For the past three years, Mark Gluck, professor of neuroscience at Rutgers University-Newark, often spent nearly half of his weeks working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Tuesdays and Thursdays were devoted to developing military robots — the "R2-D2s for the future" — and, in the past, he also worked for the Office of Naval Research "to help the Navy do sonar classification."
But Mondays and Wednesdays were often another story.
On those days, Gluck was frequently at work preparing and organizing a recent conference — the second U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian Brain Research Conference — at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Guest House and Al-Quds University.
The topic? Early detection of Alzheimer's disease.
"Tuesdays and Thursdays I worked on war, and Mondays and Wednesdays I worked on peace," said Gluck, who is also the co-director of the Rutgers Memory Disorders Project.
"So my life had a certain balanced karma."
While not the likeliest of peacemakers, Gluck and his efforts, and those of his colleagues at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Al-Quds and Rutgers University, helped to bring together neurologists and neuroscientists from all over, including New York, California, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Budapest and Zurich.
About 50 to 70 participants, most of them Israelis and Palestinians, Gluck said, were in attendance.
"One of our goals is, of course, to promote advances in both understanding and treating these disorders that develop all over the world," he said. "But to also create more avenues … between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as with the Egyptians and Turkey, so that there's more regional cooperation, and sharing of resources and training."
The meeting, which took place earlier this year, came three years after the first conference — an event which "grew somewhat accidentally," he says of the gathering he co-organized. The focus was on Parkinson's disease and was "motivated largely as a response to the anti-Israeli boycotts that were going on.
"I found the boycotts particularly offensive, because it was my tribe twice over — both fellow Jews, as well as fellow scientists in Israel," he said. "And I wanted to help the scientists in Israel by doing the opposite of the boycott by strengthening international links" there.
But the focus of the conference has now changed. "At this point, it's less about the boycott itself and more about being an opportunity to build Arab-Israeli cooperative programs and for Rutgers to play a central role," said Gluck.
Three on a Match
So was it symbolic to bring together people to discuss memory issues in a region marked by many bad memories?
Not really, said Gluck. There wasn't any hidden meaning in the emphasis on Alzheimer's. "The only reason the focus is on memory is because that's what I do. There's nothing special or symbolic," he said. "Each of us tries to make an impact in our own neighborhood. And memory and brain research is my scientific, intellectual neighborhood."
And regardless of conference topics and the subject matter of future research, the goals are the same. One such goal involves "creating avenues of cooperation and collaboration, and exchange of both students and faculty and doctors between the tri-state area — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York — and Israel and the West Bank."
One possible benefit from such work includes "training the next generation" of doctors, said Gluck.
"By having them work more closely with the Israelis and having them come to the U.S., as we hope they will, and work with us and our colleagues here, we're providing opportunities for training for them that aren't available in the West Bank at the moment," the doctor said.
"So our hope is that the next generation of doctors there become not only much better able to serve their local populace, but also able to do so by working closely with Israeli and American colleagues."
While the recent conference was successful, it wasn't without its challenges.
"Lots of people, especially Israelis, were very skeptical this would be done, the Palestinians would come, that it would all work out," recalled Gluck.
"So there's a lot of interest, but also I think a lot of skepticism, among many Israelis that it would actually happen."
That's where American involvement played a role. "Part of the answer is that, if the program is initiated by the Israelis, the Palestinians might be hesitant," Gluck said. "If it's initiated by the Palestinians, the Israelis might be hesitant. But both are more comfortable if there's a third party that's coming in and kind of pulling it all together."
Also adding to its success could be that "there's nothing political about curing and treating Alzheimer's or Parkinson's."
"These are problems and issues that everyone deals with, and we've done our best in all cases to steal away from political issues," Gluck said. "So we're not trying to resolve the border issues or the terrorists' attacks or Gaza or anything like that."
The conference also depended on the efforts of his colleagues from both Hebrew University and Al-Quds, including Dr. Adel Misk and Dr. Dina M. Bitar, both professors at Al-Quds, as well as Pnina Feldman, the associate director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Hebrew University.
"Just getting everybody to work together and to work out the logistics — because it wasn't just the conference logistics," Gluck said. "There were border logistics and military logistics, and permits for the Israelis."
And while the conferences did come about "somewhat accidentally," Gluck now hopes that the efforts "will inspire other people in other areas."
"Our future is not just so much the conferences, but creating these joint research programs with Israelis and Palestinians," noted Gluck.
"It's exciting to go over there, it's exciting to have many new friends throughout Israel and the West Bank," he said. "It's exciting to do something a lot of people say can't be done and show it could actually be done."