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Panel Seeks to Promote Dialogue on Middle East Issues

Shaheer Hassan, left, of the Muslim Student Association, and Daniel Saxon of Hillel, at the Homer Babbidge Library. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Shaheer Hassan, left, of the Muslim Student Association, and Daniel Saxon of Hillel, at the Homer Babbidge Library. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A panel discussion on “The Future of Israeli-Palestinian Relations” on March 26, which follows the recent national elections in Israel, is part of an expansion of activities at UConn intended to help understand issues in the Middle East.

The event will begin at 7 p.m. in Konover Auditorium at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

Jeremy Pressman, associate professor of political science and director of the University’s Middle East Studies program, will serve as moderator for the discussion, which includes three political scientists with expertise in various aspects of the region’s issues: Nadya Hajj of Wellesley College, Peter Krause of Boston College and Ora Szekely of Clark University.

Last fall UConn’s Center for Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies in Stamford hosted a conference on the region’s issues that included leading experts on al-Qaida and Iran; and in early March noted author and humorist Sayed Kashua visited Storrs to discuss his life as a Palestinian citizen of Israel. On May 1, the Middle East Studies program will be a co-sponsor of a workshop on the region for Connecticut teachers at the Hartford Seminary.

The Center for Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies at UConn’s Stamford campus has been organizing full day conferences on Middle Eastern affairs since the early 1980s, where keynote speakers have been world-renowned political scientists and policy analysts.

“We were able to attract both our students and the community at large because our mission was always to hear all sides of the debate and regard every point of view with respect and understanding,” says Nehama Aschkenasy, professor-in-residence of comparative literary and cultural studies and director of the Center for Judaic and Middle Eastern Studies in Stamford.

Grass-roots ‘diplomacy’

UConn students are participating in these academic programs but are also working to better understand Middle East issues using their own form of diplomacy – getting together to talk and socialize.

While dialogue at UConn among students with Middle East heritage – whether through religion or nationality – has occurred for many years, the killing in February of three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and remarks earlier this month about the qualifications of a student affiliated with Jewish groups for a judicial board position at UCLA have added to the dialogue.

Just prior to those two events, UConn Hillel invited members of other student organizations, including the Muslim Student Association (MSA), to its annual Avi Shabbat dinner. The event is a communal meal that serves as a catalyst to discuss awareness of issues related to Israel on college campuses that honors the memory of Avi Schaefer, a former Israeli soldier who worked to pursue peace in the Middle East while enrolled as a student at Brown University, where he was killed by a drunk driver.

“There was no real politics [discussed], just students talking with students,” says Dan Saxon ’17 (CLAS), an economics major who leads UConn Hillel. “That started the ball rolling. MSA subsequently reached out to us when the Chapel Hill situation unfortunately occurred and asked us to attend a vigil at Laurel Hall and at the Islamic Center.”

Samir Chaudhry ’16 (CLAS), a biology major and president of MSA, says students from both organizations have continued to get together socially at Hillel or the Islamic Center, which hosts a weekly social gathering known as Halaqah, where guests can learn more about Islam.

“We have gatherings on Thursday night, the Halaqah. It creates the kind of community we try to build,” Chaudhry says. “It’s so easy to build a community when you have everyone at one place at the same time and in the same dialogue.”

If you can’t have a conversation with someone you disagree with now, how are you going to have a conversation with the person next to your engineering cubicle or at the school you are teaching in? It all starts within these walls and within this community. — Gary Wolff

Daniel Weiner, vice provost for global affairs, says Hillel, MSA, and students in other organizations on campus are realizing the kind of “healthy dialogue” intended by the existing and planned academic programs developed by the University that are focused on global concerns.

“Jewish and Muslim students at the University of Connecticut are talking with each other, learning about each other, developing friendships and communicating about a range of issues. This is a healthy process that we are very proud to support,” says Weiner. “I am also gratified that UConn is a place where difficult conversations about the Israel-Palestine conflict are taking place. This is made possible by our faculty, staff, and students who embrace critical thinking and are not threatened by ideas and political perspectives that they may not support. We are listening and learning from each other.”

Gary Wolff, executive director of Hillel, says he hopes students leave UConn with a greater understanding of how to live and work in an increasingly diverse world.

“When you graduate, you’re going to enter a workplace that is diverse,” he says. “If you can’t have a conversation with someone you disagree with now, how are you going to have a conversation with the person next to your engineering cubicle or at the school you are teaching in? It all starts within these walls and within this community.”

Reda A. Ammar, professor of computer science and engineering, is the faculty advisor to MSA, was a member of the committee that developed the minor in Middle East Studies, and serves as director of global engagement in the School of Engineering. He continues to work on developing exchange programs that bring faculty as well as students from the Middle East to Storrs, helping to deepen understanding of issues in the region.

“Academics who come here to study go back and become our ambassadors,” he says. “Their interaction with their classmates builds friendships; we sometimes forget about that dimension. They bring their cultures and behaviors so we know each other. That’s very important.”

Ammar says UConn recently hosted the vice rector for development at Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca, one of the most prestigious universities in Saudi Arabia, to discuss establishing a training program for students in Storrs; and is working with Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, an all-female university in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, to set up a summer program for students to gain field experience and learn English through UConn’s English as a Second Language program.

Chaudhry relates a story that illustrates how students are finding their own way to better understand issues in the Middle East. He recently called another MSA leader to find out where to meet before they had to attend a meeting, expecting the location would be the Islamic Center.

Says Chaudhry, “He told me to pick him up at Hillel.”

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By: Kenneth Best | Courtesy of UConn Today


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