Those are my students . . . in the dedicated American Studies classroom on the first floor of the Faculty of Arts at Al-Quds University. The books you see behind them are part of an American Studies library, built up with donations over the 15+ year life of the program under the leadership of Dr. Mohammed Dajani. There are hundreds of books – many of them classics of American political science and literature, and also many textbooks from a variety of disciplines. (Yes, that’s a shelf-full of “Library of America” volumes at the upper left of the photo.) As far as I can tell, the most recent donations came in around 2009 or 2010, so one of my projects for the coming year is to try to update the collection. Suggestions welcome for sources of high-quality book donations in American politics, literature, and other fields.
Ten days ago, the infamous tape of Donald Trump bragging about groping and grabbing women was breaking news as my American Studies class was meeting. In deference to my students’ sensibilities, I told them that I was not inclined to show the video as part of our class, though they could easily find it on the internet themselves if they were curious later. But the group – to a person – insisted that I cue it up and let it roll. If this was big news in the U.S. and a vital part of the campaign, then they wanted to see it – despite any vulgarities. Of course I also showed Mr. Trump’s midnight apology-of-sorts (in which he claimed that Bill Clinton had done “far worse”), and we had a robust discussion of the place of sexual innuendo, attitudes, and actions in the course of American campaigns.
The students found the tape distasteful, but their outrage in the immediate aftermath was somewhat muted. Part of this, I think, was that it was not actually easy for non-native speakers of English to hear what exactly was being said on the tape – the specific phrases that Americans found so shocking weren’t easy to parse in a single screening. (I declined to show it multiple times!) But for many of these students, the whole sordid mess represents a distraction from the issues that they would rather be talking about. So while some of my students expressed strong criticism of Mr. Trump, many took a “pox on both their houses” attitude. We have been spending a good bit of time on the U.S. Constitution (both its flaws and its glories) in recent weeks – and the contrast between the high-minded debates over the structure of government and what they saw as petty mud-slinging disturbed them greatly.
I did try – with modest success – to persuade them that what is at stake are important matters of government and policy. It’s not difficult, in the end, to draw connections between attitudes towards women among political leaders, on the one hand, and the ways that government does or not advance the rights, dignity, and equality of women through its policies. And distasteful though the process has been, the campaign has served to continue in a certain way a national conversation about sexism and racism and their embeddedness in American society.
One thoughtful student, mulling all of this over, asked me after class whether Trump may have had a point about Bill Clinton. We had previously discussed – in the context of studying the Presidency — that Clinton was impeached by the House but not removed from office in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. If Trump is unfit for office because of his attitudes towards women, the student wondered, shouldn’t the country have judged Clinton unfit for his actions with Monica Lewinsky and the untruths that he told to the American people about those actions? She understood that the situations were not exactly the same . . .but she also felt like there might be a double standard at work. It was not an easy question to answer.
When it came to the second debate, we spent more time on the exchange between the candidates on the issue of Muslims in the U.S. We looked at Trump’s December 2015 call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. “until we find out what the hell is going on,” and his refinement of that ban to “extreme vetting” in the September 2016 debate. Many of my students were surprised to learn that Hillary Clinton’s statement that there have been Muslims in the U.S. “since George Washington’s time” was true. But they were also quite quick to pick up on the fact that Clinton actually echoed one of Trump’s points by saying that the United States needed Muslims to be our “eyes and ears” for potential threats to the country.
We also looked closely at the Republican and Democratic party platform positions on the question of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. To my eyes, there’s quite an enormous difference between them. The Democrats (influenced heavily by Sanders supporters) voiced support for Israel and opposition to BDS, but also explicitly mentioned the two state solution, and legitimate Palestinian aspirations for independence and dignity. The Republican platform calls for “unequivocal support” for Israel, and does not even mention the Palestinian people. My students saw the difference in the rhetoric, but it would be hard to persuade them that the difference in language would make an appreciable difference in policy. In their opinion, “strong support” for Israel, even if qualified with rhetoric about Palestinian rights, is not going to improve the situation; the recent signing of the multi-year military aid deal between the U.S. and Israel was very much on their minds.
In general, the academic year at Al-Quds University has continued to proceed smoothly. Unlike in previous years, no class days have been lost yet this academic year to strikes, disturbances, or incursions. Last year the campus experienced numerous clashes between students and patrolling Israeli police and soldiers. There was one incident approximately one week ago on the outskirts of campus, where an altercation broke out between some young Palestinians and Israeli forces, and tear gas cannisters were lobbed into campus. But this incident took place after 4:00 p.m., when most students and faculty (including me) had left the campus. So the impact was minimal, except, perhaps on those injured (a Palestinian news agency gave that number as 52).
With many Jewish holidays this month and with the busy-ness of the academic year in full swing, I have not had time in the last couple of weeks to travel around. But I will be holding small group meetings with my students in Bethlehem later this week, and heading to the northern part of the West Bank later in the month to visit another Fulbright Scholar, as well as friends and colleagues in that area. So I will gradually be expanding my horizons as the fall progresses.
I have had a chance in recent days to spend some time with some of the alumni of the first year of the Our Generation Speaks (OGS) program, whom I got to know at Brandeis this summer. Yesterday, for example, I visited Abeer Al-Natsheh at the new offices of My Pink Electronics, an IT services company in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina. Abeer has built from scratch a business of women serving women. She employs a cadre of female employees who provide IT services from their homes to female-owned businesses in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Running now at full capacity, Abeer is now exploring options for how to scale up her business – it’s an impressive achievement in a difficult climate.