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This Palestinian American professor leans on his Quaker faith during conflict

Sa'ed Atshan says his commitment to pacifism and Quakerism is a spiritual anchoring in his life.
Swarthmore College
Sa'ed Atshan says his commitment to pacifism and Quakerism is a spiritual anchoring in his life.

This project was intentionally designed to exist outside of the news cycle.

I wanted to talk with people about what beliefs have shaped them and what questions have informed how they look at the world, and they didn't have to be wrapped up in a news event to justify that kind of conversation. But in a series about meaning and purpose and our collective humanity, it's really hard to ignore the war happening between Israel and Hamas.

Soon after Israel started airstrikes in Gaza in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, we talked to a professor of Jewish studies at UCLA named David Meyer. It was a moving and nuanced conversation. Today we bring you an equally thoughtful voice.

Sa'ed Atshan is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College. He is also a Palestinian American with family still in the West Bank. He grew up going to a Quaker school in Ramallah and through that experience became a Quaker himself. And he is personally tethered to the news in a way I didn't expect.

Last weekend, three young men of Palestinian descent were shot in Vermont. I brought this up with Sa'ed because those students went to the same Quaker school in the West Bank. I wanted to just get his reaction to that sad coincidence but it turned out that Sa'ed knows two of the students well.

And that turned into a conversation about how to hold on to the pacifism and silent meditation espoused by Quakers when the world around you feels like it's on fire.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: We are now eight weeks into this war between Israel and Hamas. I know that you have family there. How are you doing?

Sa'ed Atshan: Thank you for asking. It's been a really, really, really difficult past couple of weeks. It's been quite brutal actually, and it's been hard on so many people, especially people who have to bear the brunt of the violence most directly on the ground.

But I think for many of us in the diaspora, it's been very challenging as well. And I'm coping, I'm surviving, somehow, I'm keeping it together, even though there are many people I care about who are really unraveling and falling apart for understandable reasons.

I think in my case what helps is that I lead a life of meaning and purpose, and that keeps me going, because what I get to do for a living is help raise awareness and raise consciousness about the region that I care so much about. Also this semester, I'm teaching a course called Contemporary Israel/Palestine.

There was no way I could have anticipated as I was designing the syllabus and finalizing the course this summer, what kind of fall was waiting for us.

Martin: In the earlier days of the war, what kind of questions were you getting from your students? What kind of concerns, what kind of emotion were they bringing to your classroom?

Atshan: Well, I have a diverse group of students. I have several Palestinian students. I have students who have family members in Israel. I have Jewish students, Palestinian Christian students, Muslim students. So I had to help find a common language and a common frame of reference so that they could hear each other with empathy and with respect.

Martin: Did that work?

Atshan: I can't go into too many details just to respect the confidentiality and privacy of my students. I definitely want to acknowledge that there have been some challenging moments, but overall, I will say that we've gotten through them and that the students overwhelmingly did bring a generosity of spirit. Again, it hasn't been easy, but it's possible, and I do believe we've gotten there.

Martin: I wanted to ask you, you've written in particular about Christians in Gaza. And Christians who have died in this war, some of whom are members of your own extended family. Why was it so important for you to draw attention to that minority group in Gaza?

Atshan: It's very, very difficult to actually hear Palestinian voices directly. And it's difficult to hear a diversity of Palestinian voices. That's essential too. I can't speak for all Palestinians, and no Palestinian could speak for all of us, just like no one could speak for all members of their respective community.

For me, the beauty of Palestinian society is our diversity, our heterogeneity, and our complexity. We're Christian, and Muslim, and secular, and atheist, and rich, and poor, and rural, and urban, and refugee, and settled, and feminist, and patriarchal, and queer, and heteronormative. Oftentimes, the Palestinian narrative, the Palestinian story, gets reduced in these unidimensional ways when we talk about Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. And while it's important to discuss those aspects of Palestinian society, we miss the full portrait, the mosaic, and all the different parts of the Palestinian experience.

Martin: Speaking of religious diversity, you went to a Quaker school in Ramallah

Atshan: Yes, yes. Ramallah Friends School, my alma mater, was established in the 1800s. My family have gone there for several generations. It is a Quaker institution that embodies Quaker values including nonviolence, simplicity, seeing the light in every human being.

I feel very, very blessed to have come from a family that was able to provide me with that education and to be able to afford the school. For me, my commitment to pacifism and my commitment to Quakerism as a spiritual anchoring in my life and as a matter of faith and practice really is very, very deep.

I don't want to sound like I'm proselytizing, because in the Quaker tradition we don't proselytize. But it has provided me with the kind of solace that I'm very blessed to have.

Martin: I actually do want to ask you another question or two about that, but I feel it's necessary and important to mention that someone else who went to that school, a young man by the name of Hisham Awartani is one of the young men who was shot in Vermont. He was going to Brown University. How did you absorb that news?

From left: Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot near the University of Vermont in Burlington on Nov. 25 are seen in this undated handout photo.
Awartani family / via REUTERS
/
via REUTERS
From left: Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdel Hamid and Tahseen Ahmed, three college students of Palestinian descent who were shot near the University of Vermont in Burlington on Nov. 25 are seen in this undated handout photo.

Atshan: So for the past 15 years, I've been volunteering with the Ramallah Friends School in the college counseling office, helping mentor the seniors with their applications to the United States. And two of my mentees, two of the students that I work very closely with, are Hisham and are his friend Kinnan Abdalhamid.

And so two of those three students are my mentees, and I work very closely with them. And I'm very proud of them both. And they have a friend, Tahseen Ali Ahmed, who was their classmate at Ramallah Friends School. So the three of them were in Vermont over Thanksgiving, and they were wearing keffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian scarves, and speaking Arabic when they were shot .

Martin: I'm so sorry, I didn't know that you knew them.

Atshan: Thank you. Two of them hopefully will be OK, but Hisham is in the most critical condition because the bullet impacted his spine. He was shot in the back. It's not clear that he will be able to walk. So we're holding him in the light and we're praying for them.

It's incredibly heartbreaking. And it's also difficult to process because if we're not safe in Burlington, Vermont. I don't know where it's safe for a Palestinian.

These families entrusted us with their children. I just saw Kinnan two weeks ago. I did a teach-in at his college and he was sitting front and center. He was engaging and speaking and so passionate and to think that two weeks later he would be shot in this horrific moment, it's horrifying.

My heart goes out to the families because here they are thinking, OK, our children grew up in occupied Palestine. Their families live in occupied Palestine. They're sending their children to study in the United States thinking that this is going to be a safer context and environment for them. And then this happens.

It shatters that kind of conception of safety. And it also now raises questions for the families of the current seniors at Ramallah Friends School, who are now posing the question to me and to others, which is, will my child be safe? Can you guarantee that they will be protected? And I can't provide them with that reassurance.

So I really hope that we can sober up, all of us, academics, journalists, civil society, on a grassroots level, and we can call out this anti Arab racism, and this Islamophobia, and this dehumanization, as well as the anti Semitism that's on the rise. All forms of oppression, all forms of bigotry, all forms of stigmatization, So that we can build a society that's pluralistic, and that's accepting of all of us.

Martin: You stayed a Quaker. From what I know of you and your writings, being a Quaker is part of your identity even today.

Atshan: Correct.

Martin: So how do you look at this awful thing, this awful war, but also this crime, this violent crime against these young Palestinian men, which is being investigated as a hate crime. How do you look at this from a spiritual point of view?

Atshan: For me, it deepens my commitment to Quakerism spiritually and as a practice in terms of pacifism, because it's difficult to be a pacifist in the U.S. where guns are so pervasive and a world where violence is so pervasive. In a world where the military industrial complex is transnational and has its tentacles everywhere we go.

So many people are so quick to turn to violence and to normalize violence. And then to look at you as a pacifist as if there's something wrong with you. That you're naive, or they pathologize pacifists as if there's something fundamentally broken about us. But we are committed to maintaining that witness and insisting that even if it means risking our own lives, even if it means that I myself will lose my life, I am committed to never inflicting harm against another human being, particularly in the form of physical violence.

This is a deep, deep commitment for me. And seeing the violence that's all around us is a reminder to me of why it is that we need pacifists in society who put a mirror to society who say, we want to reflect back to you the harms of violence.

Martin: Where does the silence come in? The silence that is imbued in Quaker practice. Can I just ask what you get from that? How does that come into play in this larger conflict we're talking about, but also for you, for you personally?

Atshan: So Quakers cherish silence. Silence is sacred for us and there's a power and a transcendent nature to silence, especially when we come together in community in silence.

The way Quaker worship works is that every Sunday, Quakers are encouraged to consider going to what's called Meeting for Worship. It's held at what can be called a Quaker church or a Quaker meeting house. And oftentimes the model is that you sit in silence for an hour. So you're sitting often with facing benches, with no icons or symbols or displays all around you.

It's a very simple atmosphere. It's non hierarchical, so there's no priest or pastor. And you're sitting in that deep, deep silence in community with one another. But you can break the silence if you feel moved to speak by spirit, and if you have a message to share. That's not supposed to be pre-planned, so you're not supposed to go in with a script.

And you're not supposed to be in this, what's called the popcorn style of responding to a message that came before you. You have to allow time for silence to process if there was a message preceding your message. And it should be your own unique message.

So at Ramallah Friends School, we had these silent Meetings for Worship. And when I was in high school, the second intifada was raging. And I remember sitting in the chapel, hundreds of people, you know, students, staff, faculty, etc. And outside, all around us, there was this cacophony of sounds. Helicopters, missiles, ambulances, funeral procession, demonstrators. You could hear all of these sounds all around you, but we were silent. And just being in that space was unbelievably healing. And I remember from a young age thinking, I need to hold on to this for the rest of my life.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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