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Empathy & Exploration

This journey to the Holy Land offers immersive lessons in understanding conflict

With the press of a button, Hebrew University of Jerusalem anthropologist Guy Shalev slowly raised the shades in the university’s conference room, where the members of Swarthmore’s study trip to the Middle East had gathered. “This is why I wanted us to meet here, in this room,” says Shalev, who encouraged the students not just to ask questions, but to
“ask the right questions.” 

The stunning landscape that spread out before them provided a fitting way to begin the intense tour of the region. The 10-day excursion in December was the culmination of a course, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which Assistant Professor of Peace & Conflict Studies Sa’ed Atshan ’06 has taught each fall since returning to campus as a faculty member in 2015. 

Hebrew University sits on Mount Scopus above Isawiyah, a Palestinian neighborhood of about 20,000 people in East Jerusalem. The conference-room view, through its floor-to-ceiling windows, was vast. In the distance lay West Jerusalem’s high-rises and construction cranes, while Isawiyah’s parched streets were seemingly within arm’s reach. 

Just a few hours later, the 36 Swarthmore students and eight faculty and staff chaperones stood on the other side of those windows. The group gathered alongside a main Isawiyah street at the foot of a 26-foot-high security wall. At that location, the wall, topped by barbed wire and snaking its way around street corners, divided a Palestinian neighborhood.

Suddenly, the communities that had been at the core of such close study that fall semester came into three-dimensional, full-color focus. 

“I was afraid of the bias that my country might have,” says Youssef Kharrat ’23, whose home nation, Tunisia, does not recognize Israel. “Maybe what I’m seeing is just not the full story, and I wanted to hear the Israeli side and get a fuller image.”


Depth and Authenticity 

While it is not the only trip of its kind to the Levant in higher education, Swarthmore’s immersive excursion is extraordinary for its robust itinerary.

“It is completely unmatched,” says Atshan. “We are meeting a range of interlocutors from right to left and everything in between. Within hours, students are meeting with someone who has tremendous influence over policy, and then meeting someone who’s at the bottom of the barrel. The scale is remarkable.”

That anyone would have the opportunity to crisscross the region, as this group did, to meet with people who represented such a broad political, socioeconomic, geographic, and religious spectrum is hard to imagine. Conversations and meals were shared with farmers, politicians, land developers, religious leaders, legal advocates, educators, mothers, and fathers. 

The experience provided a depth and authenticity that students could never have gained solely in the classroom.

“We covered so many different perspectives that we were always challenged to view the situation from a new vantage point,” says Nancy Yuan ’20, a political science and peace & conflict studies major from Auckland, New Zealand. “You’re always on the edge of your seat, hanging on every word that people say, because you don’t want to miss it. What if that was the thing that put all the pieces together?”

When Atshan first taught the course, he had 25 students, with 20 who took the trip. The number doubled the following year. Now, the class is capped at 75 and held in the Lang Performing Arts Center Cinema. (He allowed 78 to enroll this fall.) The course size would be large by any standard, but perhaps especially for an elective in an interdisciplinary program. 

Students must apply for a spot on the trip, with preference given to peace & conflict majors and minors. The cost is fully supported by the College, thanks to alumni dedicated to embedded study abroad. Those who are accepted must write a 10-page reflection paper and present their experiences as a group to the campus community in the spring. For this they earn an additional half-credit.

Such trips at Swarthmore are rare but becoming more frequent. Recent examples include a Black Studies trip to Cuba and another to Brazil; two trips to Spain associated with Spanish Department classes; and six trips in eight years to China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong associated with courses housed or cross-listed in Chinese. 

The Holy Land trip, however, perhaps best illustrates the College’s commitment to this increasingly popular model of study. It, of course, also reflects the strong interest in the class and the growth of the Peace & Conflict Studies Program.

Max Katz-Balmes ’20, an economics and environmental studies major from Berkeley, Calif., sought out the class so he could “more adequately” discuss the region’s conflict with his Israeli girlfriend and her family. 

“As an American Jew,” he says, “I am claimed by [Israel] to an extent. Jewish social values influence my life. So I wanted to get a little more perspective.”

It was also personal for Layan Shaban (Haverford ’23), whose brother Ahmad ’19 took the class a couple of years ago but did not go on the trip. 

“My dad wouldn’t let him,” she says, citing her father’s concerns about how an Arab would be treated in Israel. “I also wanted to strengthen my Palestinian identity. I think I’m getting there.”


Point of Origin 

The trip’s distinctive nature is due largely to Atshan’s own personal and professional path. A Quaker, he grew up in the West Bank, in the cosmopolitan, occupied city of Ramallah, where he attended the Ramallah Friends Meeting and Ramallah Friends School. (The group met with leaders of both on the trip.) His introduction to Swarthmore came in the latter’s college counseling office.

“I remember looking through the viewbook … at Philadelphia, the train station, and the Honors Program,” he says. “Swarthmore had the diversity and the social justice orientation and the Lang Center. I thought, ‘This is my dream.’ I just completely fell in love.”

Atshan was allowed to take the viewbook home that day in 1999. 

“This is so cheesy,” he says, “but I kid you not: I literally would keep it under my pillow.” 

At Swarthmore, Atshan excelled as a Lang Opportunity Scholar and Mellon Mays Scholar — a program he now coordinates — and graduated with a B.A. in political science and Middle Eastern studies. He earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. at Harvard and was in his second year as a postdoc at Brown when a full-time position at Swarthmore became available. It was the first at the College dedicated solely to Peace & Conflict Studies — or to any interdisciplinary program.

“I love what I do,” says Atshan. “It doesn’t feel like work; it just feels like I’m breathing air.”

Now, with two books forthcoming this spring, Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique and The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians, and a third, Paradoxes of Humanitarianism: The Social Life of Aid in the Palestinian Territories, under contract, the responsibility Atshan feels to continue his scholarship and teaching has never been stronger. 

The stakes have also never been higher.

For each year’s class and trip, drawing on his wide-ranging professional and personal network, Atshan invites speakers, assigns books by authors, and arranges visits with people who represent a diverse range of perspectives, backgrounds, and points of view. 

Yet two years ago, a student in the course complained that the class was not sufficiently pro-Israel. This fall, another said it was not sufficiently pro-Palestine. Coupled with the hostility that Atshan has faced from some critics not affiliated with the College, his growing public profile only promises to invite more criticism. 

“Sa’ed handles all this with a poise and a grace that I think I could only ever hope to achieve,” says Associate Professor of Philosophy Krista Thomason, who joined the study trip this year as interim coordinator of Peace & Conflict Studies. “Since the conflict is part of his life and his work, he has this rigorous intellectual position about hope, a holding-fast to a thing that he sees not as luxury, but as indispensable.”

Atshan realized early on that life as a public intellectual whose courses and research focus on this contested region would come with a price.

“I think it came along with my coming out as gay,” he says. “Given homophobia and heteronormativity, I’m very cognizant of the fact that when you step into the light and announce, ‘I am gay, and I deserve rights and dignity,’ you immediately then have a target on your forehead. Similarly, as soon as you choose to engage these issues publicly, you’re targeted. And it’s not just from one part of the political spectrum, because the left can be just as difficult as the right. But we have no other choice. I’m not going back to the closet … any kind of metaphorical closet.”

Still, the work can take its toll. During his last lecture for the course this semester, Atshan briefly teared up when describing the “survivor’s guilt” he sometimes feels, citing the number of men in his cohort back home who are dead or in prison.

“We live in a world where women, LGBTQ people, and people of color are sometimes afraid or reluctant to express emotion, because we’re worried it takes away from our credibility,” he says. “I think that it deepens our authority. It reinforces the respect that people have for us when we’re able to model vulnerability. It could be a strength if wielded properly. I try to embrace that.”



“That was my house.”

Standing in what had been Lifta’s central plaza, Yacoub Odeh, 79, pointed past a tree and up to the ruin of a modest stone structure that still clung to the side of the hill. It was one of about 50 that together were all that remain of what had been, until 1948, a vibrant Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

On this Sunday, Odeh led a tour through the village’s overgrown paths, past groups of male teenagers who also gathered there, in what is now a nature reserve. Along the way, Odeh spoke of a future in which everyone — Christian, Jewish, Muslim — could live together, “as our grandfathers did.”

“That was a very moving experience,” says Robert Zigmund ’21, a philosophy and peace & conflict studies major from Glenside, Pa., “especially with the contrast of walking past the remains of the houses and seeing people laughing and just playing on them.”



“I’ve been closer to death as a student here than as a soldier on the Gaza border,” says Dar Cohen, 27, from the Sderot Media Center.

Cohen was describing life in Sderot, an Israeli city of about 26,000 people, predominantly Mizrahi Jews, known for its arts scene. The Swarthmore group stood with him outside the city’s police station. There, stacked against a wall, were remnants of some of the many rockets that had been launched indiscriminately into the city from Gaza, less than a mile away. Although they fall far less frequently than they did 10 years ago, he says the most recent fell less than two weeks before this visit.

Cohen joined the group on the bus as everyone rode — past a shrapnel-damaged house and the Iron Dome missile-defense system on the city’s outskirts — to a school playground, where a brightly painted structure served as a bomb shelter. All of Sderot’s houses and bus stops are equipped with the shelters, says Cohen, and are easily identified by their ventilation systems. The palm trees, chirping birds, and cloudless blue sky belied the circumstances, including children who suffer from PTSD and the fact that helium balloons had been used to carry explosives into the city.

Driving through Sderot’s streets, Angeline Etienne ’22, of Miami, says the bomb shelters prompted her to question who can afford them. 

“That doesn’t take away the fact that you’re scared and that you’re in danger,” she says. “But whose fear is more valuable? Whose safety is more valuable?”

“No one should have to live in that kind of fear,” adds Hanna Gutow ’20, a biology and peace & conflict studies major from Castine, Maine. “I don’t think we should be comparing the fears of Israelis and Palestinians, but we should recognize where those fears are coming from, the different levels of threat experienced by Palestinians and Israelis, and how people choose to respond in the face of fear.”


Days Stretch into Nights 

A 7 a.m. wakeup call began each day of the trip. After breakfast, the group piled onto a bus, traveling to the first of what would be five or six stops. These meetings and visits were often miles apart and, including time for meals, the days easily stretched into the night.

The longest days occurred when they concluded with a mandatory reflection session. They were invariably rich with questions, observations, and emotion.

“What comes out of the mouths of our students is so profound and inspiring,” Atshan says. “I hear new insights each and every time. Those reflection sessions are nourishment for my soul.” 

Students were also encouraged to recharge, so some lighter moments were built into the itinerary. In one 24-hour period, students met with Jean Zaru, clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting; attended Shabbat services and a reception with Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn at Tel Aviv International Synagogue; and floated in the Dead Sea. The day they visited Hebron, they also availed themselves of a “shopportunity” at a glass blowing and ceramics factory.



It is the largest city in the West Bank, but in Hebron on one afternoon, the streets in the old town center were eerily silent. Since the 1990s, the mostly Palestinian residents have been prohibited from that section of the city, a policy that young Israeli soldiers enforce at frequent checkpoints.

“Hebron’s level of segregation and separation was quite a stark contrast to everything else we’d seen during the trip,” says Jaydeep Sangha ’21, a biology and peace & conflict studies major and Evans Scholar from Potomac, Md. “In high school we learned about Jim Crow. Those injustices became crystal clear when one of our own students was told that she couldn’t use the women’s room, which was just a few meters away from the checkpoint, because she was Muslim.”

When the Israeli soldier turned Selma Shaban ’23 away from the public bathroom, she felt her body go numb. 

“I had really believed that my privilege as an American citizen would let me use the bathroom,” says Shaban, a Palestinian Jordanian. “All my privilege was stripped from me at that moment. There was nothing I could do except stand still and try not to break down.”

The incident reverberated throughout the group. 

“I thought, if a foreign tourist was treated in this way,” says Sangha, “what would life be like as a Palestinian?”


Radical Humanization 

A key focus of Atshan’s Israeli-Palestinian Conflict course is his conception of “radical humanization.” Its goal is deceptively simple: to use empathy and see the humanity in everyone, especially in those with differing views from your own. Atshan acknowledges that the idea of “humanizing” everyone can sound easy or, worse, lacking in substance. But he is passionate about substantiating its importance, not just in a personal context, but also in a rigorous academic setting.

“We have to demonstrate to students that empathy, compassion, and humanization of the ‘other,’ even those with whom we disagree most profoundly, are part and parcel of our pursuit of knowledge and our highest standards of intellectual and political engagement,” Atshan says. “We have to stop divorcing these matters.”

Over the course of the semester and the trip, Atshan emphasizes that point, and by the end of the class, the idea has taken root. 

“The students eventually really internalize how important and how hard radical humanization truly is, in their academic pursuits and in how they engage in the real world,” Atshan says.

“It becomes,” he adds, “a Swarthmore ethos and methodology.”

Kharrat put the concept to work the first day at Hebrew University while listening to Guy Shalev describe his compulsory military service. “I couldn’t help but feel bad when he was talking about his experience as a soldier, so casually invading people’s houses,” he says. “It’s really hard to contextualize it at that moment and feel empathy, but I did. That helped me appreciate and respect him more.”

Selma Shaban, who grew up in Amman, Jordan, says she was expecting to hear more anger and frustration from Palestinians. She was surprised by Hani Amer, a farmer whose home in Masha, West Bank, is surrounded by the separation wall, military-built chain-link fences, and settler houses. Yet he says he holds no animosity toward the settlers. 

“If he was angry, that would be completely warranted,” she says. “But for him to say he’s not angry towards them is an unbelievable showing of strength and resilience. I just found it remarkable.”

Remarkable, but not easy. For most students, the frequent presence of armed Israeli soldiers — on the streets of Hebron, in a lounge in Ashkelon’s Sapir College, even briefly on the bus crossing a checkpoint — was a new, and unsettling, sight.

“Speaking from my perspective and my community, weapons do not make us feel safe at all,” says Etienne, the sophomore from Miami. “So learning that for a majority of the [Jewish Israeli] population, Mizrahi or Ashkenazi, weapons make them feel safe — that’s genuinely something that I don’t understand.” 


Rolling Conversation 

“Friends, we need a count,” Professor Thomason announced from the front of the bus. “Take pride in your count!”  “… 21, 22, 23 …” Pause. “Nancy?” “24! 25 …”

At numerous stops — in Bethlehem’s Manger Square, outside the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and other places — but especially on the bus, students counted off. With a boisterous and at times unwieldy bunch, it was a necessity to make sure all were accounted for.  

There were times, especially after the more hard-hitting events, that the bus functioned as a place for quiet reckoning. 

For his part, Atshan took a figurative, if not literal, backseat on these journeys, intentionally not interjecting too often. 

“I’m very thankful that he’s allowing us to formulate our own point of view and grapple with it ourselves, rather than just telling us a narrative,” Sangha says. “The bus has been quieter in that sense, allowing me to think through things.”

More than halfway through the trip, the bus “has no laws,” Selma Shaban says. “People are moving around; conversations are starting. There will be a cluster in one area for a bit, and then in another area. So it’s a lot of fun. It’ll reflect the mood.”

“We’re not always talking about politics back there,” Sangha adds.

That was certainly true. A very incomplete list of subjects that merited a shout on the bus included social media, Stalin, communism, DJ Khaled, marriage, religion, gender pronouns, colonialism, Ottoman land practices, RuPaul, science, math, variations on rock-paper-scissors, restorative justice, and favorite punctuation marks.



To reach the last stop on the last day, the bus turned off the highway and onto a dirt road that rumbled past a three-man Israeli tank unit. It would be as close as civilians could get to the Israel-Gaza border. There, from the vantage point on a low ridge, was the buffer zone immediately in front of everyone as well as the distant high-rises of Gaza City. As the group stood next to a military range tower with shell casings underfoot, it was just about sunset.

Then the call to prayer sounded. The group stood in rapt silence, mesmerized by the gorgeous sky, the deep, lyrical tones, and the knowledge that, while separated by an electric fence less than 100 yards away, they shared this scene with the 2 million residents in this blockaded strip of land.

A short burst of distant but distinct automatic gunfire broke the reverie. Everyone quickly returned to the bus.


Looking Ahead

As the trip drew to a close, students discussed how they might carry forward some of what they learned. During the last reflection session, they expressed a range of emotions, concerns, hope, confusion, and gratitude.

Citing Guy Shalev’s admonition to “ask the right questions,” Gutow expressed the importance of “just doing that, forever, about everything. It’s hard, and we can’t always do that all the time, but we need to be dedicated to asking questions so that we can learn and be more engaged.”

Added Francis Eddy Harvey ’21, an economics major from Pittsburgh: “If I thought I knew anything before the trip, I really didn’t. There’s such a huge difference between taking the class and [learning] in an abstract way. Being here makes everything a lot more clear.”

Like many students, Toàn Cao ’22, of Vietnam, was leaving with a lot of questions. 

“Talking to people and seeing why it’s really important to not dehumanize anyone — I think that’s what I’m going to start with after this trip, and we’ll see how it goes,” he says.

For Yuan, the experience changed her to the core. “I don’t think anyone’s left unchanged,” she says. “For me personally, I feel very close to the Palestinian people, and to the Israeli and the Jewish people. They have all suffered so much. So what are we going to do to reduce suffering going forward?”

Their burgeoning plans recalled a quote, inspired by the Talmud, that Atshan offered at the end of the course: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”


Context and Connections 

When Atshan returned to Swarthmore, a faculty chaperone from last year’s trip welcomed him home at the airport. But sitting in his Trotter Hall office, he described experiencing culture shock in those first days back on campus. 

“The contexts are so different,” he says. “It’s a bit disorienting.”

Still, Atshan threw himself with characteristic energy into the new semester. In addition to teaching three classes with a combined enrollment of 79 students, he was also juggling off-campus speaking engagements and final preparations for his new books. Thoughts of the trip lingered.

“This year I was struck the most by the number of students who were making very specific, direct connections between what we were seeing on the ground to their lives and families and local contexts and communities,” he says. “That is something that moved me very deeply.”

Commitment to Peace and Social Justice

Professor Lee Smithey often paraphrases and elaborates a line from philosopher Conrad Brunk when describing peace & conflict studies: “Our job is to use the tools of various disciplines to study human conflicts and relations, and find nonviolent ways to turn unjust relationships toward more just ones.”

That definition could also be used to describe the efforts of Swarthmore’s Quaker founders, who worked to address slavery, poverty, women’s rights, and other social issues. Along with the College’s Peace Collection, the vast holdings of Friends Historical Library, and the fact that the first peace studies course in higher education was taught at Swarthmore in 1888*, one could conclude, as Smithey does, that “the study of peace, conflict, and justice is embedded in the DNA of our institution.”

As a discipline, however, it grew in waves after World War I and II, the Vietnam War, and in the 1980s and ’90s amid concern over the proliferation of nuclear arms. Now, there are undergraduate and graduate programs at hundreds of institutions around the world. Swarthmore’s program began in 1991–92, and Sa’ed Atshan ’06 became the program’s first dedicated faculty member in 2015.

“Demand for peace & conflict studies is not new,” Smithey says. “Students come to the College because of its character and commitment to peace and social justice. As our core curriculum grew to accommodate student interests and opened paths to graduation, more students signed on, and [in 2017] the faculty approved a regular major.”

The change was swift. 

In 2019, nearly a dozen students graduated with the minor and 15 with the major. This semester, 19 seniors are pursuing a minor, and 24 are on track to graduate with the major, in addition to the dozens of underclassmen who are pursuing one or the other.

“Having a defined major is one of the reasons I think students are more attracted to the program,” says Associate Professor of Philosophy and Interim Coordinator Krista Thomason. “It’s been really great to watch it take on this definitive shape. Sa’ed and Lee are the architects behind creating that new curriculum.”

Thomason, who joined the program’s steering committee as a junior faculty member, also credits its success to their efforts in making connections across campus. Those partnerships extend to Off-Campus Study and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, among others.

“We have spent so much time building up alliances with other departments and offering new courses,” she says. “This network on campus laid the foundation for the kinds of booming class enrollments that we’re seeing now.”

“Clearly, also, Professor Atshan brings extraordinary teaching skills and learning opportunities to the College, which students want to experience,” Smithey says. “He is a remarkable scholar, and his ability to inspire and mentor students has in turn inspired me. More than anything, Sa’ed embodies and lives into the values that animate our field.”

While the program’s growth can be attributed to a number of factors, the growth itself is undeniable.

“What people see is this boom out of nowhere,” Thomason says, “but from our perspective it’s been building for a long time.” 

* Professor William Penn Holcomb’s “Elements of International Law with special attention to the important subjects of Peace and Arbitration”