In search of peace with Paul Scham

Photo courtesy of Paul Scham

When asked about aspects of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that people may not talk about enough or understand, Paul Scham, an associate research professor of Israel studies at the University of Maryland, focused on an unwillingness to consider opposing viewpoints.

“I think people … everyone who cares about the conflict have long been in their own bubble and shut out views that don’t agree with theirs,” said Scham in an email. “They treat everything as a weapon and refuse to believe what doesn’t fit their preconceived notions.”

“Israelis have no idea of what Palestinians have to put up with on a regular basis: checkpoints, home demolitions, raids, etc.,” Scham continued. “And most pro-Palestinians refuse to believe that Israelis were or are genuinely scared of being defeated and massacred.”

Scham, 72, also serves as the executive director of the University of Maryland’s Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, and has been an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. since 2003. Scham is a resident of Washington, D.C.’s Cleveland Park neighborhood and a member of Fabrangen Havurah, he said. He is married to his wife, Sandra, an archaeologist, and has one daughter, Anat.

Born in Washington, D.C., Scham’s family moved to New York when he was 18 months old. While his family was fairly secular, he attended an Orthodox Hebrew school, which he recalled had a great effect on him when it came to learning Jewish history and customs and feeling comfortable in a synagogue. Additionally, his mother was very “Israel oriented,” he said, which appeared to manifest in his later career track.

Scham received a bachelor’s degree in European history from Columbia University, and later a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Scham practiced commercial litigation law in San Francisco for several years, saying he found it quite boring. Around this time, he recalled being really bitten by “the Jewish bug and the Israel bug,” becoming more observant and spending a summer in Israel, where he took courses in Hebrew while becoming fascinated both by the nation itself and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Scham ended up living in Israel from 1983 to 1985 while working for the Ministry of Justice as a lawyer, he said. After returning to the States he became involved in the Israeli peace movement, becoming the first Washington representative of Peace Now in 1989, making speeches, writing articles and lobbying Congress to support the peace movement.

In 1996, Scham and his wife moved to Jordan, where she did research for her Ph.D., he said. In the meanwhile, Scham spent four months interviewing Jordanian academics on behalf of The Harry S. Truman Research Institute of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, looking for Jordanian professors interested in the cause of peace and willing to cooperate with Israelis on research projects. Afterwards, the institute hired him to coordinate research projects on the peace process that were done in cooperation with Jordanian and Palestinian researchers, and he moved to Israel once again.

Scham recalled one instance during the Second Intifada when a bomb went off at a campus cafeteria he normally ate lunch at, killing seven students. He was fortunate not to arrive on time that day, he said.

Around this time, Scham’s wife had been preparing to teach at Hebrew University’s overseas program, but the Second Intifada led to a dearth of foreign students coming to Israel. As such, the couple returned to the U.S. in 2002. He found a research position at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as he “was something of an expert by then,” he said, and was later hired by the University of Maryland.

In addition to Israeli history and politics, one of the focuses of Scham’s research, he said, has been on the different narratives used by Israelis and Palestinians to understand their own history and each other’s, and how those narratives have made peace more elusive.

“Palestinians see themselves as a peace-loving people who were invaded by European Jews who they feel took their land, and eventually drove them out,” Scham said. “Israelis see themselves as returning to the land of their ancestors, and wanting to live in peace, and being attacked by the Palestinians.”

“Both people have this immense sense of having been misunderstood and wronged and attacked by the other side,” Scham added.

Asked about substantive accomplishments he’s had over his career, Scham noted how he has helped his students to see each other’s point of view.

“I’ve taught many Jewish, and not as many Arab students, but I have been very gratified by the number of students who grew up with one narrative or the other,” said Scham. “In other words, both Arab students and Jewish students who said they really had no idea of the narrative or the thinking of the other side until they took my class.”

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