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Jewish, Palestinian Columbia professors co-teach class on complexities of Israel-Hamas conflict

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(NEW YORK) — Columbia University professors Ari Goldman and Gregory Khalil, each with their unique perspectives as individuals of Jewish and Palestinian descent, respectively, co-teach the complexities of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

The two professors are embarking on a joint educational mission at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Their course, which focuses on religion, aims to teach students how to approach conflicts through a lens of empathy and understanding.

Goldman said they try to show how it’s possible to disagree with someone and still be friendly with them. They share that someone can have differing opinions and discuss them with others, and you can coexist without insisting that a person agree with you.

This mission takes on a heightened significance in the aftermath of recent student protests, which began April 17 on Columbia’s campus.

Pro-Palestinian protesters have been calling for the Ivy League school to financially pull out from companies and institutions that “profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine,” according to an online statement from the group Columbia University Apartheid Divest.

However, Columbia’s investments are not public information and remain largely unknown.

Following Columbia University President Minouche Shafik’s congressional hearing on April 17 about antisemitism on campus, the encampment drew a larger group of protesters.

In a statement following the protests, Shafik said that the encampment “violates all of the new policies, severely disrupts campus life and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students.”

“Students and outside activists breaking Hamilton Hall doors, mistreating our Public Safety officers and maintenance staff, and damaging property are acts of destruction, not political speech,” said Shafik. “Many students have also felt uncomfortable and unwelcome because of the disruption and antisemitic comments made by some individuals, especially in the protests that have persistently mobilized outside our gates.”

ABC News sat down with Goldman and Khalil to talk about the challenging discussions they want people to have in their households.

ABC NEWS LIVE: The Israel-Hamas conflict is complex, layered with religion, race and land disputes, and dates back generations without a peaceful resolution — which is what makes one particular class at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism so unique.

Two professors, Ari Goldman, who is Jewish, and Greg Khalil, who is Palestinian, co-teach covering religion, part of an educational mission to approach conflicts with empathy and understanding, especially in the wake of protests on Columbia’s campus and beyond in recent months.

Both professors kind enough to join us now. Thank you so much. How do you think that Columbia University in particular handled when you talk about things blowing up? I mean, we saw it really happening there — was kind of like an epicenter for a lot of the tumult in what we were seeing all across the country. How do you feel that it was handled within your own campus?

KHALIL: I personally don’t think it was handled well at all, but I think what many viewers missed is that Columbia’s failures extended well before the encampments and the protests. If we can’t have these conversations on campus, is it no wonder so many of our democratic institutions feel like they’re failing?

ABC NEWS LIVE: Has there been any kind of discussion that you feel like more people need to hear this, where we’re coming to some ideas anyway, of possibilities for resolution?

GOLDMAN: Well, I would get back to what Greg said about the behavior or the success of Columbia University. I think he would probably give it a failing grade. I would give it maybe a C, a C-plus. I don’t think we’ve been as bad as, as some people might think. I think the University has made strides, has done some things good.

I support the student rights to speak out and to protest and even to demonstrate on campus. But I think when things got intimidating, when things got violent and things got — broke the law — they needed to be stopped.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Were there disagreements, those kinds of disagreements that when in discussions that we were seeing play out, in the encampments, were those happening in the classroom? And how do you all go about resolving them on the spot?

GOLDMAN: I feel that our students were well prepared to cover this big story. This story came to our door. That came, a big international story is suddenly at our doorstep. And as journalists, we took advantage of that.

KHALIL: We very much disagree on the approach of the university. I don’t think the violent approach, the university after the encampments or many months before was warranted. But there were a lot of stories that we didn’t see. I remember the third night of Passover, for example, being next to the encampment at Pulitzer Hall, where we teach and heard the Muslim call for for prayer from the camp and went over.

I saw 20 students holding up bedsheets around Muslim students who were praying an hour and a half before the start of Passover, when the Jewish students there — and there was a sizable minority of students there who were Jewish — held a multifaith meal in honor of Passover. So there were a lot of positive stories that were coming out of that that you didn’t see.

ABC NEWS LIVE: I am curious to know how your opposing viewpoints helped to inform how you teach your students.

GOLDMAN: We try to show how you can disagree with someone and yet be friendly with them. You can disagree with someone and discuss your differences, and you could coexist with them without saying, ‘you have to agree with me. And if you don’t agree with me, you’re out of here. You have nothing to contribute to me.’

ABC NEWS LIVE: One thing people have been talking about a lot lately is Zionism. And I’m curious if you all have the same definition of Zionism.

GOLDMAN: Well, I am a proud Zionist. I declare myself to be such. I’m someone who believes in the promise of, of a Jewish homeland and of the necessity of a Jewish homeland. There is no other country where Jews can go, and feel like like this is their country. There are Muslim countries; there are Christian countries. There’s no other Jewish country. And I believe that it’s essential.

I don’t agree with everything that Israel does, and Zionism doesn’t require me to agree with everything Israel does.

ABC NEWS LIVE: If you think there could be a Palestinian state in there.

GOLDMAN: Absolutely. I think there should be.

KHALIL: And I actually have a very different view of Zionism. I fundamentally believe that there is no good future for any Israeli or Palestinian without a good reality for every Palestinian and Israeli, that security, dignity, safety, freedom, equality, justice for everyone. And I think that Zionism, the motivations behind Zionism are things that completely support and understand the Jewish quest for self-determination, for liberation, which I actually believe is intertwined with Palestinian liberation.

So Zionism in its reality is resulting in sort of this indefinite control over millions of people’s lives. And that’s something that I think is wrong. And we need to find a way out that centers fundamental human rights for everyone.

ABC NEWS LIVE: What’s the way forward?

GOLDMAN: Greg used the word indefinite. It’s not indefinite. It’s gone on too long. And I think there should be a Palestinian state. And I think the proposal that President Biden has on the table is one that I support and I think has the possibility to eventually lead to a Palestinian state and normalize relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors.

KHALIL: And I think it’s actually a little bit more complex than that. I think, you know, when you say it’s gone on too long, it’s all the generations of my family, for generations who’ve never known one second of freedom, who’ve lived lives under absolute military control by another state based on who they are. That’s wrong.

We don’t have more time to wait. And, unfortunately, today the path forward is not clear. Gaza is going to take 80 years to rebuild. It’s like the building next door is on fire, their children dying. But the next critical step is to put the fire out, save as many children as possible, release the captives, and we have to do whatever we can before this problem in Gaza, which many around the world are causing, calling an act of genocide, explodes regionally and even globally.

ABC NEWS LIVE: He said that it’s wrong that his family for generations has had to live as he described and kind of not knowing freedom. Would you agree that that’s wrong?

GOLDMAN: I agree, and I want the situation to be better. I want it to change. Our job is not to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict, and we’re not going to. Whatever ideas we have, our job is to teach journalists how to write about this subject in a way that recognizes the other side, that hears his argument and hears my argument, or hears not my argument than the Israeli argument.

ABC NEWS LIVE: We could all benefit from that class.

KHALIL: And on that we are absolutely committed. We may be ideologically opposed in one sense, but we’re good friends. I love Ari like family. That’s not just a saying. And we believe that we as a society need to hold space and build space for people as different as us to enable others to have these conversations, too.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Gentlemen, we hope that we will be able to get the conversation started in households and beyond, all around the world. We thank you so much for this kind of safe space to have this kind of discussion. People need to talk about it more. Professors Ari Goldman and Greg Khalil, we thank you.

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