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


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.

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