Gaining perspective: Psychology professor takes a closer look at Palestine

Professor of Psychology Gail Sahar went to the Middle East last summer as one of 10 U.S. academics selected for a special program organized by the Palestinian American Research Center and sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Here, she writes about her personal observations and reflects on how the trip connects to her own scholarship.

As the small, dilapidated van careened around the mountainous dirt road, I began to wonder if I had gotten in the wrong cab. Certainly the journey from Ramallah to Bethlehem, two major Palestinian towns, could not be this difficult. I was one of four people crammed into the bench seat of a “shared cab.” It was hot, and the open window seemed to be inviting more dust than cool air into the vehicle.

To my left sat two young Palestinian women, wearing head scarves and Western clothes, and to my right sat a young Palestinian man in stylish jeans and a T-shirt. The young women had gestured for me to sit between them and the young man, presumably concluding that I would be more comfortable sitting in such close contact with him than they would. I had the impression it was unusual to encounter a Western woman such as myself in one of these vehicles and I imagined they were wondering what I was doing there. At that moment, I was wondering the same thing.

The wall erected by Israel and now covered in graffiti in many places.
The wall erected by Israel and now covered in graffiti in many places.

On this particular day, my third to the last in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), I was taking public transportation on my own for the first time. Having spent the previous 10 days touring the region with a group of nine other American academics, I was accustomed to letting someone else take charge of making sure our comfortable minibus arrived safely at each destination. Not that traveling that way was always easy, but it felt luxurious compared to this.

I was participating in the first Faculty Development Seminar on Palestine, sponsored by the Palestinian American Research Center and funded by the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau of the U.S. Department of State. The seminar was intended to increase our understanding of the region and facilitate connections between American and Palestinian academics. We were based in Jerusalem, but traveled to a different West Bank town each day, visiting universities, touring cultural sites and meeting with fellow academics.

-Some months earlier, when a colleague forwarded the call for applications for this seminar, I immediately knew I had to apply. As a political and social psychologist, I had read a great deal about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Much scholarly work on the topic of international conflict cites it as an example—it is the ultimate intractable conflict. But while many American academics have connections with Israeli scholars, there are few with Palestinian scholars. Fewer Americans still have visited the oPt in person to gain firsthand experience with what life is like for Palestinians living under occupation. This aspect of the conflict, the psychological experience of Palestinian day-to-day life, is a relatively neglected piece, one that seems crucial to understand. To many in the West, the Palestinians are associated with terrorism, religious fanaticism and hatred of Israel. But as a psychologist, I found that characterization too simplistic, and I was anxious to gain a more sophisticated understanding of Palestinian life and culture.

It is intimidating to write about Palestine. Seemingly simple decisions such as what to call the land or which map one uses to represent it quickly become complex and politicized. Unfortunately, the emotionally charged nature of the conflict sometimes gets in the way of having a rational discussion. My goal here is not to describe the history of the conflict, nor is it to make a judgment about how to resolve it. There are many books and articles that do those things. What I instead hope to do is simply to report what I observed on this extraordinary trip. While I am well aware that a visit to Israel would reveal a different picture of the effects of the conflict, the goal of this seminar was to learn about life on the other side of the wall, a side that most Americans do not see.

On the road to Bethlehem

This photo, taken in th 1930s, shows Gail Sahar'€™s father, with his brother and sister, by his house with the steeple behind them
This photo, taken in th 1930s, shows Gail Sahar’s father, with his brother and sister, by his house with the steeple behind them

Finally, the cab arrived at its destination in downtown Bethlehem. Upon the advice of someone in the station, I hailed another cab in search of my father’s house. This journey was personal as well as professional. Although I was born and raised in the United States, my father was born in Bethlehem in 1920 to a Christian Palestinian family. After beginning his college education there, he headed to Milwaukee, Wis., to continue his studies and take advantage of a job opportunity. I had heard the dramatic story many times in my life of my dad at age 25 hopping onto a military plane headed for the United States, only to have it crash upon takeoff. Remarkably, he survived, and despite the pleas of his relatives to take heed of this ominous sign from God and abort the trip, he got onto the next flight and made the long journey. The rest of the tale is like many American success stories. He moved up the ladder professionally, married an American woman, had six children, and ended up as owner of a hotel in the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. But of course, the story is complicated by his and our identity as Palestinian-Americans. He came from a country that doesn’t really exist as an independent state, and though he arrived in the United States by choice, nearly all of his relatives fled or were expelled from the region at various points. Like most Christian and many Muslim Palestinians, they are part of the Diaspora.

The same steeple as photographed during Sahar’s visit in 2010
The same steeple as photographed during Sahar’s visit in 2010

For me, going to see my father’s family home was a dream come true. All of my life, I had wanted to go to see the place I had heard so much about and to which I felt a strange attachment. I had seen a picture of the house and many more of the large Salesian church that was right next door. I was surprised to discover that despite my clear images of the place, it was not easy to find.

The second cab dropped me off in the center of Bethlehem’s bustling shopping area. After a number of failed attempts at communication, I was directed to a pharmacist who spoke excellent English and knew the area very well. He pointed me in the right direction, and I managed to find  first the church, with its tall steeple, and then the house. I had a feeling of déjà vu, no doubt from having viewed so many pictures of my dad as a boy and then a young man posing in front of these buildings.

Considering its age and what has happened around it, the house was in remarkably good shape, though sadly cluttered with litter like all of the West Bank. The plaque in Arabic on the side was still clear, and I could see the enclosed courtyard where horses and carriages had once pulled up. I refrained from knocking on the door and asking to see the inside. It was getting dark, and I still had to find my way, alone, back to Jerusalem, a short trip by American standards, but one that required passing through Israeli checkpoints. That fact made the duration of the journey completely unpredictable.

Though this day was exceptional because of the personal aspect of it, most of my days in Palestine were similarly poignant. It is a region filled with hope and despair. Everywhere we went, we encountered resilient, inspiring people, but we were also constantly aware of the impact of the occupation on even the most successful of those individuals. Most of the academics I met seemed like my colleagues here.  We shared the typical complaints of college faculty: too many courses to teach, difficulties in getting students to think critically, not enough time for research, struggles to have a balanced life. But despite those similarities, there were stark differences, problems that no American professor would encounter.

The campus of Bethlehem University
The campus of Bethlehem University

One of our first stops was at Bethlehem University, an idyllic campus run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, where we were given a brief tour by the vice president of academic affairs, an American. We learned that the college had been closed 12 times by the Israeli military, once for a period of three years. He pointed out a large hole made by an Israeli missile fired into one of the main buildings. It was covered in Plexiglas to preserve the memory of the siege on Bethlehem in 2002.

We were told of a student from Gaza, Berlanty Azzam, who was blindfolded, handcuffed, and taken into custody by the Israeli military at a checkpoint in October 2009 and prevented from finishing her final two months of study, despite no record of security violations or other charges (a case that received some international media attention). Ultimately, she was able to finish her studies long distance, and even recently had a “graduation ceremony” in a church in Gaza at which administrators from the university presented her with a degree.

Faculty and administrators at many of the universities we visited lamented the fact that students from Gaza can no longer study at West Bank institutions, which would require permission from Israel. In fact, travel restrictions have turned these institutions into regional colleges, attended almost entirely by local students.

Although there are 12 universities in the West Bank and Gaza, none of them grant Ph.D. degrees.  Palestinians wishing to pursue post-graduate degrees typically travel to Europe, the United States, or elsewhere in the Middle East to do so. This fact causes a number of difficulties. Though many return to Palestine after completion of their studies, a number do not. Academic jobs in the oPt are not exactly ideal, what with heavy teaching loads, little support for research, and low pay.

So, Palestinian universities rely heavily on visiting faculty from other countries. However, that path, too, is difficult to navigate. Visitors can generally only get 90-day visas, a period slightly shorter than the typical teaching semester. At Birzeit University, much of my conversation with faculty about the possibility of my teaching there for a semester was dominated by the question of how to extend my visit long enough to allow me to finish the term.

I was astounded by the amount of energy that must be directed at solving even the more minor problems posed by the conflict. For example, the existence of the separation wall erected by Israel and the now hundreds of checkpoints Palestinians must go through to travel from one place to another means that one can never know how long even a short journey will take, or even if it will be possible at all. People spoke of appointment times as tentative for that reason. (Israel maintains that the wall was built for security purposes, though many Palestinians argue that it was intended to annex more of their land.)

Even we Americans experienced unpredictable delays. Though our American passports typically allowed us to be waved through relatively quickly, there was one evening in which we were turned away at two checkpoints before finally being allowed to pass through a third. There is no explanation given for not being allowed to pass; there is just an order to turn the bus around. At many checkpoints, a young Israeli soldier, machine gun in hand, would board the bus and walk up and down the aisle. On this particular night, we were ordered to disembark and walk through on foot. There was a long line of Palestinians in a maze of metal turnstiles being ordered by guards. Besides the checkpoints, Palestinian roads are mostly in terrible disrepair, and we learned that Palestinians cannot use the freshly paved settler roads. When we finally arrived at the Jerusalem restaurant for dinner, the Palestinian colleagues we were scheduled to meet were unsurprised by our lateness.

Hope and despair

In spite of the difficulties of life in the oPt, we saw many signs of hope. For example, one of our stops on our visit to Ramallah was to a music school called Al Kamandjati, which means “the violinist” in Arabic. The school was founded by a young man named Ramzi Aburedwan, who grew up in a refugee camp near the city.  On the wall, we saw a poster with a picture of him as a young stone thrower in the camp superimposed onto a more recent picture of him playing the violin. Aburedwan was only 9 years old when he began throwing stones at the Israeli military after seeing a schoolmate shot and killed. He seemed headed down a path of violence and imprisonment when, at the age of 17, he was discovered by a music teacher who saw that he had a gift for playing classical music.

The tile work at Cinema Jenin
The tile work at Cinema Jenin

Remarkably, he eventually received a scholarship to study music in France at the National Conservatory in Angers. Upon completion of his training, he returned to Palestine to start a music school for the children of the refugee camps. The school now enrolls 500 students at various locations. Aburedwan’s goal is to give these children hope and an escape from the harsh realities of their lives. As we sat waiting to speak with him, a boy of 17 came into the room and spontaneously began singing. He was soon joined by another young man, who accompanied him on the drum. We were all transfixed by the impromptu performance, seeing the joy music brought to these individuals.

The school is part of a bigger cultural movement in Palestine that includes The Freedom Theatre, another stop on our tour, which is directed by Juliano Mer Khamis, an Israeli Jewish man. The goal of the project is to expose children of the Jenin refugee camp to theatre and the arts and allow them to safely express themselves. During our visit, we stopped into an ongoing theatre class. One young man in the group, in halting English, told us of the personal transformation that led him to use art rather than arms as a method of resistance. He said, “I am putting down the gun, and I am picking up the guitar.”

Also in Jenin, we visited Cinema Jenin, which was just reopened after being closed in 1987, during the First Intifada. The inspiring story of the renovation began in 2005, when 11-year-old Ahmed Khatib was playing outside with a toy gun and was shot by Israeli soldiers who said they mistook him for a militant. The boy’s father, Ismail Khatib, chose to donate Ahmed’s organs at the Israeli hospital, and they were given to six Israeli recipients. The story of Ahmed and his father so moved German filmmaker Marcus Vetter that he produced a documentary about it called Heart of Jenin. When Vetter learned that there was no local movie theatre in Jenin while on a visit there in 2007, he and Ismail Khatib took on the project of reopening Cinema Jenin. The recently reopened theatre will include a film school, as well as an outdoor café and performance area.

We saw less room for hope in some Palestinian towns, such as the town of Hebron, which we toured with an official observer from Temporary International Presence in Hebron. Hebron, a city with deep roots for Christians, Jews and Muslims,  was once characterized by peaceful coexistence between a Muslim majority and Jewish minority. It is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela in which Abraham, his wife Sarah, son Isaac and grandson Jacob are said to be buried.

Hebron is now a divided city, and the tension between Palestinian residents and Israeli settlers was more palpable than in any other place we visited. Settlements are built directly over Palestinian markets, which are covered with wire fencing to prevent litter from hitting the Palestinians below. A once vibrant Palestinian market is nearly abandoned. Pictures of both Palestinians and Israeli settlers killed in the conflict decorate many of the walls.

It would be easy to think of this conflict as simply about religion. But at nearby Hebron University, we were cautioned from doing so. The chairman of the board of trustees there emphasizes the importance of thinking of the human rights implications of the current situation. The university is focused on making education available to all Palestinians, regardless of their ability to afford it.

A study in contradictions

As I reflect on my experiences on this truly transformative trip, I am struck by the many contradictions of the place. On one memorable night, we were hosted at the beautiful home of two members of the Palestinian intellectual elite. We leaned on lovely Palestinian tapestry pillows, sipping our drinks, and had witty conversation with fellow academics, human rights advocates, and other accomplished professionals. One colleague whispered to me that she felt like she was in a Palestinian Woody Allen movie! The next day, we were touring a refugee camp, where impoverished children played with sticks amid crumbling buildings covered in graffiti. And yet, there was a remarkable consistency in what I observed in everyone I encountered. The Palestinian people, despite the generally negative stereotypes used to portray them in the United States, are like all human beings. I saw people who want an education, food on the table, freedom of movement, a place to call home. I saw people who want Americans to understand what they are experiencing.

Gail Sahar (in green shirt) in Palestine the day the group toured the Old City of Jerusalem with a guide.
Gail Sahar (in green shirt) in Palestine the day the group toured the Old City of Jerusalem with a guide.

As a social and political psychologist, I should not have been surprised to find that what I observed in the oPt did not match up to the image most of us Americans have come to accept. Studies in “social cognition” or how we think about the social world consistently reveal that human beings need to simplify the complex input they must process. We are constantly confronted by so much information that we would be paralyzed if we did not take mental short cuts (termed heuristics) and use simple categories (such as stereotypes) to evaluate people and make quick decisions.

One of the most common of these quick judgments is to assume people do what they do because of who they are—that is, their behavior is caused by something about them, such as their individual traits or character. We blame the individual, not the situation. This tendency toward “dispositional attributions” is so common that it has been named “the fundamental attribution error.”

We may be particularly likely to blame individuals when we do not wish to acknowledge their suffering or when we see them as different from ourselves. Of course, in this case, our judgments about Palestinian individuals are also influenced by the ubiquitous media images of the “Palestinian terrorist,” and we quickly jump to the conclusion that all Palestinians can be represented by this portrayal.

This amazing trip allowed me to directly observe the complexity of the people and the situation. There was no excuse for taking mental short cuts. What I saw was a group of people who are trying to live normal lives and even thrive in incredibly difficult circumstances. They could be you or me.

Professor of Psychology Gail Sahar’s research focuses on attribution theory, ideology and attitudes, and her teaching interests include social and political psychology.