Middle East lessons Minnesotans can use

The following column originally appeared in a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during March, 2023.

Middle East lessons Minnesotans can use

Many years ago, a friend explained the “Noah principle” that has helped shape my life for more than 40 years. Then RJR Nabisco CEO and later IBM CEO Louis Gerstner recommended: “No more prizes for predicting rain. Prizes only for building arks.” This idea came up constantly on a 10-day tour of Israel, the West Bank and Occupied territories. I witnessed some of the most disturbing and encouraging things I’ve seen in decades. Several ideas emerged that Minnesotans could use.

Before turning to “building arks,” here are two devastating things I saw and heard:

— In the disputed “West Bank” region, Khaled Abuawad, a Palestinian, and Shaul Judelman, an Israeli Jew, described how each had a close family member who had been killed by someone from “the other side.”

Abuawad and Judelman, photo by author


— In the East Jerusalem village of Walajah, I saw ruins of Palestinian family homes that had been bulldozed by Israeli officials and heard from some of these families. One example: A mother brought her children to school one morning. When she returned, her home had been bulldozed. The family insisted they‘d committed no crime.


Two of the bulldozed homes in Walajah (photos by author)

How would any of us feel if a family member was killed because of their religion or nationality, or our  home was destroyed with no advance notice? Wouldn’t we be enraged and devastated? The Middle East has plenty of this. Minnesota also has some of this because of, for example, drug abuse,  gun violence, homelessness and lack of diversity among educators. We’ve spent lots of money with, too often, modest results.

The most astonishing things I saw and heard in the Middle East involve people like Judelman and Abuawad, who’ve moved past intense anger to constructive action. Together, they farm and run summer programs for young people.

The EcoPeace organization is another remarkable Middle Eastern collaboration. It has three co-directors: Nada Majdalani (a Palestinian), Yana Abu Taleb (a Jordanian), and an Israeli, with whom I talked, Gidon Bromberg.

Gidon Bromberg discussing the work of EcoPeace

Bromberg explained, “We’ve highlighted self-interest that leads to mutual gain.” They’re cooperating to increase the supply of fresh water for homes, agriculture, and health and to restore the Jordan River. They’re combining Israeli success in taking the salt out of Mediterranean Sea water with Jordanian solar energy expertise.

This group has  accomplished things many thought impossible. Bromberg explained, “Each side has something to buy and something to sell.” Visit online here.

Huge tensions remain. But EcoPeace’s success led to speaking invitations and support from the United Nations and U.S. Congress.

Other speakers on our tour had somewhat similar stories to tell. A total of 171 organizations, including EcoPeace, conduct Arab-Israeli peace-making efforts as members of the Alliance for Middle East Peace. Huda Abuarquob, an Alliance leader, stressed the importance of “no shaming and no blaming” because “blame and shame don’t get us anywhere.”

Huda Abuarquob & Cantor Rachel Spilker (photo by author)

What does this mean for Minnesota schools?

First, I think we need broader coalitions, including youth and adults from various communities, working on, developing and implementing potential solutions.

This year, Minnesota youngsters proposed research-based solutions to help reduce drug use, depression and juvenile crime, increase the number of high school students earning college credit, construct homes for people experiencing homelessness and diversify Minnesota’s teaching staff. So far, they’ve had mixed success. Some legislators welcomed their ideas. Other legislators have listened mostly to adults seeking greater financial support for the status quo. Many Middle Easterners we met insisted that it’s critical to include youth in creation and implementation of solutions.

Some Minnesotans view power as a pie – more for some means less for others. But Middle Easterners we met believe that collaboration involving people from different backgrounds dramatically increases their positive impact.

Finally, Palestinians and Israelis we talked with stress the importance of listening to and acknowledging the experience of different people.

The Middle East and Minnesota are, in some ways, dramatically different. But Middle Eastern peace activists have some remarkable results. That’s because they’ve focused on needs, strengths and skills of people with whom they sometimes passionately disagree.


Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: joe@centerforschoolchange.org or @JoeNathan9249 on Twitter.