Dr. Sa’ed Atshan offered the closing keynote to 106 Friends at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s 341st Annual Sessions with a talk on managing conflict within the Religious Society of Friends. He spoke of the powerful healing force of a humble, empathetic approach to difficult conversations. In his personal work across the Palestinian-Israeli divide, he has forwarded a shared understanding of the facts, avoidance of social media, and an approach that recognizes the humanity of each person even when disagreeing. Dr. Atshan began the talk by sketching his Quaker schooling at Ramallah Friends School and credited Quakerism with shaping his thinking on constructive conflict.
Dr. Sa’ed Atshan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College and previously served as a visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology and senior research scholar in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California Berkeley. He has a joint Ph.D. in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies and a Master’s in Social Anthropology plus a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard and a Bachelor’s from Swarthmore.
Dr. Atshan’s research focuses on contemporary Palestinian society and politics, Quaker studies, the global LGBTQ movements, and Christian minorities in the Middle East. He has published two books, The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians, co-authored with Katharina Galor and Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique. His third forthcoming book, Paradoxes of Humanitarianism: The Social Life of Aid in the Palestinian Territories, examines the politics of international aid provision in the West Bank and Gaza.
Ramallah Friends School
Dr. Sa’ed talked about his journey of growing up in Palestine and attending Ramallah Friends School in the city of Ramallah on the West Bank. He comes from the Palestinian Christian community, a minority community in Palestine descended from the very earliest Christians.
Friends were oriented to the Ramallah Friends School’s impact on the region and watched a beautifully done video of Ramallah Friends School. He described his years there as formative; the school has built a remarkable community that embodies many of the values that he holds on to today.
Palestinian and Queer: a dialogue from a place of love
Quakers are heterogeneous in the US: we embody a white European Judeo-Christian patriarchy. In the US, the majority of Friends are white. But globally, the majority of Friends are people of color, and often, people here lack awareness of that fact.
Dr. Atshan named the homophobia that exists in Evangelical and other Quaker communities (in the US and globally) and the challenges we face as a community. He reminded us that everyone has the potential to evolve, to grow, to progress.
What we really need is humility, in engaging with one another. When we enter spaces with fellow Quakers with whom we disagree vehemently or passionately on issues that are extremely important it can be tempting to go in with this attitude of ‘I’m here to educate you’.
That continuing revelation and discernment and following the leaving of spirit requires us to engage with humility and to see the light in the other person to recognize their humanity, and to be open to learning and to growing from them. The most productive exchanges are in which we enter these dialogues with not only humility, but a mutual respect, and acknowledging and affirming the dignity of the other individual, even when the discussion can be heated and sensitive, and sometimes even painful. Making it very clear that we are really to hear them out as well to understand their life perspective, how they have come to their point of view, and to be open to say, I may reconsidered some of my positions. At the end of this conversation, there’s much that I could learn from you as well. So it becomes a dialectical exchange, rather than a patronizing, sort of like missionary approach to trying to beat someone over the head with why they’re wrong, and why we’re morally superior.
Quakerism and Constructive Conflict
Dr. Atshan said that we think about consequences that conflict is not to be avoided. When we avoid conflict, that can lead to detrimental impacts. It can lead to violence; it can lead to folks being passive-aggressive. It can lead to folks delaying what should be addressed, what should be urgently addressed. So oftentimes, conflict is not to be avoided. But the question is how it is that we wage conflict.
How is it that we can wage conflict constructively non violently, with a commitment to peace with the commitment to justice?
Sa’ed was involved in a well-documented canceling of a talk at Friends Central School in 2017. He noted that Media was not helpful to that conflict. Whereas, person-to-person outreach early in the conflict might have achieved a different outcome.
Sa’ed discussed how it is possible to be committed to resisting anti-Seimitism as well as be a part of the Palestinian solidarity movement. He said that many Jewish people of conscience are anti-Zionist, supportive of Palestinian rights, and part of the Palestinian movement. He revealed that many members of the Jewish community showed their support. The organization Seeds of Peace has a program that focuses on bringing together Palestinians, Israelis, and Egyptians.