We are now two weeks into the academic year at Al-Quds University, but things start slowly. By tradition, very little happens during the first week of classes. Students are still in the process of registering and deciding on their academic programs, and faculty members are still getting organized. Few classes meet, and the general atmosphere is relaxed. This year, the second week at AQU was fairly relaxed as well, because it was the week before a vacation! The Eid-al-Adha holiday, a multi-day celebration, shuts things down for a week, so the semester is still struggling to find its momentum.
I have taken advantage of this slow start to continue my work of recruiting students for the M.A. Program in American Studies. I paid a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to an American organization that offers English language instruction, and to the offices of a couple of NGOs in Ramallah, as well as spreading the word through AQU faculty, alumni, and the U.S. Consulate. In the end, the program received several dozen serious inquiries/expressions of interest, and we have accepted a solid class . . .but I won’t really know final numbers for another week or so. Everyone says that after the Eid ends, the University community will get serious about the academic year.
A quiet start to the academic year at Al-Quds University is a decidedly good thing. The University had a tumultuous year in 2015-16. The spate of violence in Jerusalem (and elsewhere in both Israel and the West Bank) took its toll on AQU. Because the university is so close to Jerusalem (part of the city from the Palestinian point-of-view), reverberations in the broader community are felt very quickly there. Israeli soldiers were patrolling regularly on the outside of the campus last year, which often led to clashes between students throwing stones and soldiers lobbing tear gas cannisters into the middle of the main courtyard. Occasionally, Israeli troops forcibly entered the campus itself, leaving broken glass, debris, and minor injuries in their wake. So far this year, Israeli forces have kept their distance from the campus – at least during school hours – and political activity has been muted.
And at least Al-Quds University is open for business. The same can’t be said of Bir Zeit University. Students there succeeded in shutting down the university in an extended protect over a sharp rise in tuition. For a time a group of students was occupying the campus and had padlocked the gates. I haven’t heard the latest, but I’m guessing that they have gone home now for the Eid. But there is still no word on when the school year will start there.
I did attend my first formal academic exercise last week. Students in the American Studies program are encouraged to undertake an M.A. thesis, which they defend before three faculty members. I sat in on one student’s defense. He wrote his thesis on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the U.S. and Palestine, offering comparisons along the way to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the earlier anti-colonial movement in India. One of the questions that the student wanted most to explore was why BDS has not, in fact, become a “pillar of struggle” within the Palestinian community. This surprised me a bit. In the U.S., the BDS movement is getting a lot of attention from the press, and also from Jewish groups which see it as a growing threat to Israeli political, economic, and military security. Yet according to this student, there is within the Palestinian community relatively little awareness about BDS, and little depth of popular support for its approach. The student’s presentation was focused more on changing this dynamic than on analyzing it, so I am not completely enlightened about why this is so (presumably there are more answers in the text itself). But his presentation raised intriguing questions about connections and disconnections between internal and international dimensions of Palestinian resistance.
Today is actually the first day of the Eid. I spent several hours last night in Ramallah, where the city was still hopping well after 1:00 a.m., as people shopped, got their hair cut (I did too!), and did their last-minute shopping before things shut down for the holiday. The Eid-al-Adha marks the test of loyalty that God put to Ibrahim in ordering him to sacrifice his son Ismail. (In the Jewish version of the story, of course, Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac.) Because God provides a sheep at the last moment in place of the boy, it is a Muslim tradition to eat lamb on the Eid, and for several days many trucks packed with ovine youngsters have been on the roads toward the main Palestinian cities. Today starts traditionally with a visit to the cemetery to honor the departed among one’s family, and then the visits begin, with much consumption of meet and also with extensive obligations of charity both within and outside of the family. I will pay my respects to friends later in the day.
In the meantime, I am also getting out and about in the West Bank beyond the Abu Dis campus and the city of Ramallah. This weekend, I went with my son Theo and his girlfriend Shelly on a guided 14k hike through the beautiful stony hills north of Ramallah. We started in the village of Nabi Saleh, which has become famous for its weekly demonstrations (the villagers have been trying for years to re-claim access to a spring that was taken over by residents of the Israeli settlement of Halamish, which lies on the next hillside). From there we went down and up through small villages and down valleys, ending up in the town of Aboud, where we climbed through old Roman tombs and the site of a Byzantine church. We passed through some of the oldest olive groves in Palestine, two or three surprising springs, and magnificent views across the rocky landscape. Tough country to work, no doubt, but it was easy to see why people cling to it with such passion.