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Beyond the Ivory Tower

Sa’ed Atshan ’06 balances scholarship and peace activism

As a student at Swarthmore Sa’ed Atshan ’06 felt torn between two worlds. Atshan came to campus from the Palestinian territories, where he grew up a “minority within a minority within a minority.” An Arab Quaker, who attended the Ramallah Friends School in the West Bank, he also came out of the closet during his undergraduate years.

His two worlds were reflected in his aid at Swarthmore: the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship for minority students interested in becoming professors; and the Eugene M. Lang Opportunity Scholarship, aimed at students who will influence the world at the grass-roots level. 

“I was always torn between this desire to be a researcher, a scholar, a teacher, but also this calling to become a practitioner, someone who works within communities,” says Atshan, who is now a visiting assistant professor in the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. 

After graduation, Atshan’s search for resolution to that tension between scholarship and activism led him to Harvard. There, he earned a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School and then a Ph.D. in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies. “Teaching courses on some of the most important issues of our time and encouraging students to engage, to put their ideas into practice, has been a beautiful way to connect those two worlds,” he says.

Atshan’s most recent foray beyond the ivory tower is the inaugural Swarthmore College Israel/Palestine Study Trip, but he has long worked to build bridges from academia to the front lines of social justice and peace activism. As a graduate student at Harvard, he organized a similar spring break study trip to Israel/Palestine; the program has endured and is in its eighth year. He has also partnered in projects with Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, among other leading organizations. As a teacher at Harvard, Brown, and Tufts he explored hot-button issues in his courses, which included “Gender, Sexuality, and Human Rights in the Middle East” and “The Arab Spring and Nonviolent Strategic Action.” 

“It is essential to talk about Israel/Palestine, considering that Israel is the world’s largest recipient of U.S. aid,” says Atshan. “I believe it’s my responsibility to help students discover the full range of perspectives on issues that relate to the conflict. My role is to ensure that they are literate and aware of diverse viewpoints, planting the seeds for a lifelong intellectual and ethical pursuit of knowledge.”

One goal of Atshan’s research is to provide a counternarrative to the stereotype that the Middle East is devoid of nonviolent movements or philosophies. Atshan himself embodies that supposed contradiction, but he finds his Palestinian and Quaker identities deeply compatible. 

“Being born into so much violence, and having experienced violence myself, I am deeply committed to pacifism,” he says. “The Quaker world allows me to be part of a community that shares those values; that’s part of a long history of faith-based social justice activism.” 

Undergirding his teaching is a bedrock belief, rooted in his own bridging of worlds and culture, that peace is possible. 

“I dream of a binational secular democratic state in Israel/Palestine that provides equal rights to all citizens and inhabitants of the Holy Land (Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Christians and Muslims) regardless of ethno-religious affiliation,” says Atshan. “I believe that we can and will realize this within our lifetime.”