to live my life until this problem is healed,” he said. “I don’t have safety and peace when my Palestinian brothers and sisters don’t have safety and peace.”
Englander did not take any particular position about solutions to the conflict and pledged at the beginning of his talk to not critique the Palestinian side.
“There is an assumption in the debate about Israel and Palestine that Jews need a Jewish state,” he said. “As a son of a father from the Holocaust, I totally understand it. But when you are collecting bodies, you raise the question: What is more important – life or anything else? We must wake up in the morning and ask ourselves this everyday. Choose life.”
Englander said the role of NU students on campus must be to bring their opinions to pro-Israel and pro-Palestine events and just listen.
Bajwa, who spoke at the beginning of the event, said campus discourse on the issue that has “traditionally been very polarized.” She said Englander’s talk exceeded her expectations.
“I think it really challenged people’s perceptions of the conflict,” she said. “At the end of the day, that was the goal.”
Englander spoke of the complexities in the justifications made by both sides of the conflict but urged the audience to understand the responsibility and price that goes along with every proposed solution, including the Jewish belief in their right to the holy land.
“It’s hard. Life is hard,” he said. “But that’s what rabbis have been telling us for hundreds of years. You want to live in the holy land? Live holy.”
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