Two scholars on bridging difference to speak about the Middle East

In a conversation hosted by Perry World House, Omar Dajani, a Palestinian-American professor of law, and Mira Sucharov, a Canadian-Jewish professor of political science, shared their experience working together and discussed how despite their different views, they find ways to communicate and look for what they have in common.

Three people sit on a stage in front of a screen reading Perry World House, University of Pennsylvania.
(Left to right) Scholars Omar Dajani and Mira Sucharov shared how they find ways to communicate across differences in a conversation at Perry World House moderated by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. (Image: Courtesy of Perry World House)

Perry World House hosted scholars Omar Dajani, a Palestinian-American professor of law at McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, and Mira Sucharov, a Canadian-Jewish professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, on “Israel and Hamas at War: How to Discuss the Difficult History of the Middle East,” on Jan. 29.

In the conversation moderated by Perry World House Professor of Practice of Law and Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Dajani and Sucharov shared their approach to building a professional partnership and to being open to dialogue and productive discussions despite the differences that divide them on the most difficult dimensions of the situation in the Middle East. They explained how they show their students and broader communities that different experiences and different perspectives do not have to divide people, even when the subject is a complex region with a painful history. 

Al Hussein started the talk by asking Dajani what he had learned from Sucharov that would be helpful for other Arabs to better understand.

Dajani said he quickly learned that he and Sucharov share the same values. From there they have been able to work through the difficult politics that they have grappled with, he said, not from a set of the same reactions to everything but instead in light of that difference.

“One of the things that I have been learning over these couple of years is just how textured Mira’s emotional attachment is to Israel,” he said. “For many Jews, there is a sense of anxiety, a desire for refuge, a desire for the security that there is a safe place and I think that many Palestinians and Arabs have a hard time understanding this,” he said. Because of the disparate power structures, it can be hard for Arabs to appreciate that that sense of fear and insecurity is deep and real, and has to be engaged sincerely, he said.

“As we try to chart a course forward, what we’ve got to come to terms with is the fact of profoundly deep and textured attachment on both sides, which shouldn’t wipe away the asymmetries that we will talk about, but which should inform our idea of how to construct a better society,” Dajani said.

Al Hussein then asked Sucharov to answer the same question: What has she learned that other Israelis might be missing about the Arab perception?

“From Omar I’ve been able to appreciate what Palestinians see in everyday news images that I might not otherwise have appreciated to the same degree,” she said, noting that the internal displacement has been 2 million out of 2.3 million Gazans—meaning nearly all Palestinians in Gaza have been forced from their homes. “When Palestinians view those images of other Palestinians walking southward along the ‘road of death,’ carrying all their worldly belongings, especially things like blankets and pillows, Palestinians see echoes of the Nakba,” she said, using the word that refers to the mass displacement of Palestinians in 1948. 

Sucharov said, “The average Jew, even someone like me who has devoted her professional life to studying it, isn’t necessarily tuned in to that because it isn't part of my internalized collective memory. And those have been very important associations to keep top of mind and that and that now come quite naturally to me through our connection.”

As for when they have had serious disagreements, particularly in the wake of Oct. 7, Sucharov says they try to find where they both agree in general, “and that will create less panic over the areas where we disagree.”

They went on to describe a movement they both are involved in called A Land For All, which envisions two states and one homeland as a path to peace. It acknowledges that both Israelis and Palestinians have a strong religious connection to the land as a whole and should have access to the land. They propose each state would be sovereign and independent but would be linked by an open border.

“What’s exceptional about the organization is that it is thoroughly co-created and is Jewish and Palestinian, at all levels,” Dajani said. They had been organizing for more than a decade and the group’s first board meeting was scheduled for Oct. 10, 2023. “You can imagine how polarizing that that gathering could have been, but instead what we found was that folks in that room were able to communicate sympathy and solidarity with each other to redouble their efforts, to commit with alacrity to trying even harder to do the work,” he said. He attributes that to the amount of time spent together through the years and the group’s shared values. 

They both acknowledge that there are many people whose hearts have become hardened on both sides for a range of different reasons: violence, occupation, and structural dynamics. 

Dajani then quoted former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who when referring to a wall that Israel erected in the West Bank remarked that in English, there’s a saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder, whereas in Arabic, the saying is the opposite: far from the eye, far from the heart. 

“The point he was making is crucial, which is the regime of separation, of ethnic segregation, which has been the default for the last 20 years makes it harder rather than easier to mend fences, especially in a space as small as that where we can’t really avoid living in proximity,” he said. “And so I think part of the solution is precisely what we’ve done: More contact, more opportunities for people to interact and share. I think that builds empathy.”

A video of the discussion can be viewed on Perry World House's YouTube channel.