Hamline News

May 16, 2014

Tearing Down Walls of Misunderstanding

Standing in the burnt orange afternoon sun outside the ancient stone walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, words of advice and caution greeted Hamline Dispute Resolution Institute students on their first full day of the Conflict Resolution from Religious Traditions course during January-term 2014.

Hana Bendcowsky, program director for the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, offered an introduction to a place that is barely larger than New Jersey yet among the most sacred ground to the world’s three major monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

It’s a place where the name of the country can vary depending on whom you ask. It’s also a place where the
phrase “conflict management” is often used in place of “conflict resolution.”

“People can learn about the conflict, but it’s not something you can just solve with one decision or one action,” Bendcowsky said. “I think it puts you in a place of humbleness that you realize it’s more complicated than you imagined.”

The Old City bustled with the convergence of people who wear their faith for all to see.

Jewish men and boys in dark suits, hats, and long curls hurried to synagogue. Differences in hat shape or hairstyle revealed their particular denomination: Orthodox, Hasidic, conservative, or secular.

The call to prayer wailed from speakers overhead as Muslim women and girls rushed toward the gold Dome on the Rock in a flutter of long skirts and hijabs.

In the Christian quarter, rosaries and crucifixes hung alongside tourist trinkets in the shadow of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified and buried.

“I am very committed to providing experiential opportunities for students and professionals to understand the complexities of conflict and conflict resolution,” said Sharon Press, director of Hamline’s Dispute Resolution Institute. “There is no better place than Jerusalem to study and learn this field.”

Press said she had three major goals for the J-term program: to introduce the idea of conflict resolution from religious traditions, to provide students with the unique opportunity to study in Jerusalem, and to deepen their knowledge about Israel, Palestine, and the complexities of the region.

The program was a mixture of class lectures by experts in law, politics, negotiation, religion, and the peace process as well as visits to significant sites. Students got a sense for the holiness of the place through several religious lenses. They also got glimpses of how the conflict has manifested and how it can play out in everyday life.

Unique programs like this have made Hamline’s Dispute Resolution Institute a nationally-recognized leader in the field.

“I have a deep personal commitment to Israel and have always hoped to be involved in helping the region achieve peace,” Press said. “I also take very seriously the honor I have in carrying on this program for its founder, Professor David Cobin. David described this program as his most important legacy and something he was most proud of. He created amazing relationships, which I have been honored to continue.”

Hamline Law Professor Cobin died in May 2011 after 34 years with the university. Before his death, he worked on the transition of leadership with Press and entrusted the Jerusalem program to her.

This year, the program drew one of its largest numbers of students to date. While the program is geared toward Hamline School of Law students, the growing reputation of Hamline’s Dispute Resolution Institute, ranked fourth in the nation, draws students from around the country and across the globe. This year’s class included law students from several U.S. states, an educator and a law student from Australia, a doctoral student from Hamline School of Education, and a diplomat from Brazil.

“As a diplomat, my life is all about negotiation. I have been involved in multilateral negotiations, and the Middle East is an area that I follow with a lot of attention,” Brazilian Carla Chelotti said. “I have been posted to the Middle East twice, once to Turkey and the other time to Egypt. So this is an area that interests me a lot, and I thought it was a great opportunity to get in-depth knowledge of this conflict.”

From a legal standpoint, too, Israel is a world apart from the system most students are accustomed to. With no separation between church and state, religious courts decide important personal matters such as marriage, divorce, and child custody.

For example, under Jewish law, a marriage ceremony that takes place in Israel is only legal if it’s authorized by stringent rules of the Orthodox rabbinate. However, if a couple chooses to go abroad for the ceremony, their marriage will be recognized by the State of Israel.

The Sharia, or Muslim, court takes its direction from the letter of the Quran. Ahmad Natour, a Qadi (judge), took the students through an in-depth reading of the Quran to illustrate how it is applied in legal cases.

Bethlehem provided students some of the starkest examples of tension between religion and nationality.

Entering the city, which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus Christ and Jews call the City of King David, requires passage through an Israeli checkpoint patrolled by armed guards. The checkpoint is one of the few breaks in an imposing concrete wall topped with rolls of barbed wire that separates Israel from Palestinian territory and was built to prevent further terrorist attacks.

Many Israelis call the wall a “security fence,” while Palestinians see it as an “apartheid wall.” Colorful graffiti scrawled along the partition shouted messages of tolerance and resistance.

Among them:
“A country is not only
what it does; it is also
what it tolerates.”
“Love each other.”
“To exist is to resist.”

“I maintain that you can’t understand the conflict here only on the national identity level,” said Rabbi Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. “You’ll miss a big part of it. It would be like trying to understand America and ignoring Christianity.”

The Dispute Resolution students visited Bethlehem on January 6, the day Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas. Hamline students made their way through throngs of people in the streets celebrating with music and parades. A thin man dressed as Santa Claus handed balloons to children near a fir tree decorated with red ornaments in the square. Men in robes parted the crowds as they escorted the Greek Orthodox bishop to the entrance of the Church of the Nativity, the place where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born. There were no fewer than nine services inside the church, each for a separate denomination.

Students saw a far graver side of how the holiest of places can be used as a pawn in political and national conflict when Michael Tsur, an internationally recognized expert and professor of negotiation, conflict resolution, crisis management, and mediation, shared his expertise. Tsur played a key role in hostage negotiation during the siege of the Church of the Nativity in 2002, when Palestinian militants took refuge in the church after being pursued by the Israeli Defense Force. In the process, the Palestinians took more than 200 people, including monks and civilians, hostage.

“When you study law, it’s about the truth, but you learn that the truth is very subjective and it’s never simple,” Tsur said. “I think when you learn about conflict resolution, if this is the field you chose to go into as a lawyer, you need to understand how complicated it is. People have different beliefs, and maybe the deepest one has to be religion. Once you’re exposed to that, I believe it makes you a better lawyer.”

Tsur, who is also a lawyer, led students through an in-class exercise that illustrated how to conduct successful negotiations with someone who has decided to refuse any suggestions or efforts even before talks begin. While there are many layers to this process, Tsur said, one of the most important is to approach the other person with an understanding of his or her humanity. This was a theme echoed by several presenters, regardless of religious or national affiliation, over the course of the program.

As the sun set on top of the Mount of Olives, the Dispute Resolution Institute students took in a more distanced view of the Old City. Laid out before them was the evidence of what separates the people who live there: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified; the Western Wall, a relic from the great temple, where thousands of Jews make pilgrimages; and the gleaming gold Dome of the Temple Rock Mosque, near where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Yet, with all that divides people in the Middle East and all the blood that has been shed over this land, there is still great hope that true and lasting peace will eventually be a reality.

“I don’t think it’s unsolvable; otherwise, I wouldn’t be here,” Hanna Bendcowsky said. “I mean, you have to have hope. . . . We all need to have hope.”

-Gail Nosek