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.

Election 2016: Palestinian Perspectives

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American Studies students outside at the U.S. Consulate Election Party, November 9, 2016

American Studies students outside at the U.S. Consulate Election Party, November 9, 2016

It was Election Night in America when I stumbled into the Mahmoud Darwish Room at the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah a few minutes after 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday November 9.  The room, named for Palestine’s most celebrated poet,  was brightly festooned in red, white and blue bunting, and men and women in business attire were already clustered around large screens on the walls.

The occasion was a post-election breakfast, sponsored by the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem in cooperation with the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, with Consul General Donald Blome as the host.  Visiting State Department officials from Washington D.C. chatted with Ramallah businessmen.  West Bank Fulbright fellows had scored invitations . . . and the Consulate had kindly allowed me to put my 17 Al-Quds University graduate students in American Studies on the list as well.  It was the least I could do – to introduce them by proxy to an American ritual.  And show up they did, doing the program proud with their enthusiasm and their growing knowledge about U.S. affairs and institutions.

The Consulate had asked me and my colleague Dan Kryder to speak for a few minutes as U.S. experts . . .but as the hour for my talk approached I found myself unnerved.   The chatter on the televisions when I arrived in the Darwish room was about “razor-thin” margins and the prospect of a “long night.”  By the time Chris Hodges from the consulate was getting ready to introduce me, however, it was shortly after midnight (U.S. Eastern time), and I was coming swiftly to the realization that the “razor” was cutting Clinton more deeply than Trump.   I walked around the room in a bit of a daze, trying to assimilate the sea-change that seemed to be coming.   I was going to have to talk in real time  to 100 or so diplomats, businesspeople, students, and scholars about the emerging developments.

I was contending with my own flailing emotions, in a situation that didn’t fully allow for them.  The Consulate’s party, after all, was a non-partisan affair.  The State Department personnel in attendance were strictly prohibited by penalty of law from expressing their political opinions.  While I was not myself in any formal way bound by the Hatch Act, it would have violated the spirit of the event to take sides.  In any case, my students were in attendance, and my own style as a teacher has always been to keep my own political opinions more or less off the table in the classroom and in student company.

Somehow I got through it.  I said something that I basically believe – that the democratic institutions of the United States are strong, and that they have overcome bitter partisan divides (and incompetent presidents) in the past.  (It is true, however, that in one tragic case it took a four-year Civil War to settle the issues.)  I also tried to convey to the West Bank audience the diversity of the American population . . and something about the “dislocation” felt by so many white people in small towns and rural communities.  I drew for inspiration on my own visits to and conversations with my close friend Michael Tierney in Harts Country, West Virginia, on my recent reading of Larissa MacFarquhar’s powerful reporting from nearby Logan County in the New Yorker last month, and also on George Packer’s masterful book The Unwinding.  I did my best to conceal my inner turbulence – dwelling on the long view rather than what the unfolding results were saying about us as a nation.  I spoke in something of a haze, and I’m not sure how I concluded or whether I came across as muddled or vaguely coherent.img_4773

Spending the next 90 minutes with my students, however, was cheering.  They were sensitive to the historical consequences,. . but they were also removed enough just to enjoy the occasion:  sampling the plentiful buffet; donning the red, white, and blue hats and foam Statue of Liberty crowns that the Consulate had provided for photo ops;  basking in the attention of senior officials from Washington D.C.  Their pleasure in the moment was a welcome distraction.

Some of my students – especially those who have spent time in the U.S. or who work closely with American institutions – were profoundly repelled by the idea of a Trump presidency.  They have a passionate but not uncritical respect for American ideals, and they found the prospect of a U.S. president who has so openly flaunted his prejudices deeply disturbing.  Leadership by insult, they felt, was common enough around the world, but it astonished them (even beforehand) that half of the U.S. electorate believed that Mr. Trump would make the better president.

Yet others – and many other Palestinians I have spoken with this week – felt little shock and little apprehension.  The most common Palestinian reaction that I heard  went something like this:

When it comes to the situation of the Palestinian people, there was little difference between Clinton and Trump.  U.S. policy has been to “stand with Israel,” and neither of the major-party candidates are likely to break with that tradition.  Sure, leaders in both parties have sometimes made noise about the two-state solution, and have tried to broker deals.  But these efforts come to nothing, because in the end the American government has never shown a willingness to put any real pressure on the Israeli government to find a solution.  The Americans make some public statements about restraining the growth of settlements, but when the Israeli government ignores them, there are no consequences.  The Democrats – Clinton among them – have contributed more rhetoric about justice for the Palestinian people, but in the end the left has not created any real action.   Clinton or Trump, Democrat or Republican – no change is likely.  Sure, Trump may clamp down on visas for Arab visitors, and Muslims in America may face some discrimination . . .but the American government’s position towards Palestine is unlikely to be fundamentally different than it has been before.

That, as I say is a summary of the most commonly-held position that I have heard:  Clinton or Trump, it made no difference.  But a number of people I spoke with this week went further: they argued, in different ways, that a President Donald Trump might very well be better for the Palestinians than a President Hillary Clinton would have been.

One smart lawyer told me that Trump’s frank antipathy towards Muslims and his smarmy coziness with Bibi Netanyahu was actually refreshing and helpful to the Palestinian cause.  These attitudes, he suggested, were deeply ingrained in American politics and society.  But the Democrats have generally been better about masking them.  Democrats adopt lots of high-flown rhetoric, and John Kerry earned thousands of frequent-flier miles.  But in the end the Democrats tend to be in lockstep with their Jewish supporters – no less than their Republican counterparts.  A Trump administration, this Palestinian professional argued, will have no scruples about putting its cards on the table. It may well encourage Israel to speed up the process of settlements – and even to consider annexation of the West Bank.  The frank and open expression of this point-of-view from the American side will help people around the world – and Palestinians themselves – understand just where the U.S. really stands.  This will in turn help mobilize resistance in the Palestinian community and rally external support.

This is a variation on the point-of-view that once had a following among African American civil rights workers – that it was actually better for the movement when unabashed racists were in charge of governments, rather than spineless liberals.

A seasoned Palestinian diplomat advanced a different argument to me.  Trump, he told me, will be a truly terrible American president when it comes to foreign policy.  He knows little about diplomacy, and he disdains alliances. His idea that everything is a win/lose “deal” will cost the U.S. dearly on the international scene.  As a result, under a Trump presidency the U.S. will grow weaker as a global power, losing its power and prestige.  Rather than a unipolar world order, we will at last have a genuinely multi-polar world order, where the U.S. will grudgingly have to share the stage with China and Russia.  (Perhaps two years ago he would also have mentioned the European Union as well, but now . . . )   The Palestinians will benefit from a multi-polar world, because a weaker U.S. will not be able to back Israel as successfully.  China, for example, may also play a part in backing the Palestinian cause (for its own self-interested reasons, naturally).  Trump’s deficiencies just might pay off for Palestine.

A businessman I spoke to had a third theory: that Trump’s unpredictability and independence meant that he might be able to do things for Palestine that Clinton – with all of her political baggage – could never achieve.  Sure Trump enjoyed the support of Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson . . .but no one could really think that Trump was actually “beholden” to Adelson in any serious way.  Billionaires don’t “owe” anything to one another.  Trump owes no one anything, he has no entrenched positions on the Middle East, and he likes “deals.”  It’s worth waiting and seeing whether he just might be the one who could actually take the unorthodox position of putting pressure on Israel to end the occupation –for whatever mysterious reasons may move him.

These are not positions of extremists.  They are all from people who are not only “moderates” in Palestinian political opinion, but who have actively worked with Israelis on the political and economic fronts.  Still, for all of them, ending the occupation is the overriding concern.  However odious Mr. Trump might be as a person, that’s the Americans’ problem.  They are looking at the prospect of his leadership from a frankly self-interested Palestinian point-of-view.

It is hard to blame them.  After 49 years of occupation, it’s easy to understand why Palestinians feel that they do not have the luxury of looking at the broader landscape.  Their lives are hemmed in by checkpoints, restrictions on their travel, a hobbled economy, and little access to justice or the rule of law.  Trump offers them, too, a prospect of “change” that the U.S. “establishment” has not provided.  His sexism and racism are beside the point. Even the likely consequence that obtaining a visa to the U.S. will be harder and harder for Arab visitors and students pales in comparison to any chance to alter the local politics.

These are the arguments that have been offered aloud.  Beneath the surface of some of my conversations, I have also detected an undercurrent of satisfaction that the 2016 election represents a kind of come-uppance to liberal Americans.  Reading tone of voice and wry smiles is an uncertain art, but what I thought I was hearing was this:

The United States has been exposed for what it really IS: a nation with deep divisions, deep anger, and a firm commitment to its own self-interest.  High-minded politicians (and scholars!) disguise American self-absorption well, but it’s an underlying fundamental truth.  If the Trump revolution unmasks some of the hypocrisies of American liberals . . well that’s not altogether a bad thing.

By and large I have just been listening.  This is a humbling moment in many ways, and my own opinions are perhaps not so important.  I do, however, worry that my Palestinian friends and colleagues are underestimating the dangers of unpredictability and instability.  Things are very bad in the Middle East – notably just miles away in Syria.  But if the United States becomes a flagrantly irresponsible actor in the region and around the world, things could get worse, the conflicts even wider. It has happened before. And when things get worse, the powerless suffer.  Some of my Palestinian friends may think that they have nothing more to lose, but I worry that in this they are wrong.

I don’t want to overdo this pessimism – either among my Palestinian colleagues or in my own reaction. As I have said in earlier posts, my students and many others whom I know here are not fatalists.  They detest the occupation, but they also embrace the responsibility that they as Palestinians have to make changes within their own society – to whatever extent that they can.  They are not sitting around waiting for the Americans to make a dramatic move, nor are they wallowing in self-pity.  They are instead thinking about how to improve their own institutions, while at the same time seeking some stability and growth in their own personal situations.  If they are just a little cavalier about this American moment, I cannot hold it against them.  We Americans can’t expect much sympathy for our plight!

Research and Analysis, Skateboards and Olives

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Shaking the tree for olives in the village of A-Sira

Shaking the tree for olives in the village of A-Sira

This week, I am embroiled in a new teaching experience – “Research Methods and Analysis,” which complements the “American Politics” course that has been absorbing me so far.  My Brandeis University colleague Dan Kryder has come to town (taking two weeks off from HIS Fulbright at the British Library) for an intensive two-week stint. We are offering the course to the first-year M.A. students in American Studies and European Studies.   Dan is the instructor of record, but I told him that I would make myself available to help in whatever way I could to enrich the content of the course, so I am assisting.

For the students, the class meets three hours per day, five days/week, for two weeks.  This is a challenge for many of them, because they are juggling work and family responsibilities, in addition to the M.A. program.  Traveling from location to location within the West Bank can be a long and tedious process, so daily travel for class is a hardship.

So Dan and I decided to accommodate them.  Rather than giving the course three hours per day at a single location, we are offering the same sessions twice per day in two locations: the University’s main campus in the village of Abu Dis, and the University’s satellite campus (the Institute for Modern Media) in  Ramallah.  We’ve got around 16 students in each location.  It means six hours per day of teaching, plus a race between Abu Dis and Ramallah to get there in time for the late session. Dan and I have done some dividing of responsibilities – which helps! – but it’s still a fairly grueling schedule.   Still, it’s harder on the students:  one student in American Studies has a fairly senior job in a Palestinian Authority ministry, travels to Europe for work, and his wife just gave birth to the couple’s fourth child!  But somehow he is attending class and turning in his papers. Quite an endeavor.

For the class, we’ve asked them each to construct a research question focused on political opposition to immigration – either in Europe or in the United States.  Obviously it’s a issue that is very much alive on both sides of the Atlantic, and the focus on Muslims on both continents gives Palestinian students some additional incentive to dig deeply.  It’s proving a challenge to balance the mechanical aspects of this (introducing them to the technicalities of the APA style for citations, for example, or warning them about the perils of plagiarism) with the more engaging and substantive aspects of research methods (such as defining a clear research question and conducting a literature review).

To their credit, the students are showing up and forging ahead, understanding that these are tools that they need to acquire. Still, I think that the American Studies students will be happy when we can return to the arcana of politics in the United States . . and the new future after November 8!

After crowing in my last couple of posts about how quiet the Al-Quds University campus and that no class days have been lost, recent weeks have had their share of disruptions.  I showed up at 9:00 a.m.one Sunday morning to an empty parking lot and empty halls.  Apparently the union for teachers and staff had called a one-day strike – announced on their Facebook page shortly before midnight on the previous evening.  Over the intervening eight hours, the word apparently got around efficiently to faculty, staff and students – to all, apparently, except the clueless visiting scholar.  It wasn’t bad, really.  I got to have coffee with one faculty member with whom I’d been meaning to connect, and I caught up on my students’ papers. . . and as it happened my own classes didn’t meet that day, so I didn’t lose any class time.  But it was a reminder that things can change quickly.  I never did get fully to the bottom of the issues behind the strike – it appeared that it was, at least in part, a response to the administration’s plan for increasing the University’s efficiency.  But the details were obscure to me.

Then there was the first day of the Research Methods class, when about 20 minutes before the end of class the young women nearest the window started covering their mouths and noses with their handkerchiefs.  Dan Kryder blazed right ahead, showing himself a faculty leader determined to proceed with the class no matter the obstacles.  But maybe it was just that his eyes and throat weren’t quite as sensitive to tear gas.  The incident – which apparently involved some back-and-forth with a jeep of Israeli soldiers – took place up the hill, at some distance from our Faculty of Arts classroom.  And it was raining, which helped minimize the effects.  So the impact wasn’t as great on us down the hill as it might have been.

On the plus side, the AQU campus is host to a constant series of overseas visitors, academic and cultural events, and extra-curricular innovations.  Unfortunately, I missed the opening of the University’s vegan cafeteria – a first for Palestine – which they opened in response to student demand.  Two American friends — Peter Hilton and Jodi Hilton —  came to campus with me today, and their visit reminded me to emphasize just how normal Al-Quds University looks most days of the week.  Students proceed with their classes, hang out drinking coffee, and celebrate the completion of mid-term exams.  With the weather still comfortable, a lot of campus life is still outside – in the pleasant gardens and cafes that the University has carefully cultivated and expanded over the two decades that I have been involved here.  Yes, the high and forbidding Israeli concrete wall  that separates Abu Dis from Jerusalem rings the western edge of the campus – a constant reminder of the political climate.  But inside, students go about the business of . .  .being students.

Last week I found a day to head up to the northern West Bank city of Nablus to visit two friends there.  Mohammed Sawalha is a longtime friend – a professor of English language at an-Najah University who also runs an innovative NGO called the Palestinian House of Friendship.  Mahmoud Suleiman is a newer friend – the other Fulbright Scholar in the West Bank in 2016-17.  Mahmoud teaches education in Bakersfield, California.  As it happens, he grew up outside of Nablus in A-Sira, the same village as Mohammed  . .. and they are even related.  But my visit provided the first occasion for the two of them to get together since Mahmoud arrived in Nablus in August.

It was interesting to spend the day on a different Palestinian campus.  An-Najah is the largest of the Palestinian universities, with 23,000 students or so, scattered across an old campus and a new campus with dramatic views of the city’s valley setting.  While there, I had a chance to listen in as a few students (many of them from the engineering faculty) practiced for an English-language debate competition.

Two students from An-Najah University practice for their debate.

Two students from An-Najah University practice for their debate.

The question was: Should Palestinians who are educated outside of the country have an obligation to return to Palestine, or is it OK if they stay and live abroad?   (Well, that’s not the exact wording, but you get the idea.)  The students were either terrific actors – or else they really brought deeply-felt and well-reasoned arguments to both sides of this difficult question.   They also had the benefit of working with Alia Gilbrecht, a dedicated staff member from the United States.

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Mohammed Sawalha and Mahmoud Suleiman in the new skateboard part in A-Sira

Later in the day, I had the pleasure of visiting the amazing skateboard park that Mohammed and his colleagues at the Palestinian House of Friendship completed in the last year.  Set on a beautiful hilltop in the village of A-Sira, it attracts young people from Nablus and the surrounding communities to hone their skills under the tutelage of international volunteers.  Mohammed even hopes to see the park be the training ground for a Palestinian skateboard team at the 2020 Olympics.  On to Tokyo!


Tasting newly processed olive oil in the village of A-Sira with Mohammed Sawalha

The day in Nablus concluded with a short stint in Mahmoud’s family’s olive groves.  It was the heart of olive picking season, so I got my turn to knock some of the small green fruits from the tree, and to drink tea from water boiled over olive wood. A visit to the A-Sira town press gave me a chance to sample the oil straight from the final stage of filtration!

Today, of course, everyone here is focused on what will happen tomorrow in the U.S. presidential election.  I was commandeered into service at the last moment this morning to speak in Dr. Mohammad Abu Koash’s political theory class about the Electoral College.  I hope that I didn’t confuse them too much!  As I think that I’ve said before, many of my students find Trump distasteful . . .but their enthusiasm for Clinton is tempered by their low expectations of her advocacy for the Palestinian cause.  But at the very least, they are primed to understand the state-by-state process as the returns come in here early Wednesday morning!

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