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.