Since the October 7, 2023, attack on Israel by Palestinian militant groups, the ensuing war between Israel and Hamas has dominated headlines and popular discourse. This war, part of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has been ongoing for over seventy-five years and has historical roots dating back millennia, is one which frequently does not receive the nuanced coverage it should. However, thanks to a MacPhaidin Library Digital Innovation Grant, political science professor Anwar Mhajne is offering students an opportunity to delve deeper into the context of the current war with virtual reality.  

The Digital Innovation Lab (DIL) at the MacPhaidin Library augments the traditional learning experience by promoting digital scholarship and the integration of digital projects into course curricula. Recently, the DIL offered Digital Innovation Grants of $1,500 which Stonehill faculty could apply for to expand their students’ academic horizons. Professor Anwar Mhajne, Associate Professor of Political Science, recently was awarded one of these grants to provide students a more interactive opportunity to engage with the current conflict in the Middle East. The MacPhaidin Library’s Digital Scholarship and Research Librarian Garrett McComas, who is in charge of the Digital Innovation Lab and its programs, said that with these grants, “a small amount of money can go a long way and help students in the classroom” by offering students immersive new learning experiences and engaging opportunities to learn in ways they never could before. 

Professor Mhajne brings a unique perspective to the current conflict owing to her upbringing in Umm al-Fahem, an Arab town in Israel located along the West Bank. Mhajne spent her youth in one of Israel’s many Palestinian communities. While news coverage has focused on the states of Israel and Palestine, it frequently overlooks those like Mhajne, who are historically Palestinian but legally Israeli and account for over a fifth of the entire Israeli population. While she now studies the intersection of gender, religion, and politics, she initially studied medical laboratory science at Ben-Gurion University, where her career path was entirely altered by the geopolitics of the region around her. 

Growing up relatively far from both the northern border with Lebanon and the southwestern border with Gaza, she describes her upbringing as relatively detached from the wider conflicts in the region. Attending Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva, the largest city in Israel’s sprawling Negev desert and the largest major city closest to the Gaza Strip, was the first time she heard warning sirens urging people to evacuate to bomb shelters. She recalls her first time experiencing such sirens at university, the ground shaking beneath her and disrupting the relative calm of an otherwise normal day on campus. Attending university in the city from 2008-2009 and 2011 — all years in which Israel and Hamas were at war with each other — Professor Mhajne described how the experience was formative in shaping her perspective of the world and ultimately changed her career. 

Attending university was the first time Mhajne, and many of her fellow students, interacted across ethnoreligious lines as peers, and not as bosses, managers, workers, etc. This, she said, led to many tough, yet interesting, conversations about the nature of the tensions between Israel and Palestine. Such conversations and experiences moved her to change her focus from medical laboratory science during her undergraduate degree to gender studies and political science in her postgraduate degrees. 

After graduating from Ben-Gurion, Mhajne would then move to the United States to pursue her postgraduate and doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati, bringing her uniquely nuanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to American academia. Currently teaching insightful courses on foreign policy, international relations, terrorism, and cybersecurity, Professor Mhajne will give students in her “Terror, State, and Society” class an opportunity to come face-to-face with the events they have been seeing in the news thanks to the grant she received from the MacPhaidin Library’s Digitial Innovation Grants. 

In this class, Professor Mhajne seeks to educate her students on the root causes of terrorism and political violence because, as she says, “sustainable solutions [to political violence] require addressing the root causes of the issue.” By understanding the systemic causes of political violence, her class aims to educate students on how to find solutions to political violence by first addressing the root causes of such violence. Her class also emphasizes the dangers of dehumanization which frequently occur during times of strife and have been especially prevalent in the latest Israel-Hamas war. By utilizing her grant from the Digital Innovation Lab at the MacPhaidin Library, Professor Mhajne was able to bring a layer of humanity to the current conflict which is often left out in popular discourse. 

Utilizing the Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headsets purchased with the grant, Professor Mhajne’s class will view My Mother’s Wing, a short film shot in virtual reality that transports viewers inside the Gaza Strip. Telling the story of a mother who lost two of her children following Israeli shelling during the 2014 Gaza War, the film brings viewers inside Gaza with scenes of daily life in Gaza accompanied by narration from the mother about the impact of her loss. By giving viewers 360° views of what life is like in Gaza, the film provides an immersive and emotional look at Gaza that breathes humanity and life into the current conflict. Placing the audience directly into daily life in Gaza, we get to see the human faces behind the headlines and the deeply personal stories behind the conflict. “Solutions need to look for sustainable peace rather than a system of violence,” Professor Mhajne said, and, in many ways, this VR experience will provide her students with the kind of humanizing look at life in Gaza that will help them work toward finding sustainable peace in this complicated conflict. 

Professor Mhajne’s Digital Innovation Grant is just one of the many projects that have already been funded by this grant, offering students engaging new ways to learn by utilizing new technologies. For more on the MacPhaidin Library’s Digital Innovation Lab, click here. For more on the Digital Innovation Grants, click here

by Tanner Walling '24