|Sherihan Khalil, left, and Aelia Shusterman
Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Their first conversation was about a song. Aelia Shusterman, an Israeli, and Sherihan Khalil, the daughter of Egyptian immigrants, sat next to each other during a lecture at the United Nations as part of a Fordham-sponsored internship last fall. Shusterman, 24, introduced herself to 21-year-old Khalil, and then to break the ice, sang a song in Arabic she had learned as a child.
Sitting together as friends six months later, Shusterman and Khalil recalled the incident: “When I met Sheri last semester,” Shusterman began, and Khalil interrupted. “Fireworks!” she said.
A week after the U.N. lecture, the two Fordham College at Lincoln Center seniors spent five hours in the cafeteria discussing how to bring together Arab and Jewish students. From that conversation, the Fordham University Reconciliation Project was born. The project aims to avoid political debate and instead foster human connections among Muslims, Jews, Arabs and Israelis at Fordham.
“On a personal level, there isn’t a problem,” Shusterman said. Difficulties emerge, she noted, when discussing history, politics and often-irreconcilable narratives. “But if you accept and respect the other, then trust emerges, and trust can help people make some brave decisions.”
To foster this trust, the Reconciliation Project initiated three dialogue circles, where Arab and Jewish students discussed issues of common interest. “Speaking from the ‘I,’” Shusterman noted, is one of the project’s main principles, as it releases participants from representing an ideology and compels them to speak from personal experiences others can relate to.
Fordham Arab and Jewish students were not hostile to each other before the project, but both women said that, without an outlet for communication, tension and misunderstanding alienated the groups from each other. When Khalil and Shusterman proposed the project to the Jewish Students Organization and the Middle Eastern Students Association, both clubs offered overwhelming support.
“There’s an intellectual depth that they have that gives foundation to their moral purpose,” said John Entelis, Ph.D., professor of political science and director of the Middle East Studies Program. Entelis, the project’s faculty adviser, praised Khalil’s and Shusterman’s cooperation. “Egyptians and Israelis could take diametrically opposed views,” he said, but these two students “share a very progressive, enlightened, humanitarian view of the problem.”
Khalil, a political science major, plans to enter Fordham’s master’s degree program in International Political Economy and Development this fall. Shusterman, a double major in theater and political science, will graduate in December. She plans eventually to move back to Israel, where she hopes to work as a decision-maker in the Israeli government.
Although the two are friends, tensions inevitably arise. Khalil and Shusterman explained that their project aims to bring out the separate, and often conflicting, narratives of Jews and Arabs.
“In order for there to be reconciliation, we’ll have to accept the other person’s story—not pass judgment on it but accept it as the reality that’s happened,” Khalil said. “It’s impossible to talk about peace and reconciliation in the Middle East without knowing the other side.”