“Locker Room Talk,” “Extreme Vetting,” and Other Affairs of State

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(Most of) the first year class in the M.A. Program in American Studies at Al-Quds University

(Most of) the first year class in the M.A. Program in American Studies at Al-Quds University

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.


With Abeer Al-Natsheh at My Pink Electronics office in Beit Hanina, Jerusalem

Hillary and Donald: The View from the West Bank

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The semester at Al-Quds University (AQU) is now in full swing, so my work is now very much up-and running.

After several weeks of intense recruiting, I now have a class of 20 students in the M.A. Program in American Studies.   They are mostly in their twenties, young people who are early in their careers.  Several are working in the media – in broadcast journalism, newspapers or on social media platforms.  Three or four are in business – telecommunications, or accounting, or retail.  One (an older student) is a fairly senior government official in the area of vocational education.  A few are recent graduates – many of these majored in English language, so they are well-prepared for a mostly-English curriculum.

Why do they want to enroll in a graduate program in American Studies? They have a variety of reasons. Some were attracted to the program’s new emphasis on concepts of leadership and entrepreneurship; others were glad that the program’s emphasis on English-language comprehension and writing would be an asset in their careers.  But it is clear that the biggest motivation is their common understanding that the future of Palestinian institutions will depend in fundamental ways on successful interaction with Americans and American institutions.   The most common answer when I asked “Why American Studies?”  in their admissions interviews was some variation on this: “The United States controls the world, so I want to understand how and why.”

So I am teaching American Politics, in a dedicated American Studies classroom packed with thousands of books that have been donated to the program over the years.  That part is fun.  The collection is actually quite impressive  . .and of high quality . . . though the donation program has been dormant in recent years, so the most recent materials are from around 2009.   We squeeze in together around a rectangular table surrounded by books (as well as miscellaneous oddities like years and years of Newsweek magazines from the 1980s).  And we talk American politics.

I’m dividing the class between a more-or-less traditional U.S. politics curriculum, and intense attention to the 2016 presidential election.  We’re immersed in the U.S. Constitution at the moment . . . in our last class, for example, we spent some time talking about the second amendment – its wording, its importance in American culture, its place in the current presidential campaign.  I worried at first that they might find the concept of a “well-regulated militia” confusing . . .but of course, here I was completely off-base.  They’re well acquainted with the English word “militia” – perhaps better than most Americans – because there are plenty of militia-like organizations in the Palestinian sphere.  So we had a lively discussion militias, gun rights, and the role of the gun lobby in U.S. politics – grounded in a brief discussion of the role of militias in the colonies leading up to the American Revolution.

Naturally our attention this week was also fixed on the first presidential debate.  I hosted a debate-watching party at the U.S. Consulate’s outpost (“America House”)  in Ramallah.  (No, we didn’t watch it live at 4:00 a.m. local time . . .we caught it on YouTube!)  Like many Americans, the students were both entertained and appalled.   The most common initial reaction was how little time was spent on pressing issues, and how much devoted to matters of little substantive import like President Obama’s birth certificate or Hillary Clinton’s alleged lack of “stamina.” (A moment that provided an opportunity to expand their English vocabulary!)  “The Iraq war, tax returns, bankruptcies, and Obama’s birth certificate; all of these issues were a waste of time,” one student said.   But some grasped immediately that the debate was as much an opportunity to consider the character and values of the candidates, rather than their detailed positions . . . and they dived into their analyses in this spirit.

I asked them to focus their evaluation of the candidates on the debate itself (rather than the sound bites of the last year), to encourage them to be disciplined about analyzing specific quotations, rather than general impressions.   I have also been careful not to introduce my own political opinions – going out of my way, for example, to help them understand that Trump’s point about the loss of American manufacturing jobs is quite real.  (I have also introduced them to politifact.com, which I have told them that they MUST check before citing anything the candidates say as “truth.”)

Most found Clinton the more persuasive candidate . . .but the sentiment was not overwhelming.  The majority found Trump overbearing and short on substance: “Trump was acting like a great business man trying to convince the people to buy his great toys,” one said.   but there were strong reservations about Clinton whose depth surprised me.   Some found her untrustworthy.  Others, even her supporters among the class, thought that she failed to articulate a clear enough vision.  “While Hillary so eloquently defended and articulated her party’s investing in the middle class,” said one student, “she did not define how she is going to add her touch to it. How she is going to make it different from Obama’s approach, for example, was unclear to me.”

All were disappointed that the Middle East merited so little attention – the only reference to the Israeli/Palestinian situation was Trump’s off-hand remark about Netanyahu and the Iran deal.  Some of the disappointment about Clinton may reflect the strong “pro-Israel” position that she has been taking this year . . though we did not yet discuss this in the class in depth.

Two more debates to go!  (Sorry Tim and Mike . . I didn’t make the upcoming vp debate mandatory!)

Beyond American Studies I’m involved in a variety of other projects at AQU, building on my relationships with many people across the University.  Last week, for example, I had the pleasure of helping to host my Brandeis colleague Sue Lanser, who came for five days on a project to help AQU re-consider and redesign its English language requirement.  The University recognizes that giving its graduates more command of English is essential to their future employment prospects, so it’s making a big push over the next year.  I’ll play a supporting role in efforts like this.

On the personal front, it was a pleasure to have Maggie here for the past three weeks.  Together we explored Jerusalem, went back-and-forth to Tel Aviv to spend time with my son Theo and his girlfriend Shelly, and headed into Ramallah to visit AQU friends.  She has headed back to the US for the time being . . but has promised that she’ll come for longer next time!

Today is the celebration of the Muslim new year – AQU (usually open on Sundays) is closed.  And meanwhile Jewish Jerusalem and Israel are preparing for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which begins at sunset this evening.  I’ve been blessed with warm invitations to holiday gatherings from friends and friends of friends. . . so I’m looking forward to celebrating and contemplating the new year with the special kind of intensity that Jerusalem provides.  To my friends of all faiths . . .a very happy new year to you and your families, even as we keep our minds and hearts alive to those who are suffering in these turbulent times . . .

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