Dr. Yehezkel Landau and Imam Yahya Hendi Discuss a "Just Peace in the Middle East'

On Monday, Sept. 16, Dr. Yehezkel Landau and Imam Yayha Hendi were on campus all day, attending lunches with Jewish and Muslim students, respectively, facilitating a workshop on Social Justice and Spirituality, and finally speaking together at a talk called “Creating a Just Peace in the Middle East: Jewish and Muslim Perspectives.” The program was co-sponsored by The Interfaith Center, The Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Partners in Ministry and The Intercultural Center. Dr. Landau, an American-Israeli citizen and interfaith educator, and Imam Hendi, the first full-time Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University and an interfaith advocate, spoke together on how their identities inform their understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

First, Dr. Landau shared about when he moved from Upstate New York to Jerusalem in 1978. He built a life in Israel and began working for various religious peace movements. “I’m a believer in the trickle up process of social change,” said Landau, explaining his belief that people’s minds must be changed before governments can enact change. This philosophy is reflected in his work with the non-profit Open House, which he founded after growing frustrated with his previous work of united observant and nonobservant Jews around the world. Open House was founded when Landau discovered that his family home was a home that Palestinians were forcibly expelled from in 1948. He got in touch with the family that was expelled from their home, and worked together to create the peace center that stands today. This center offers joint social services for Israelis and Palestinians in the Ramle-Lod area, such as tutoring and preschool education, as well as a space for Israelis and Palestinians to meet and build friendships.  Open House represented a grassroots attempt at peace, a place Landau hoped Israelis and Palestinians could coexist under the values of Acknowledgement, Apology, and Amends. “My approach to justice and peacebuilding is to try to find spiritual remedies for political pathologies,” said Landau.  

Hendi’s speech came next, prefaced by a discussion of his own Palestinian roots that make this “not an issue of theory,” but part of his own lived experience. “We belonged to the land. We were in the land… overnight we became refugees” said Hendi. He talked emotionally about how being a lifelong refugee has affected him and his family. He was unable to go into the West Bank to see the wedding of his nephew, and also unable to see the body of his mother after she passed away. He shared how his father, suffering from cancer at the end of his life, was denied entrance into Jerusalem by Israeli soldiers to receive a necessary chemotherapy treatment and ended up dying within the next few days. After recounting his personal story, his discussion then turned to peace-building. “For there to be peace, there has to be justice. If we are created in the image of God, then we are created to translate that justice,” said Hendi. He believed that justice must occur within Israel/Palestine, but acknowledged that work must be done here in the US as well. He believes that there must be peace in the White House and in Congress before there is peace in the Middle East, hinting at the role the US has played in creating and sustaining conflict in the region. His discussion closed with an argument, or rather a call for, an integrated one-state solution. Hendi diverged from Landau in this respect, who maintained his belief of separate Israeli and Palestinian states.  “If God is one for both [Jews, Muslims, and Christians], can our family be one?” asked Hendi, “God is not a state-agent...If you say God gave you that land, who had the right to interpret God?” 

In the next segment of the event, each speaker fielded questions collected from the audience.  They discussed a range of topics, including the Boycott, Divestement and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, US Military funding, Palestinian Right of Return, and whether the conflict was solely a political land dispute.  While the two didn’t explicitly argue with each other, their points of disagreements became more pronounced in this segment. On the issue of BDS, a nonviolent, Palestinian-led movement promoting various forms of boycott against the Israeli state until it complies with international law, Landau believes it is an ineffective symbolic gesture that won’t benefit Palestinians economically and gives political ammunition to the Israeli right-wing. He further stated that he believed there were “other ways to nonviolently support those who are building bridges between Israel and Palestine.”  On the other hand, Hendi believes BDS is an important nonviolent tool for putting international pressure on the Israeli government to change policy regarding Palestine. On the issue of a two-state solution, Landau explained his viewpoint further, advocating for the continuation of a Jewish state in Israel and the creation of a “two-state federation” of Palestine, with the two states presumably being the Occupied Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Hendi echoed the sentiment that he “support[s] two state solution politically, if it ends violence” yet “spiritually believe[s] in one state with three peoples [Jews, Muslims, and Christians].”  Landau responded to this spiritual support of a one-state solution by claiming there is “ too much sacrificed in a one-state solution” and that Israelis and Palestinians would each be “giving up too much spiritual power over the state.”  The allotted time expired before the two could explore their disagreements further, yet it was clear that their opinions diverged on a few major issues central to peace-building. 

Rozella Apel ‘22 had attended the event following an invitation from Jewish Student Advisor Rabbi Michael Ramberg. Apel is currently enrolled in Professor Sa’ed Atshan’s “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” class and wanted to hear new perspectives on the conflict. She expressed reservations with the event, noting how she wished there was more time for Q&A so the speakers could explore their differences further. During the Q&A she had asked the question:  “Do you both feel like you fully trust each other? Or is there still interpersonal work to be done?” but never got an answer due to the time constraints. “I felt like there were some comments that I interpreted to be passive aggressive,” she said. “That set up a bit of a red flag for me.” She questioned why these two academics were chosen, but ultimately thought the event was valuable. “I don’t know if it changed the way I see the conflict, but it did give me a fuller understanding of what people are doing on the ground.”

A joint interview with the three members of the Interfaith center involved in the planning of the event - Ramberg, Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Dr. Joyce Tompkins, and Muslim Student Advisor Umar Abdul Rahman - revealed the Interfaith’s Centers motivations for holding the event and reflections on the event’s success. “We chose these speakers because we know they have some significant differences of opinion on issues that deeply divide people at Swarthmore and in the wider world” said the three. They had positive reactions to the event, and thought it was important that the two shared their personal stories to show why peace-building is so vital. “We are not suggesting, of course, that dialogue in and of itself will resolve the conflict, but it can be indispensable for helping some people to face new perspectives and become open to the possibility of taking effective action.”