Since they first met as WPI Fellows in 1993, a Palestinian and an Israeli have found common ground back home.
by Doug Stone
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — In September 1993, World Press Institute journalists Khaled Abu Aker, a Palestinian, and Yaron Deckel, an Israeli, were in Chicago as part of their four-month program of study and travel. Suddenly, the Israelis and Palestinians announced a breakthrough in peace talks. Abu Aker, a reporter from Arab east Jerusalem, flew to Washington, D.C., to cover the signing of the peace accords at the White House and interview Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat.
"When he came back, he was excited," Deckel recalls. "Then we went out and celebrated the Jewish New Year together."
It was one of the highlights of a remarkable year for the two men, who bridged political, cultural and social barriers to become friends. Both acknowledge that their experiences together in Macalester's WPI program solidified their friendship.
Fast forward six years to June 1999 and a restaurant in Jewish west Jerusalem. Both now 35, the two journalists have not seen each other for more than three years. Abu Aker, a free-lancer who works for the New York Times, French television and other media outlets, has just come from a meeting with Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Deckel, a reporter and commentator on Israeli radio and commentator on television (Channel 1), has just come from newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's marathon late-night negotiating sessions to form a new cabinet.
The conversation is filled with the dizzying possibilities of Middle East peace and politics.
"There will be movement the right way after the election," Deckel says.
"What is the right way?" Abu Aker responds.
"Not the Peres way," says Deckel, referring to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, whom some critics believed was too willing to make concessions for peace.
"Not the Bibi way," responds Abu Aker, referring to the just-defeated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom critics believed halted the peace process.
"In between," says Deckel, finally.
"We will witness some very interesting political developments," Abu Aker says.
And so it goes for 1 1/2 hours. Back and forth, each man passionately countering the other on an issue, gesturing to make a point, but always listening respectfully and often injecting humor.
The pair's political arguments and the passionate gesturing come from a lifetime in the Mideast. The ability to listen even when you disagree comes at least in part from their time at WPI, the two agree.
"Four months of people from different parts of the world and you get to know them," Deckel says. "I felt more open-minded when I came back. There is a form of aggression in Israeli culture from little things to shouts in Parliament to verbal violence. I came back more moderate and I am much better at listening to ideas, to things I don't agree with or understand."
"The program gave me tolerance," Abu Aker adds. "Everybody looked at [the two of] us as an example. People looked at two people who consider each other enemies. Yaron was showing tolerance. We were playing the role of reconciliation, trying to bring people together. Being under [Israeli] occupation, everything is political here. With the WPI, it is different. I began being more open with other cultures, even with 'enemies,' being more open with the political and personal side."
When he first arrived at Macalester, Abu Aker was sensitive to the fact that he would be with someone who worked for Israeli Armed Forces radio. "I looked at Yaron as a soldier," Abu Aker says, though he was not on active duty at the time.
But by the end of their stay, they were speaking together to Jewish and other community groups on campus, at the St. Paul Jewish Community Center and at the University of Minnesota.
"We have wonderful memories of the WPI," Abu Aker says. "Canoeing in the Boundary Waters [of northern Minnesota]."
"Visiting a dozen states," Deckel adds.
"And driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in California," Abu Aker says.
Both describe the warm relationships they developed with their host families, Deckel with then Minneapolis Star Tribune Editor Joel Kramer and his wife, Laurie, and Abu Aker with St. Paul Pioneer Press Editorial Page Editor Ron Clark and his wife, Carole. They also share a high regard for WPI Director John Hodowanic, now retired, who mentored the relationship between the two journalists.
"I started to cry when I left," Abu Aker said.
"He's a very sensitive guy," Deckel says, half-joking. "It was a very emotional time."
They have had successful careers since Macalester and have covered many big stories. As they sit in the Jerusalem restaurant, several Israelis who recognize Deckel from television interrupt the conversation to greet him.
Deckel describes how he conducted the last interview with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, 15 minutes before he was assassinated in 1995. Rabin had hugged Peres, his old political enemy, at a rally, Deckel explains.
"I wanted to ask Rabin and Peres about the hug, but I knew they wouldn't do the interview. So first I asked about the reaction to the peace rally where thousands of Israelis had gathered in Tel Aviv. Then I asked about the hug. Peres asks, 'What are you looking for, romance?' Each talked about how things change. I had to leave before the rally got started. I received a message on my beeper that shots were fired in the square. I ran back. I played the interview on the air that night and the next morning. Two years later, I played it on the anniversary of the assassination."
Abu Aker has covered everything from politics to economics. He reported on Arafat's return from exile to Gaza and the West Bank, and has interviewed him many times since meeting Arafat at the White House in 1993. He has also interviewed former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Clinton via satellite.
He says the big story in the land controlled by Palestinians — which both journalists agree will eventually become a state — is the development of individual freedom. "Not only freedom from occupation but freedom in our own states," Abu Aker says. "Every individual has the right to express himself. We are journalists looking for freedom."
Deckel is sympathetic, pointing out that 50 years ago when Israel became a state, there was less political and press freedom than there is now. "Openness came, censorship weakened, freedom of speech is much more important now," Deckel says.
The two continue their political conversation, without resolution. "The Palestinian people know more about Israeli politics than the Israelis know about Palestinian politics," Abu Aker says, suggesting that it is important "to know your enemies."
"We are not enemies anymore," Deckel points out.
"Yes, counterparts," Abu Aker agrees.
(Reprinted with permission of Macalester Today)
Doug Stone and his wife, Ann Conroy, have served as a WPI host family.