Saliba Sarsar, a Jerusalem-born Christian and professor at Monmouth University, acknowledges that the challenge of establishing peace between Jewish Israelis and the Palestinians is huge.
Nevertheless, “Jews and Arabs are neighbors forever, and the sooner we — and they — realize this, the better for all of us,” he said. He stressed too that large majorities on either side “are for peace.”
Sarsar, raised in the Old City of then Jordan-held Jerusalem, spoke before about 60 people at a lunch-and-learn session at the JCC of Central NJ in Scotch Plains on April 22, in a talk hosted by the JCC’s Cultural Arts and Education Department.
In his talk, Sarsar listed the elements needed for “top down and bottom up” peace-building, including enlightened leadership and “restorative justice.” He pointed out that there are about 300 nongovernmental organizations in Israel and on the West Bank striving for peaceful coexistence in various ways.
“We don’t hear about them,” said Sarsar, professor of political science and associate vice president for Global Initiatives at the university in West Long Branch.
Those efforts include the Givat Haviva Education Foundation, an Israeli nonprofit that strives to build a cohesive society by bringing together disparate groups.
Sarsar’s own commitment to peace stems from his unusual background. “My father was a White Russian prince,” he told the audience. His mother was Greek. The family had fled the Russian Revolution. He grew up caught between the Jewish and Muslim communities, and with memories of fleeing during one of the periodic eruptions of violence.
It was only after the 1967 Six-Day War and the unification of the city, when he was 11, that Sarsar said he began to see that Jews were not the enemy, as he had been led to believe. “They were just like us,” he said.
Sarsar came to the United States after high school, eventually earning a doctorate from Rutgers University. He teaches courses on comparative politics of the Middle East and Islam and Politics at Monmouth University, where he also has been involved with its Jewish Cultural Studies Program. Sarsar is also a published poet, and he punctuated his talk with recitation of two of his poems.
Sarsar came to the JCC through member Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, who learned about him in the course of her own peace-building efforts. She is cochair of the Israeli Arab Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. The JCC is a partner agency of the federation.
Melanie Gorelick, director of the federation’s Community Relations Committee, attended the event, she said, “to show our support.”
Over lunch after Sarsar’s presentation, Gorelick talked with Sarsar about bringing together people from the federation and members of New Jersey’s Palestinian community to get to know more about one another. “I’m not part of any official group,” he responded, “but I know people who would be interested in doing this.”
On display at the JCC was a series of evocative pictures by Israeli Arab and Jewish youth from a Givat Haviva project titled “Through Others’ Eyes,” which uses photography to explore questions of identity and coexistence and bring the youth together.