Leadership and the Holy Fire

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The “Holy Fire,” as seen from the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher


It’s the end Easter break week at Al-Quds University, and we are coming into the home stretch of the spring semester.  The students in my class on “Leadership in American Life” are deep into their research projects on significant figures in the field of their choice.  Last week we had presentations on Eleanor Roosevelt, Condoleezza Rice, Sheryl Sandberg, and Anita Hill.  This week we’ll be hearing about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Harry Truman, Frances Perkins (the first woman member of the cabinet . . .secretary of labor under FDR), and Huey P. Newton!  The assignment asks students to research key historical moments in the professional lives of their subjects, and to analyze their work with reference to some of the scholarly literature on leadership.  Among other things, the idea is to give them a taste of what it means to undertake long research project with several stages and much re-writing . . . a kind of warm-up for the Master’s thesis that I hope that most of them will undertake during the next academic year.

Interestingly, they seem to be struggling a bit with one requirement that I thought might be easy – making connections between issues in the U.S. and issues in Palestine.  For some it’s easy.  The student who is writing about Harry Truman is very interested in the dynamics of Truman’s decision to back the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.  (He has zeroed in on the political advantage that Truman was seeking by courting favor with the Jewish community in the run-up to the 1948 presidential election.)  And the student who is writing on the Black Panthers has ample opportunity to consider attempts at solidarity between radical black activists in the U.S. and Palestinian activists.  For others, this is tougher, perhaps because the issues can be sensitive.  The young woman writing about Anita Hill, for example, may be struggling with the challenges of writing about issues of sexual harassment in Palestinian society – an issue widely discussed in private but not much in public.  And Condoleeza Rice’s response to the 2006 Palestinian elections brings up the delicate question of the manner in which both the Fatah and Hamas parties in many ways abandoned democratic institutions in the wake of that troubled contest.

Meanwhile, all eyes and ears are on local political matters.  The hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody has inspired rallies of support across the West Bank, even as it has inspired cries of outrage in the Israeli community.  The strike is still in its first week; it remains to be seen how things might heat up if the prisoners maintain their discipline and hunger begins to take a physical toll on them.  Now that a date has been set for the visit by Mahmoud Abbas to Washington D.C. to visit President Trump, speculation about the future of the peace process is also on the rise.  But there are concerns as well.  One of Washington’s key demands is that the Palestinian Authority cease payments to the families of prisoners – a demand that would be difficult to meet under any circumstances, but is particularly challenging with the emotional charge of the hunger strike.

With Passover and Easter coinciding this year, Jerusalem was particularly frenzied.  With the help of our friends James Snyder and Tina Davis, Maggie and I secured a special perch to watch an extraordinary ritual: the miracle of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City.  The day before Easter, in the Orthodox tradition, a special flame emanates from the tomb of Jesus.  The Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the tomb and emerges with a taper lit from that flame, which in turn is used to light hundreds .  .and then thousands of tapers of ecstatic worshippers  inside the church . . then outside the church . . and then thanks to the miracles of modern transportation, to Orthodox churches all over the world.   (Yes, the lit flames are carried in special boxes on airplanes so that the Holy Fire can make its appearance on Easter morning in churches in every corner of the globe.)

Maggie and I (and our son Theo and his fiancée Shelly) had an amazing view from a balcony near the top of the dome inside the church.  From there we could look down as the Patriarch made his way three times around the sepulcher, then entered the holy place . . and then we watched with amazement as men ran at full speed through the crowds, bearing the torches and the light and the smoke filled the cavernous space as taper touched taper below us.

Now, with the holidays behind us, I will be settling into an intensive final month here, with a great deal to accomplish between now and late May, when I depart for the U.S.  I have this year’s coursework to finish, and also a lot of planning to ensure the smooth continuation of the American Studies program in the fall of 2017 and beyond.

Many thanks to the many people who contributed new books to the American Studies library!  My students have been inhaling them as part of their research projects.  I will be re-filling my on-line wishlist over the summer, in anticipation of bringing another suitcase full when I return for some shorter visits in the fall.

States of Happiness

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International Women’s Day is a holiday at Al-Quds University, so I have a little time to breathe and catch up.  In addition to teaching two (new!) courses this spring, I am involved in a variety of other projects at Al-Quds University – mainly initiatives that connect the university to people and institutions overseas.  So I have been going full-tilt . .and suddenly I find myself nearly halfway through my second semester.

Naturally, the new American administration continues as a major topic here, and every week provides new events that I can tie in to our class discussions.

For example, we did a week on Native Americans and land expropriation the same week that the U.S. government closed the Standing Rock camp.  It was also the same week that the Israeli Knesset passed a law that legalized, both retrospectively and prospectively, the seizure of Palestinian private land for the expansion of settlements.  (This law is expected to be tested in the Israeli courts, and is widely believed that it will not survive the judicial test.)

Similarly, a discussion of Asian Americans focused on the Korematsu case, the unsuccessful 1944 legal challenge to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.  The case, which has never been reversed, stands as one of the most infamous examples in U.S. history of the courts bowing to the argument that the executive branch should have free hand when it comes to national security.  It’s obvious how this led us naturally to the balance (or imbalance) between security and rights in our own time.

Most recently, we did a session on Jewish American history, just as the news of anti-Semitic acts and threats across the U.S. was coming to a head.  It was great to be able to have as our guest for the class Professor Jonathan Sarna, my colleague from Brandeis University, who is the world’s foremost authority on American Jewish History.   The class on “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice” cannot possible cover every topic in depth, so I asked Jonathan to focus on a case study.  He chose anti-Semitism in the 1920s, as spearheaded by Henry Ford through the publication of The International Jew, a kind of American adaptation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The ensuing discussion, both on-line and in person, was fascinating.  Some of my students quickly grasped the nature of Ford’s propaganda, understanding that anti-Semitic sentiment represented a corrosive threat not only to Jewish people but to American values.  One student boldly pointed out to her classmates that many of Ford’s stories about Jews were “fabricated,” but that conspiracy theories about Jewish people and anti-Jewish sentiments are widely present in the Arab world today.

As though to prove her point, some other students found in Ford’s words a persuasive echo of things that they had heard many times before.  While they found themselves troubled by over-generalization, they were not necessarily convinced at first that The International Jew was inherently anti-Jewish.

The secondary readings that they read traced the history after the 1920s into the 1950s, when Henry Ford II (the original Henry’s grandson) tried to make amends by establishing close connections between the country and Jewish organizations, especially offering support for the newborn state of Israel.  For some of my students, this was too much.  “Both Henry Ford I and Henry Ford II went to excesses,” complained one student, arguing that the younger Ford’s support for Israel came at the direct expense of the Palestinian people.   Students were impressed and moved, however, by the contemporary accounts of the Muslim communities in the U.S. that have been responding in recent weeks to anti-Jewish acts with support and donations.

In any case, it was a fruitful discussion, and will allow us to continue to explore topics related to the Jewish community into the future, alongside the experiences of other groups.  I imagine that we will get closer, as time goes on, to the question of the U.S. role in the Middle East (though they will have a whole course related to THAT topic in Fall 2017).

My other colleague/guest this week was Sue Lanser, a scholar of comparative literature and Women’s and Gender Studies who recently retired from Brandeis.  Sue led a section on “Women and Leadership,” which allowed her to explore the issue of “intersectionality,” as well as to introduce the courageous example of another Brandeis colleague, Anita Hill.  (One student was so inspired that she immediately switched the topic of her major research project to focus on Hill and sexual harassment.)

Meanwhile, this region is experiencing, perhaps, less frenzy over the new American administration than people inside the United States.  While the flow of news (and fake news!) from Washington continues at high volume, the administration’s full impact on the Israeli/Palestinian situation has, in point of fact, yet to be felt.  The threatened move of the U.S. embassy to Tel Aviv seems to be on permanent hold (in other words, the same situation that has persisted for 20 years).  The new U.S. ambassador has still not been confirmed.   Mixed signals from Washington seem to be stifling bold action here, although the “regularization” or “land grab” law referenced above is certainly a major step.  President Trump has declared that he doesn’t care whether there’s a one state or a two state solution or any other solution as long as everyone is happy.   There’s a curious sense in which Trump’s words reflect a widespread attitude among both Israelis and Palestinians: that the very vocabulary of the “two state solution” has become so freighted and stale that language itself sometimes feels like an obstacle to progress.  But the prospect of making everyone happy in any kind of solution seems rather dim.  (Perhaps Trump may wish to consider the “317,000,000 state solution,” as proposed here.)

While the overall situation here has been, in relative terms, “quiet,” this doesn’t mean that it is without incident, especially within the Palestinian territories.  Clashes between the IDF and community members are a daily occurrence in various locations, and disruptions and shootings at checkpoints are regular.     Protests over the Israeli practice of “administrative detention” have disrupted traffic and sometimes closed entirely Qalandia, the main checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem.  (I read the English language web site of the Ma’an news organization, where one of my students works, to try to keep somewhat up to date.)

Next on the political docket here is the possible annexation of Ma’ale Adumim, the very large settlement just outside of Jerusalem that I pass by every time I go to the University’s Abu Dis campus.  The right wing parties in Israel would like to advance this move as a prelude to annexing the entire West Bank.  But the move is clever, because many Israelis have come to feel that this bedroom community, whose residents mostly came for the relatively inexpense housing,  is already really a part of Jerusalem.  It is considered something different from more remote settlements whose residents are fueled by passion for reclaiming Judea and Samaria for the Jewish people.   But my daily commute is a vivid reminder of how sensitive this would be.  The road that I take abuts the settlement, and it is also the only legal route for Palestinians traveling between the northern and southern halves of the West Bank.  Annexing Ma’ale Adumim would mean, in effect that Palestinians traveling from Ramallah to Bethlehem, for example, would have to cross through Israel proper.  The two halves of the West Bank would be severed, which would feel to the Palestinians like a further blow to the viability of a Palestinian state.   The vote on this controversial proposal keeps getting delayed, apparently at the request of the Netanyahu government.  The last I saw, the vote was pushed back to March 12 .  .but who knows.

On the positive side, there is . . the weather!  Spring has arrived full throttle here, with mild sunny days this week, and flowers and trees in opulent bloom.   The hills in both Israel and the West Bank are bursting with green, but we are still some weeks away from punishing heat.  At Al-Quds University, the outdoor campus has come to life again, with students thronging around the fountain, in the gardens around the cafeterias.  In these days I’m sure that the campus is a pleasant oasis for students from the rigors of life here beyond the campus gates.

Teaching Key Elements of the American Experience: Leadership, Diversity . . .and the Super Bowl

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The second semester at Al-Quds University is in full swing now.  I told my students that my courses would buck AQU tradition and would start on Day 1 of the semester – not two or three weeks in once students completed their registrations.  Besides, Day 1 of the semester was the first full day of the Trump administration.  We couldn’t afford to delay!

I am offering two courses in the spring 2017 semester.  The first is called “Leadership in American Life.”  When I worked with AQU colleagues to re-design the American Studies program, one of the things we said is that we wanted to emphasize issues of “leadership” and “entrepreneurship.”  The idea is that students in the program – young Palestinian professionals in a variety of fields – stand to benefit and bring back lessons (positive and negative!) to Palestinian institutions and society by understanding these two aspects of the United States.  So while the “Leadership” course is an elective, it’s central to the new direction of the program.

This class is a chance for students to pursue their own interests deeply.  Students will do a modest amount of reading in leadership theory, but they will spend much of the semester immersed in a major research project on the leader or group of leaders of their choice.  I have encouraged them to focus on an individual or individuals within their own professional field or their field of principal interest – there is no excuse for being bored or getting tired of this project!  And I have definite “leadership” for this purpose quite broadly, though I have told them that I would prefer that they choose someone who has had significant responsibility within an institution, rather than pure “thought leaders.”

To get warmed up, I have been presenting on a handful of the best-known “leaders” in American life:  Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr.  It’s a chance to smuggle in some conventional U.S. history into this course, as well, of course, to introduce them to important individuals and classic texts.  So, on the day we listened to Trump’s inaugural address, I also introduced them to the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to give them some context for the very different tone that some leaders are capable of striking.   It did not take a great deal of explication for them to see the difference between a speech where “carnage” was the most important word, and another in which the concept of being “dedicated” (in all its meanings) took center stage.

The class is also an opportunity to host Americans from a variety of fields as guest speakers.  This week, we had a terrific appearance by Gary English, a theater director based at the University of Connecticut who has had a long and fruitful connection with the Freedom Theater in Jenin.  Gary is teaching a course at in the AQ/Bard College program on campus this spring, so I snagged him for a guest appearance.  He gave a terrific talk on theater as a “rehearsal for democracy.”

This week, the students are dedicated to choosing subjects for their research projects.  It looks like we will have an interesting range.  Some will focus on recent presidents.  One student started a mini-presentation in class on George W. Bush by declaring how much she hates him – but she still wants to spend her whole semester immersed in his life and work!  Others are following professional interests.  A student who recently started a new job at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs quite naturally wants to focus on one of the recent U.S. Secretaries of State.  Then there’s the student whose passion in life is to help create a better pension system for Palestinian people – I have gently guided her towards a project on Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor under FDR, the first woman appointed to the U.S. cabinet, and one of the guiding lights behind the implementation of social security.   A student with an interest in media wants to work on Jack Shaheen, a writer whose work focuses on anti-Arab stereotypes in Hollywood and the U.S. media more generally; perhaps Shaheen is not a conventional “leader,” but I am helping the student place his work in the context of anti-racism efforts more generally.    It looks like Oprah Winfrey and Steve Jobs are going to get some attention.  I’m hoping for takers for Katharine Graham, Sheryl Sandler, Paul Farmer, and Betty Friedan, in part because our American Studies library has hard-copy books by or about each of them!   It should be interesting.   Proposals are due in another week or so.

The other course is called “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice”  When my Brandeis colleagues Sue Lanser and Dan Kryder and I worked with three AQU counterparts on changes in American Studies, we came up together with the idea for this new required course.   We felt that it was essential that students have at least one course focuses on issues of racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexuality, and other forms of diversity in the U.S.  But we didn’t want a course that was a simple celebration of multiculturalism.  Hence the combination with issues of rights and law – the story of how different groups have struggled for justice was, we thought, a central story in the U.S.   We also wanted to signal that this was neither a story of steady progress (as “Diversity and Justice” might have indicated) nor a jeremiad about the immutable horror of American racism (as “Diversity and Injustice” might have suggested.  So we settled for a rather awkward course name that I have shortened to “DJI.”

Of course, there’s far too much material to cover in a semester.  But I have explained to the students that now I am beginning to treat them like true graduate students.  That is, I am assigning them more pages each week than they can possible cover, with the understanding that they have to start getting good at making choices about what’s most important, and how to spend their time.  (And they can get to some of the unfinished readings over the summer!)  I give them some guidance about what I will cover . . .but I’m leaving much more of this decision-making up to them.  This also gives me a chance to push the stronger students a little harder – and to expect them to contribute more meaningfully to the on-line forum for the class.

So far we warmed up with a terrific class focused on James Baldwin’s short letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook,” (the first piece from The Fire Next Time), and Ta-Nahisi Coates’ long Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.”  Baldwin, with his combination of anger and compassion, is a great introduction to the complexities of the African American experience; while the Coates article allowed students to explore a question that has quite immediate relevance for their own region: what kinds of actions can and should be taken to address injustices from earlier eras that still reverberate in human societies?   My precedessor as Fulbright Scholar at Al-Quds University, Dominique Day, was still around and co-taught this session with me, which was a pleasure.

This week promises to be a sensitive and provocative session.  We happen to be focused on the Native American experience, and particularly legal and quasi-legal maneuvers that American whites took to deprive Native peoples of their lands.  Among other things, they are reading some primary sources on treaties, and commentaries on treaties by Native Americans themselves, which show the manipulation of American law by whites in all of its ugliness.  As it happens, this week the Israeli Knesset passed a controversial law that allows (both prospectively and retroactively!) for the appropriation of Palestinian-owned land to accommodate the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.  The formal translation into English makes this the “regularization” law, but Haaretz, the most left-wing of the Israeli newspapers, has taken to simply calling it the “Land Grab Law.” Although many commentators here expect this law to be struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court, it is generating considerable controversy because of its transparent attempt to provide a legal fig leaf for existing practices.

I have asked my students, in preparation for the next DJI class, to consider similarities and differences between the two situations.  There’s a lively on-line discussion going on right now, with a variety of opinions. Suffice it to say that the Native American experience resonates loudly with my students, wherever they stand on the political spectrum within the Palestinian community.  I’m looking forward to what promises to be a vigorous discussion.

Of course, we continue to monitor closely the first weeks of the Trump administration.  This week, of course, I have been reminding them of all of the discussions we had in our “American Politics” class last semester about the separation of powers and checks and balances.  Students have taken note of the president’s steady and deliberate efforts to undermine the judiciary as an institution (including his administration’s claim that his decisions on national security are “unreviewable”).   They also understand, however, that this president likes nothing better than to stand in defiance.  We will see what happens in the Supreme Court.

Finally . . . I could not resist, last Sunday afternoon, making sure that American Studies students were fully aware of the social and cultural significance of . . . .THE SUPER BOWL.  Yes, in advance of last Sunday’s game, I devoted half an hour of class time to this weighty subject – though, in fairness, I connected it to “Diversity, Justice and Injustice” through the theme of race and sport.  (All legitimate, right?)  After all, they can’t claim a graduate degree in this field without some knowledge of the place of American football in U.S. life . . . and it was my obligation to provide it . . complete with power point showing highlights of the New England Patriots season.  This week . . . I think I’ll need to show them highlights of the historic comeback – a major event in American history, as every Pats fan will agree!

American Carnage: The View from Palestine

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I watched the swearing-in of the 45th president of the United States in a hotel lounge in Ramallah.  Some people were paying attention to the CNN feed; others gave the screen only intermittent looks.  The general reaction, if it’s fair to characterize it this was, was a world-weary lack of surprise. The address seemed to strike those in the room as what they had heard before from Candidate Trump.  It was left to me to express surprise about the dark and threatening tone, so out of step with the usual traditions of the inaugural events.  One friend with me did express surprise that a new president could so brazenly dismiss all the work of the men and women arrayed on the stage behind him, and he tracked carefully whether Barack Obama would applaud.  (He did when Trump talked about soldiers of all backgrounds “bleeding the same color red.”)

Later that evening, we were joined by one of Abu Mazen’s close advisers, fresh from a meeting with the Palestinian president. He was frank in telling us what was hardly a surprise – no one in the Palestinian inner circle has any idea what is coming next.  One day they receive a strong signal that the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is imminent; the next day they hear a different message.  What did it mean, the adviser wondered, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not mentioned at all in the address?  Was this a sign of backing away from his earlier statements on the issue?  (I offered the opinion that it didn’t mean much one way or the other . . that inaugural addresses are generally not the place where presidents outline specific policy steps .  .)   And what should the Palestinian Authority do at the onset of a Trump presidency?  Sitting and waiting to react seems like a passive choice, but the options for action seem limited at best.

Naturally the question of the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is very much on Palestinian minds.  This is a highly sensitive issue.  We discussed together Martin Indyk’s recent suggestion in the New York Times that the U.S. couple the move of its embassy with a recognition of East Jersusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.  While appreciative of the spirit of this, my Palestinian colleagues were unpersuaded.  The likely outcome, they believed, was that the U.S. would move the embassy immediately, with the implementation of steps towards a Palestinian capital delayed indefinitely.  In the end, the Palestinians would have conceded West Jerusalem to Israel, and would find themselves in a position of negotiating a division of East Jerusalem that would leave their access to their presumptive capital whittled away to almost nothing.

The next morning, my American Studies students gathered for the first session of their spring 2017 course on “Leadership in American Life.”  Naturally, we re-viewed the inaugural address as a bridge between our “American Politics” class of the fall term and our spring term work.  “He’s just like one of the Arab leaders,” one of my students laughed, and she didn’t mean it as a compliment.  “It’s all, “We will. . .” and “We will . . “   that is, all grandiose bluster.  We discussed Trump’s use of the word “carnage” to discuss the American present . . .and explored the root so that they would understand just how strong and overwrought a word this was.  We parsed the “early returns” of the fact-checkers and debated just how important it is for presidents to be “accurate.”  Some students voiced the position that since all politicians stretch the truth, Trump was really no different.  But others grasped quickly that a president in office has a different kind of responsibility to the truth from which candidates are at least partially exempt.  (We also recalled our examination at the beginning of last semester of Obama’s first inaugural address in 2009, and his stress during that speech on the word “responsibility.”)

A week later, we had a great deal more to talk about . . including the flurry of executive orders culminating with his temporary ban on refugees and immigration from seven predominantly Muslim nations.  Few were surprised.  My students actually have some sympathy for the idea that a country has the right to limit mobility across its borders.  But they quickly grasped that the proposed “priority” for Christians runs counter to basic values of non-discrimination . .not to mention a potential problem with the first amendment.   I only wish we had had more time to discuss in the depth they deserved some other matters:  the “wall” on the Mexican border; the Trump’s attacks on the press; the size of the inaugural crowds; the marches  .   . We could spend all class on these issues  . .. .   But we had a good segue into the heart of the class, because we launched into a discussion about whether we mean by the word “leadership” — simply the ability to head “successful” organizations and inspire followers, or whether we think that the word “leadership” is inevitably tied to values.  And then we took a look at the “Gettysburg” address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, with attention to the embracing spirit in which the 16th president chose to address his (and his country’s) opponents.

Amidst the flurry of executive actions, Palestinians took note that an announcement to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was not at the top of the priority list, despite previous assertions by the president and his surrogates.  Now the speculation is that pressure from Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt – is beginning to convince the new administration that this may not play as well in reality as it did on the campaign trail.  One Palestinian businessman told me that it’s obvious that Trump will NOT move the embassy.  The president has business interests scattered throughout the Arab world, this observer insisted, and he will not want to jeopardize these concerns for a gesture that even the Israelis themselves do not seem to want very badly.  Perhaps so.   Other presidents have made this promise before as candidates, only to soften their position once in office.  Will Trump be different?  Once he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu, presumably we will know more.  His press secretary insists that the administration is at the very beginning of studying the issue – a deliberative approach that seems wildly inconsistent with the headlong rush to declarations and orders in other areas.

I have tried amidst all this to maintain my own deliberative approach.  Events have understandably let loose a surge of emotion, and I am not exempt.  But I am trying to keep my feelings and political opinions out of the classroom.  I have told my students from the beginning of the program that all opinions and ideologies are welcome — as long as they are informed, reasoned, and based on whatever they can ascertain as fact. It’s a challenge to maintain this posture in the current environment . . . but level-headed analysis is in short supply at the moment, and I feel that the university classroom is one place where we can strive to preserve it.  If my students build new calls to action around their deeper knowledge .  . . more power to them!

On another note altogether, I had the pleasure of spending much of the last week conducting interviews for the Brandeis University-based program, Our Generation Speaks, for which I serve as an adviser.  OGS brought together 22 young Palestinians and Israelis to Brandeis in summer 2016 to create social impact start-up ventures together.  Three ventures – Genesis (which is providing genetic testing in the Bedouin community); QualIT (offering the services of Palestinian software engineers to international companies); and ScaleME (helping international start-ups do business in the Middle East and the Arab world) – were formed and are moving in various directions.  I was interviewing for the summer 2017 cohort, with a target of 26 new fellows.  As it was last year, it remains inspiring to talk with 50 or 60 young adults, women and men highly conscious of the challenging nature of Israeli/Palestinian relations, but eager to work together on substantive, tangible projects which aspire to “building shared prosperity, values, and trust through entrepreneurship.”    So many great stories among the candidates .  . . I look forward to seeing the 2017 cohort in action back at Brandeis this coming summer.

Palestinian Humor, A Spiffed-Up Library, and a trip to Khalil/Hebron

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It’s Inauguration Day in the United States, but just another Friday here in Jerusalem.  At Al-Quds University, it’s the final day of the semester break, so I’ve been squeezing in both preparation and pleasure in anticipation of the return to the university routine.

Earlier this week, I got my dose of Palestinian humor – or, to be more precise, Palestinian humor in its transnational Palestinian-American form.

Amer Zahr

Two of my students, Shadi Salameh and Helda Ereqat, invited me and Maggie to go with them to see Amer Zahr, who grew up in Michigan but who is “from from” Nazareth.  (“The soldier asked me where I’m from.  I said Michigan.  He said, “No, where are you from from?”)  Zahr performed at a cultural center in the Shekh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem above the popular Gallery Café.  The place was packed, and expectations were high.  Zahr performed in English, but with a generous smattering of Arabic and local references.  The good news was that Shadi and Helda scored us seats in the front row.  That was the bad news too, as it made it very easy for Zahr to pick me out as one of the few Americans in the crowd.  He asked me my name, engaged me in conversation, and proceeded to hammer me every few minutes throughout the show every time he wanted to make fun of white Americans.  (This is something of a family tradition.  My late father David also tended to get picked on at these events.  Ask my mother about the time that Penn and Teller called him up on stage!)  Anyway, Zahr was an equal opportunity offender – making fun of Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians themselves in equal measure, performing with just enough edge that he could score laughs by apologizing to a woman in a hijab in the front row every time that he used a swear word or mentioned beer.  The routines often skewered Palestinian grandiosity (“Independence Park?  In Ramallah?  Who do they think they’re kidding?”); others, which pinched a little deeper, focused on the humiliations of Tel Aviv airport security (“The guy who strip-searched me? . .  Do you think his mother believes that this is a GOOD job?”).  Zahr even took out an oud and performed a couple of Arabic love songs in literal translation (“The air . . . There’s so much air around us .. . “), to the general hilarity of the crowd who actually knew the lyrics word-for-word in the original.  Of course Zahr’s position was delicate.  He got a lot of points from the crowd in proclaiming his loyalty to Palestine, but as a visitor from the diaspora he doesn’t experience the day-to-day challenges here, and his (English!) routines subtly reflected his awareness of his privilege.  His stage persona aptly captured the light-hearted side of Palestinian pessimism and self-absorption, while at the same time keeping a streak of anger running just below the surface.

Over the course of four days over the break, the students and I worked to clean and re-organize the American Studies library in the Faculty of Arts.  Built over 15 years by Drs. Mohammed and Munther Dajani, the library has thousands of volumes, many of them treasures of American history, literature, philosophy, and political science.  But the library was suffering from lack of attention in recent years.  Books had migrated from their original categories, and miscellaneous donations had begun to give the collection a miscellaneous flavor.  So we went to work.  We shipped hundreds of books about non-American subjects across campus to the library of AQ/Bard College, giving us space to work with and allowing us to re-sort the collection by subject matter – and, to some extent, by course.  (More on my spring 2017 classes in the next post.)   After four days of volunteer labor, I’m pleased to report that the room and shelves are free of dust, we have removed excess furniture, and tomorrow we will replace the horrid orange curtain with professionally-installed room-darkening shades, both to improve the look of room and to enable better-quality projection of power point presentations and films. 

The view from the American Studies classroom window

More importantly, I now know the collection well enough to match books to my students’ interests . . and also to know the gaps in the collection that I need to fill in the coming year.  (No books yet about Barack Obama, for example  . . and believe it or not, not a single book devoted to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)  Plus there’s now a little more room to breathe . . so it will be a pleasure to start second semester there.

Yesterday, I took a day away from second-semester preparation to sneak away to the city that Israelis know as Hebron and Palestinians call Khalil.  One of my students, Fadi Abu Shanab lives in a nearby village and works in the city.  I drove down with Fadi’s cousin Sinan Abu Shanab, an AQU graduate whom I have known for many years and who now works with the Our Generation Speaks program at Brandeis.  It was my first visit to Khalil, the largest city on the West Bank and also in many ways the most contentious.  In the international press, Hebron is known as a flashpoint for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of the many settlements around the city and the famous settlement right in the heart of the Old City.  More on that in a minute . . . but Fadi and Sinan were at pains to introduce me to the Palestinian Khalil, a city of energy and tradition, with its own very distinct character within Palestinian society (and outside of the Israeli-Palestinian context).   Khalilis have a very distinct reputation within Palestine: they’re known for their hustling entrepreneurship (opening a shop is a kind of rite of passage), but they are also the butt of many jokes around the region for their thick skin and sometimes their thick-headedness.  Our first stop in the city was to a famous glass-blowing factory with a spectacular shop full of vases, bowls, and tiles.

Outside the glass factory

We visited Fadi’s office – a small technology firm called “Trusted Systems,” which has been serving clients in the region since 1999.  To the extent that Palestine has a start-up culture (ok, that extent is not as great as it might be), it’s centered in Khalil; Fadi represents a younger generation of Palestinians dedicated to building on local ingenuity while making connections across borders.

Fadi Abu Shanab at his office at Trusted Systems.


Later, we went down to the Old City, starting in the thriving hub of the marketplace, with vegetable stalls and clothing stores laden with goods, crowded together, and filled with shopped.  We walked down the narrow street, with walls rising on either side above the stalls.  At a certain point, the open sky above us began to be covered by a wire screen, sometimes draped with large pieces of cloth.  We were entering the borderland between Palestinian Khalil and Israeli Hebron.  We were talking through the Palestinian street below, while the homes of the Israeli settlers hovered on either side above.  The screens served as a minimal barrier to conflict, which have often erupted when Israelis rained projectiles down from above, and sometimes when Palestinians hurled objects from below.  As we proceeded further down the street, the busy stalls began to give way to closed doors, and the street became gradually quieter and quieter.  During the second intifada this whole thoroughfare had been closed to commerce.  The upper end away from the settlement, where we began our walk, has recovered.  But the stores down in the heart of the conflict zone have, by-and-large remained closed.

Passing through a pedestrian checkpoint at the end of the street, we came to the grand structure that houses the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, known in English as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Palestinians as the Ibrahimi Mosque.

Fadi and Sinan at the window to Sarah’s tomb.

This site, holy to both Muslims and Jews, is shared in a delicate arrangement with entirely separate entrances, separate windows onto the elaborate tombs themselves, and understandably tight security – since this was the site of one of the tragic incidents in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers by Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein.  Our visit there was calm; a group of Turkish tourists joined us . .. It must mean something, I suppose, that Khalil can still host any tourists at all.

I then passed through another checkpoint to enter the Jewish settlement itself.  Fadi, holding Palestinian identification was not allowed to pass.  We tried to talk Sinan past the Israeli soldiers on the strength of his American accent in English and the fact that he is a colleague of mine at Brandeis . . . but we failed, so I strolled through the neighborhood settlement on my own.  After the high energy of downtown Khalil, the heart of Jewish Hebron was eerily quiet, long-closed Arab stores boarded over with signs that gave the Jewish version of the history of the city.  A handful of residents came in and out on foot or by car, the men’s kippot, so ordinary a sight in Jerusalem, a bit of a surprise in this environment.  At the end of Shuhada Street, another heavily fortified pedestrian checkpoint brought me suddenly back into a busy automobile roundabout with vendors shouting in Arabic at customers and at each other.

Fadi and Sinan took me to a delicious lunch in the newer part of Khalil, where I sampled several local specialties, including the famous lamb’s neck.  And then I had a chance to spend a few relaxed hours with Fadi’s family in the village of Shuyukh, a few miles outside of the city.  I was full of admiration again for Fadi’s juggling act:  a six-day per week job in Hebron, a family with two children under five, and three Master’s classes in American Studies an hour’s drive or more from home . . . and, like all of my students, in the context of the disruptions of Palestinian daily life on the roadways and in the warp and woof of everyday activities.

And after today . . .the second semester will begin . . with our instant analysis of the inaugural address and proceedings in our class on “Leadership in American Life.”  We shall see . . .

A New Year . . . And Meet Some American Studies Students

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With the winter holidays over and the new year begun, Al-Quds University is open for business again, although the second semester does not begin until the third week of January.  So I have some time to continue to work on preparing my second-semester courses, as well as other projects.  In the spring term, I will be teaching “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice” and “Leadership in American Life.”  More on these when the semester begins later in the month.

Of course the talk here for the last ten days has been about the U.S. abstention on the UN resolution on Israeli settlements, as well as on John Kerry’s long speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week.  The reaction to both in my limited circles in the Palestinian community has been positive but muted.  For some, it’s a matter of “too little too late” from their point of view: the Obama administration’s reluctance to push harder on the settlement issue over the past eight years rankles in Palestinian circles, and I have heard Kerry’s robust defense of the two-state solution derided as neither fresh or original. Still, there is appreciation that no American official has extended himself further on these issues than Secretary Kerry.

And there are plenty of rumblings about the future.  Some of my colleagues are watching Russia closely; having seen Putin manage the situation in Syria, they are expecting that he will play a more prominent role here as well, as evidenced by the reported news that the Russians will try to broker an agreement between the Fatah and Hamas parties.  Others are seeing a quieter but more influential role for China in the region.  These speculations are based, at least in part, on a calculation that the more seasoned leaders in those countries will seize on the new U.S. president’s inexperience to widen their sphere of influence generally.  They are also based on a widespread tendency here to see powerful hidden hands at work behind ostensibly mundane developments.

Meanwhile, in Israel the media attention is focused on the police investigations on charges of corruption against Bibi Netanyahu.  The news here is really just breaking – the media still has not gotten hold of the details of what is rumored to be the more serious of the charges.  It may all come to nothing, but for now this story is adding to a marked feeling of transition and instability that is settling people on both sides of the green line on edge.

Over the past few weeks, I have been posting photographs and brief bios of the American Studies students on the program’s Facebook page.  On the off-chance that not every reader of this blog is following that page, here are a few samples, which will give an idea of the range of students enrolled in the program:


W’am Hammash

Wi’am Hammash grew up in Bethlehem, Palestine, and took her B.A. in Human Rights and International Law from Al-Quds Bard College at Abu Dis. She is now working towards her Master’s degree in American Studies at Al-Quds University.She dreams to become an effective person to help Palestinian women, children and youth. She believes in her dreams, because she follows Eleanor Roosevelt’s saying: “life belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” She is interested in photography. The Facebook page of Wi’am Hammash is https://www.facebook.com/Wiam.Hammash


Mohammad Hamayel

Mohammad Hamayel is an American born Palestine-based journalist currently employed as a correspondent for PressTV. He had also worked on programs in the past including “Coffee in Palestine” and is now producing “Life Under Apartheid.” Mohammad enjoys reading up on Philosophy and History. A fan of film director Stanley Kubrick he also follows Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Michelle’ Gundry and others.


Helda Erekat





Helda Erekat was born and raised in Kuwait and currently lives in Jerusalem. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication–TV and Radio Broadcasting from the University of Cairo. She also has a higher Diploma in Media from the Institute of Arab Research and Studies in Cairo. Helda has worked as a reporter with several TV stations and news agencies, and she recently worked as a lecturer in the Faculty of Media at the PAUC University in Palestine. Helda’s family and friends have always been the first supporters of her success; she considers joining the master’s degree program in the American Studies at Al-Quds University to be an inspiration to her children, who are themselves university students. She is proving her belief that education should never be limited by age. Her favorite quotation is, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” by former Harvard University president Derek Bok. Helda enjoys bowling, traveling and hiking.


Alaa Hamamra


Alaa Hamamra holds a bachelors in English language and literature from An-Najah University. Along with being a social entrepreneur,  Alaa works as a freelance translator and content writer. For fun, Alaa enjoys blogging, sci-fiction and politics.









Samer Makhlouf, 40 years old from the West Bank town of Jifna, is the CEO of Zimam, a non-profit organization that promotes the values of democracy, freedom, justice, and moderation through sustained grassroots non-violent activities in Palestine. Samer also serves as the Director of International Relations in the Palestinian Centre for Research and Strategic Studies (PCRSS).


Samer Maklouf

Mr. Makhlouf, has 15 years’ experience in a broad range of non-profit and business organizations within Palestine. Samer has extensive international training in fundraising and non-profit management, including work with the U.S. Department of State. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Birzeit University and a master student in regional studies at Al Quds University.  Mr. Makhlouf served as the head of Ramallah’s Al Kasaba Theater & Cinematheque Programs & Development Department, and he serves as president of his home town Jifna’s Youth Club with 350 members from all ages. Mr. Makhlouf is also the leader/organizer of the Apricot festival, one of the biggest, most popular and well known festivals in Palestine.

AQU in the Old City of Jerusalem

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Inside the Community Action Center, a project of Al-Quds University in the Old City


The fall semester has ended at Al-Quds University.  Last week, I administered the American Politics final exam, and I read and graded research papers.  The students felt a lot of pressure in these final weeks, with the heavy demands of end-of-semester work competing with their professional and family responsibilities.  But they are now enjoying a month-long break before the second semester begins in mid-January.

American politics, meanwhile, continues to leave many people unsettled here.  The naming of David Friedman as the proposed U.S. ambassador to Israel, the very public discussion of a potential move of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the accretion of day-to-day events have given rise to a lot of speculation about what the winter and spring will bring to the region.  The current U.S. ambassador, Dan Shapiro (Brandeis ’91!), has been widely admired for his efforts to maintain contact and good relations with people and groups across the whole spectrum of Israeli society.  It seems clear that the new administration is going to bring a much more truculent tone, and a greater willingness to tolerate or even encourage volatility.  Disruption may be much prized in the business world, but its potential consequences for regional politics here are unnerving a lot of people.  (For an excellent and sobering up-to-the minute analysis of the situation here, see the new paper from the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, “Israel and the Palestinians: Sliding toward a One State Reality,” by my Brandeis University colleagues Shai Feldman and Khalil Shikaki.)

In the meantime, a special project and the end of semester flexibility gave me a chance to take a tour of the facilities of the University in the Old City of Jerusalem. The institution takes great pride in its strong connections in the heart of the city.

To take an explanatory step back for a moment . . .   Al-Quds University is, quite literally, “Jerusalem University,” so its symbolic and practical importance to the Palestinian community is immense.  The university is among the the foremost Palestinian educational and cultural institutions in the city that Palestinians consider their capital.

The university’s main campus (and the place where I teach) is in the town of Abu Dis, which borders Jerusalem to the east (just behind the Mount of Olives).  Indeed, many Palestinians consider Abu Dis to be, in effect, a part of Jerusalem itself, though it is now officially part of the West Bank, and separated from Jerusalem proper by a high concrete wall.  The Abu Dis campus serves principally Palestinian students who live in the West Bank . . young people who cannot enter Jerusalem or Israel without a special permit granted by the Israeli authorities.

But the University also maintains an active presence within the city of Jerusalem itself, under the general leadership of its vice president for Jerusalem, Dr. Safa Nassereldin.  Its largest Jerusalem campus is in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, north of downtown, where AQU offers selected academic programs – primarily in the areas of business and law.  These programs principally serve Palestinian students who live in Jerusalem.  (Many of these Jerusalemites have a special status that permits them to live in Jerusalem, but without being able to become citizens of Israel.)

Another important AQU campus is Hind al-Husseini College, located in the heart of East Jerusalem near the American Colony Hotel.  This college for women was founded by and named for a famous Jerusalemite advocate for women and children.  It offers programs in education and related fields, and its current dean is my friend and longtime AQU colleague, Dr. Khuloud Khayyat Dajani, a medical doctor who among other achievements founded AQU’s well-regarded Child Study Institute.

And then AQU maintains a number of facilities within the Old City of Jerusalem itself.  My tour this week was led by Omar Zaro, the business manager of the University’s Jerusalem operations, who himself grew up in an Old City home right on the Via Dolorosa.

We started just inside Damascus Gate, where Al-Quds University recently established (in March 2015) the first Palestinian public library to be functioning inside the Old City since 1967.  img_3690Tucked away on a side street, the library is operated by the University for the benefit of the whole community.  The Kingdom of Bahrain helped pay for the renovation, and the result is charming and inspiring.   There are several study spaces with natural light and computer terminals.  Space is tight, so the thousands of books available (many of them focused on the city of Jerusalem itself) are stored in compactable shelving units. img_3678
And the University is trying to make its mark on the community – by hosting, for example, a conference on the function of libraries themselves in the broader life of the city.

Further into the Muslim Quarter, we came to the University’s Community Action Center, housed in an arched structure originally built as a Crusader church in the 12th century.  Here, under the leadership of Dr. Munir Nusseibah, a human rights lawyer, AQU makes its mark serving and advocating for residents of Jerusalem, and particularly of the Old City.  The Center, in its words, “aims to empower the disadvantaged of East Jerusalem to access their rights and entitlements and negotiate the complex bureaucratic procedures that control the flow of these rights. This mandate translates into empowering local residents to organize to solve collective problems with particular attention to social and economic inequality, and to mobilize their own volunteer capacity.”  The CAC is also focused on what it considers a systematic and ongoing effort by the Israeli government to displace and remove Palestinians from Jerusalem.  It also provides direct services to residents of the neighborhood, with a strong focus on the empowerment of women.

The Center for Jerusalem Studies, housed in temporary quarters near the Lion’s Gate, offers a variety of programs, including an M.A. in Jerusalem Studies, Arabic language classes, and tours of the Old City and other places from a Palestinian perspective.  The Center will be moving back in some months to its original location, the site of a Mamluk-era hammam (Turkish bath) which is currently being renovated. img_3698
We traipsed through the hammam construction site.  If all goes according to plan, a year from now it will be a working site, staffed by Al-Quds University students, and run as a small business in the heart of the Old City.  The project, however, has been slowed considerably by the bureaucracy of archaeology and renovation in the Old City.  The site is above and near to the controversial Western Wall tunnel, which extends from the Wall itself several hundred yards, running beneath the Muslim Quarter; this has complicated the construction process in this extraordinary sensitive area.

Finally, we went by Omar Zaro’s childhood home, met his father, who runs a coffee shop right downstairs, and enjoyed Arabic coffee and pomegranate juice.img_3714

Al-Quds University would very much like to continue to expand and develop its Jerusalem operations, including bringing more students from outside of the region to study there.  But it’s complicated.  The Israeli government has tended to view the AQU’s activities as a Palestinian attempt to stake a kind of claim to their presence in the city.  As a result, Israel has often resisted the university’s efforts to support Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.  For many years, the relevant Israeli ministries refused to recognize any AQU degrees, meaning that graduates of the university in most fields were not eligible for employment opportunities within Israeli.  Recently, Israel has granted recognition to AQU degrees in medicine and other medical fields, which means that those Arab citizens of Israel and Jerusalem residents who study in the medical complex in Abu Dis are now eligible for employment in the medical arena within Israel.  But the vast majority of AQU graduates – including virtually all of those who are studying in the Jerusalem campuses – are receiving degrees that are of little practical use to them if they wish to work within Israel.

In the meantime, things will be slowing down now for the next ten days, as the University observes the holidays and its semester break.  My best to all for a happy holiday season and start to 2017.

Proclamations and Celebrations

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Students celebrating near the end of the semester in the central courtyard of Al-Quds University

My American Politics class had its last session a few days ago.  We’re paying close attention to the tweets of President-Elect Trump – interesting in and of themselves, but also useful as a gateway to larger issues in American politics and society.  Last week we spent some time on his proclamation that Americans who burn the U.S. flag should potentially be stripped of their citizenship or thrown into jail for a year.  This gave us a chance to talk about the complexities of the First Amendment, and to look at the relevant Supreme Court cases that have, by and large, categorized flag-burning as protected speech.  It also made for an interesting comparative discussion.  My students told me that Palestinian law has some significant restrictions on speech denigrating religious ideas and symbols, but few formal restrictions on political speech as such.  Something to learn more about.


With some of my students where we held our review session at the Ibdaa Center in Bethlehem

This weekend, my students are finishing up a paper for their Research Methods class, and they’ll start in earnest their preparations for next week’s American Politics final. I conducted review sessions this week in Bethlehem and Ramallah.  They are all feeling a bit overwhelmed, between work, family, and student responsibilities.   The multiplicity of commitments – and the particular challenges of studying in a second language – are wearing some of them down.  But they are keeping their heads up and looking forward, I’m sure, to a breather in a couple of weeks.

I attended a few sessions earlier this week of a conference hosted by the University on “The Production of Inequality” in the city of Jerusalem.  A great deal of attention was given to the displacement of the Palestinian population within the Old City and other Jerusalem neighborhoods, with connections made to the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank.  The shrinking space which Palestinians can call their own is very much on people’s minds here.  In the wake of the U.S. elections, a number of Israeli ministers – notably Education Minister Naftali Bennett — have amplified calls for outright annexation of the West Bank.  Events on the ground and rhetoric on the airwaves have reinforced the conviction among some Palestinian scholars that Israeli society’s ultimate goal is the removal of the Palestinian people – one way or another – from its midst.  This bleak interpretation leads quite naturally to dispiriting conclusions about the future of the region.

On a more positive note, I am enjoying hosting my colleague Dr. Sue Lanser at the University this week.  Sue is advising AQU during this academic year on improvements the University’s English language requirement.  We have had productive conversations together with faculty members, administrators, and outside organizations.  It is clear that motivation is high on campus to give students a stronger foundation in this area – which is vital to their continuing studies and to their longer-term career prospects.

And also . . . The end of semester and the holiday season bring some sparks of joy to the Al-Quds University campus. img_3579 A highlight this week was the inter-faith Christmas celebration in the University’s central courtyard, organized by some active Christian students, and attended by the patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, as well as a prominent Muslim sheikh.  The event included a rousing performance of holiday music by a bagpipe band, a speech on the blessings of peace and mutual understanding by university president Dr. Imad Abu Kishek, and a very slim Santa Claus dispensing candy to all.   img_3583Student celebrations this week also included a ritual bath in the fountain in the center of campus – apparently celebrating the completion of an academic achievement.  Under challenging circumstances, the spirit and values of Al-Quds University make themselves felt.

Politics, Reason, and the Way to the Spring

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In the Palestinian community, the talk here this week is about the seventh conference of the Fatah party, happening this week with 1300+ delegates from the West Bank, Gaza, and around the world in attendance.  Many issues are at stake:  a succession plan for the inevitable day when Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is no longer in power; the prospect of yet another attempt for Fatah to reconcile with Hamas (which Abu Mazen raised again in his 2.5 hour speech yesterday); attempts to heal divides within Fatah itself; the Palestinian circumstances in a world where the Trump administration begins to show its hand; and the question of the viability of the two-state solution at a time of continued expansion of Israeli settlements.   The most significant outcome of the event will be the election of a new 23-person Central Committee. That vote is slated to take place on Saturday, and it will give an indication of how successfully Abu Mazen has shored up his own rather fragile position in the Palestinian political world.


Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) at the Fatah party conference

It’s very hard for an outsider to peer into this intricate world of intrigue and alliances.  For the last week, I’ve been hearing talk of deals being struck and campaigns being waged, and I’ve seen animated groups of men huddled in Ramallah restaurants, but I have no penetrating insights into what is happening inside the conference and why.  It remains true that outside the new hall in the Muqata’a where the conference is taking place there remains a great deal of cynicism and skepticism about Palestinian politics and leadership.  Abu Mazen is under attack on a number of different grounds.

On the one hand, he is said to be weak and too friendly to the Israelis; he was criticized roundly for attending the funeral of Shimon Peres, and he was even taken to task for providing assistance to Israel in fighting the devastating fires that whipped through the region this week. (For his troubles, Abbas was termed the “number one enemy of Israel” by one Israeli minister today.)  On the other hand, he is seen as increasingly dictatorial, acting impulsively and extra-legally to jail opponents.  His most generous critics see him as a tragic figure, a man with the near-impossible task of succeeding Yasser Arafat, who came to power making a promise to achieve a lasting peace, and who has been unable to deliver on that promise.

My students in the American Studies program are not, as far as I know, particularly active in any party politics.  They do not seem to have a great deal of faith in the political system within Palestine, and they seem bent on trying to achieve change within their community through structures outside of politics, like business or the media. Even after this election season they are still comparing their own internal politics unfavorably to the U.S. system!  I will be curious to hear from them at the end of the week what they think has come out of this conference.

Meanwhile, the winding down of the semester and a bit of travel have given me time to read large swaths of two important new books that I am happy to recommend.

The first is the new book by Sari Nusseibeh, my friend and the former president of Al-Quds University.  After writing a number of important books on Palestinian politics and society, including his own striking autobiography (Once Upon a Country), Nusseibeh has returned to his intellectual roots as a philosopher to tell The Story of Reason in Islam (Stanford University Press). 5193xwezuzl-_ac_us320_ql65_ The book is an enthusiastic and accessible account of the strong tradition of Islamic thinkers who believed that human beings themselves had much to contribute to the discovery and understanding of truth and the moral life.  These thinkers, as Nusseibeh describes them, tilted from the very beginning of Islam against more orthodox thinkers who believed taught that the sole source of truth and enlightenment was the holy scripture, the Qu’ran, and that reliance on human reason could amount to heresy.   This is wholly unfamiliar territory to me – but Nusseibeh draws the amateur reader in.  His first full chapter is a thrilling description of the place of poetry in the Arab world, and in which he argues that humankind’s imaginative response to the dramatic desert landscape was itself a fundamental source of the place of “reason” in Arab thought.  Later, his account mixes complex discussions of such matters as “the language-logic debate” with insightful biographical treatments of some of the important thinkers.  The book traces carefully the attempts of scholars to reconcile modes of thought that sprung organically from Arab tradition (and, most importantly, from the glories of the Arabic language itself) and approaches to the world that were imported from Greek, Roman, and Christian traditions.  While Nusseibeh stays faithful to his focus on intellectual history, he makes occasional forays into the present to suggest the important consequences of these debates for modern Islam, where the tradition of reason sometimes faces an uphill battle against various forms of fundamentalism.  I’m grateful to Sari for introducing me to a whole world of thought that I might otherwise never have traversed.

I also recently finished Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (Penguin).  Ehrenreich, an American journalist, spent several years living on and off in the West Bank, talking with and writing about men and women on the front lines of Palestinian resistance.  Much of this earnest and readable book takes place in the village of Nabi Saleh, north of Ramallah, which became a flashpoint for local resistance after residents of the adjacent Israeli settlement of Halamish appropriated for their own use a natural spring that had once been a shared resource for the local Palestinian community.  419onawqm3l-_sx327_bo1204203200_The weekly demonstrations at Nabi Saleh eventually garnered national and international attention.  Ehrenreich creates vivid portraits of several families involved deeply in local activism.  His book describes both the humiliating and dangerous circumstances of these villagers’ lives under occupation, and also their creativity and resilience in the face of their difficult circumstances.  Ehrenreich also spends some time in other parts of the West Bank – notably the southern city of Hebron, where the close proximity of Palestinian and Israeli residents creates extraordinary daily pressure. Ehrenreich’s book is frankly partisan, siding with the men, women and children on the front lines – fiercely critical of both the Israeli occupation and of Palestinians in power (especially in Ramallah) who in his view have lost touch with the spirit of resistance.  I found it a little hard to keep track of the many people whom Ehrenreich describes (even with the helpful list of individuals), but Ehrenreich’s engaging first-person style pulled me along from chapter to chapter.  As someone spending most of my time in the West Bank in an institution (the university) away from village life, I found this book a helpful complement to my own experiences and impressions.

A Thanksgiving Reflection

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This year, I am happy that two of my four grown sons are able spend the American holiday of Thanksgiving with me and their mother.  I am fortunate.  My boys have grown to manhood and are taking their place as healthy, productive, active citizens of their country and the world.  This year, I am acutely aware that not all parents of sons can enjoy this blessing.

So this Thanksgiving, I am particularly grateful that my sons were able to grow up outside the shadow of pervasive fear that grips the lives of so many young men in my home country, in the region where I am spending this year, and in the world at large.  Of course we all live with the prospect that violence could reach us at any moment.   But so many young men are now living under harsher circumstances, where the daily presence of violence impinges on every aspect of their lives.  So many young men live with:

  • the knowledge that their skin color or their identity leaves them vulnerable to the unpredictable actions of armed people around them
  • the threat of soldiers or police banging down the front door in the middle of the night
  • the prospect of being swept by friends and comrades into an escalating cycle of protest and resistance where bloodshed becomes inevitable
  • the fear of that a sudden move or an unexpected gesture might be taken for a threat, and met with a burst of gunfire
  • the awareness that even a minor encounter with the police or the military might lead to months or even years in prison, with or without charges
  • the fear that their country might, in an instant, no longer be their country

My boys were shielded from these particular daily tribulations, and for that I am grateful. But I am also aware on this Thanksgiving Day that other people are paying a steep price for the measure of protection and security that many of us enjoy.

Some of that price is paid by men and women who serve in the military or law enforcement. My sons and I owe a debt of gratitude to those who, unlike us, have served their country and their communities in this particular way.

But much of the cost of “security” is borne by young men in marginalized communities who are at the receiving end of the excesses of militarized states, and who pay with years of joblessness, incarceration, and lost years of their lives.   The prospects for those young men may be growing worse in the coming era, if our governments rely on racist innuendo to justify further repressive measures in the name of combatting crime or terror.

So I am also aware, on this Thanksgiving day, that with gratitude comes responsibility: the urgent need to face honestly the massive inequalities that beset our societies, and not simply to take refuge behind the structures of privilege.   In a small way, I hope that I am contributing this year by helping young Palestinians understand their own situation in relation to the promises and the perils of life in the United States.  It will, however, require more than mere understanding to disperse that shadow of fear.

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