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.