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.

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