From the mouths of babes
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From the mouths of babes

Palestinian, Israeli youngsters speak about life, peace

Children are innately candid," said Leonard Grob, co-author of the recent "Teen Voices from the Holy Land: Who Am I to You?"

And, said Grob, in a telephone interview with The Jewish Standard, the 50 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers interviewed for his "Teen Voices," published by Prometheus Books, expressed a clear desire "to live in peace and to share the land."

Grob — a longtime professor of philosophy at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck until his retirement in June (although, he said, as professor emeritus he continues to do some teaching) — wrote the book together with former colleague Mahmoud Watad, now associate professor of management at William Patterson University, with whom he also co-founded the Global Oral History Project. The two participated in an author interview at Teaneck’s Puffin Cultural Forum on Sunday.
"It’s a major problem that Palestinians and Israelis don’t visit one another in a normal way." — Shirli

The Global Oral History Project was created "with the goal of collecting oral histories from people in regions of conflict to foster understanding," said Grob, noting that several years ago he approached Watad, then teaching at FDU, because "I was looking for a Palestinian partner with whom to collaborate on such a project." Watad, he said, was born in Israel and studied at Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities. In addition, said Grob, since Watad is trilingual, he was uniquely suited to carry out some of the interviews, with both Palestinians and Israelis.

"I speak Hebrew but not well enough to communicate with children," said Grob, noting that he used his "network of friends and family" to identify graduate students who could both identify interviewees and do the interviews.

In all, the authors and their team interviewed 50 youngsters between the ages of 1′ and 18, ultimately including in their book 34 first-person narratives: 17 Israeli, 17 Palestinian.

Grob said the students spoke about their day-to-day lives, personal interests, families, friendships, neighborhoods, "as well as their spiritual concerns and dreams for the future." In their introduction, the authors point out that the youths, in fact, had many things in common and say that "our hope is for the narratives to spark reflections about the value of commonalities and an appreciation of differences … providing a deeper understanding of what is occurring in this part of the world."

Grob noted that he and Watad specifically sought "mainstream" youngsters, in order "to give voice to the center." He said they consciously avoided "extremes," choosing not to interview settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, or Palestinian extremists. "The mainstream is still the majority," he said, adding that "the media tend to focus on extremes. No-one celebrates peace," he said.

While several of the Palestinian children interviewed for the book expressed unhappiness over situations related to the current political situation (unequal sports facilities, delays at checkpoints, etc.), Grob said that they expressed "no hatred," although he indicated that the restrictions they will face as adults (i.e., in employment) will grow more stringent.

For now, said Watad in an e-mail, the children demonstrate "hope and mutual understanding," with a willingness to "share land, resources, and coexist." But, he added, "the older these teens get, the less hope they have, and their dreams drift apart."

While Grob has spent the better part of his career teaching philosophy, he has a longstanding interest in Holocaust studies and Israel-Palestinian studies. "I have a strong background in Jewish studies, which attracted me to Jewish philosophy," he said, notably the teachings of Martin Buber. In addition, he said, "I had a traditional Zionist upbringing and have been a Holocaust scholar for ‘0 years." Since 1996, he has served as co-organizer of the biennial Pastora Goldner Holocaust Symposium at Fairleigh Dickinson’s British Campus in Oxfordshire.

Grob said that he is "committed to the survival of a just Israel." He pointed out that, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, "the Jews in Israel suffer from trauma, leading to an existential fear. That fear has dominated politics."

He said he believes that the need for the Jews to have military strength "is only one lesson to be learned from the Holocaust." A second lesson, he said, is to be kind to strangers and good to the oppressed.

Suggesting that the media deliberately distort the situation in the Middle East, Grob said he wants the book to serve as a "counterforce" to this trend and would like to see it incorporated into the social studies curricula of middle and high schools, targeting an audience the same age as his interviewees.

"There is a need to educate Americans, especially American Jews, to better understand what is going on from both sides," he said, noting that plans are under way to publish the book in Arabic as well.

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