International Women’s Day is a holiday at Al-Quds University, so I have a little time to breathe and catch up. In addition to teaching two (new!) courses this spring, I am involved in a variety of other projects at Al-Quds University – mainly initiatives that connect the university to people and institutions overseas. So I have been going full-tilt . .and suddenly I find myself nearly halfway through my second semester.
Naturally, the new American administration continues as a major topic here, and every week provides new events that I can tie in to our class discussions.
For example, we did a week on Native Americans and land expropriation the same week that the U.S. government closed the Standing Rock camp. It was also the same week that the Israeli Knesset passed a law that legalized, both retrospectively and prospectively, the seizure of Palestinian private land for the expansion of settlements. (This law is expected to be tested in the Israeli courts, and is widely believed that it will not survive the judicial test.)
Similarly, a discussion of Asian Americans focused on the Korematsu case, the unsuccessful 1944 legal challenge to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The case, which has never been reversed, stands as one of the most infamous examples in U.S. history of the courts bowing to the argument that the executive branch should have free hand when it comes to national security. It’s obvious how this led us naturally to the balance (or imbalance) between security and rights in our own time.
Most recently, we did a session on Jewish American history, just as the news of anti-Semitic acts and threats across the U.S. was coming to a head. It was great to be able to have as our guest for the class Professor Jonathan Sarna, my colleague from Brandeis University, who is the world’s foremost authority on American Jewish History. The class on “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice” cannot possible cover every topic in depth, so I asked Jonathan to focus on a case study. He chose anti-Semitism in the 1920s, as spearheaded by Henry Ford through the publication of The International Jew, a kind of American adaptation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The ensuing discussion, both on-line and in person, was fascinating. Some of my students quickly grasped the nature of Ford’s propaganda, understanding that anti-Semitic sentiment represented a corrosive threat not only to Jewish people but to American values. One student boldly pointed out to her classmates that many of Ford’s stories about Jews were “fabricated,” but that conspiracy theories about Jewish people and anti-Jewish sentiments are widely present in the Arab world today.
As though to prove her point, some other students found in Ford’s words a persuasive echo of things that they had heard many times before. While they found themselves troubled by over-generalization, they were not necessarily convinced at first that The International Jew was inherently anti-Jewish.
The secondary readings that they read traced the history after the 1920s into the 1950s, when Henry Ford II (the original Henry’s grandson) tried to make amends by establishing close connections between the country and Jewish organizations, especially offering support for the newborn state of Israel. For some of my students, this was too much. “Both Henry Ford I and Henry Ford II went to excesses,” complained one student, arguing that the younger Ford’s support for Israel came at the direct expense of the Palestinian people. Students were impressed and moved, however, by the contemporary accounts of the Muslim communities in the U.S. that have been responding in recent weeks to anti-Jewish acts with support and donations.
In any case, it was a fruitful discussion, and will allow us to continue to explore topics related to the Jewish community into the future, alongside the experiences of other groups. I imagine that we will get closer, as time goes on, to the question of the U.S. role in the Middle East (though they will have a whole course related to THAT topic in Fall 2017).
My other colleague/guest this week was Sue Lanser, a scholar of comparative literature and Women’s and Gender Studies who recently retired from Brandeis. Sue led a section on “Women and Leadership,” which allowed her to explore the issue of “intersectionality,” as well as to introduce the courageous example of another Brandeis colleague, Anita Hill. (One student was so inspired that she immediately switched the topic of her major research project to focus on Hill and sexual harassment.)
Meanwhile, this region is experiencing, perhaps, less frenzy over the new American administration than people inside the United States. While the flow of news (and fake news!) from Washington continues at high volume, the administration’s full impact on the Israeli/Palestinian situation has, in point of fact, yet to be felt. The threatened move of the U.S. embassy to Tel Aviv seems to be on permanent hold (in other words, the same situation that has persisted for 20 years). The new U.S. ambassador has still not been confirmed. Mixed signals from Washington seem to be stifling bold action here, although the “regularization” or “land grab” law referenced above is certainly a major step. President Trump has declared that he doesn’t care whether there’s a one state or a two state solution or any other solution as long as everyone is happy. There’s a curious sense in which Trump’s words reflect a widespread attitude among both Israelis and Palestinians: that the very vocabulary of the “two state solution” has become so freighted and stale that language itself sometimes feels like an obstacle to progress. But the prospect of making everyone happy in any kind of solution seems rather dim. (Perhaps Trump may wish to consider the “317,000,000 state solution,” as proposed here.)
While the overall situation here has been, in relative terms, “quiet,” this doesn’t mean that it is without incident, especially within the Palestinian territories. Clashes between the IDF and community members are a daily occurrence in various locations, and disruptions and shootings at checkpoints are regular. Protests over the Israeli practice of “administrative detention” have disrupted traffic and sometimes closed entirely Qalandia, the main checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. (I read the English language web site of the Ma’an news organization, where one of my students works, to try to keep somewhat up to date.)
Next on the political docket here is the possible annexation of Ma’ale Adumim, the very large settlement just outside of Jerusalem that I pass by every time I go to the University’s Abu Dis campus. The right wing parties in Israel would like to advance this move as a prelude to annexing the entire West Bank. But the move is clever, because many Israelis have come to feel that this bedroom community, whose residents mostly came for the relatively inexpense housing, is already really a part of Jerusalem. It is considered something different from more remote settlements whose residents are fueled by passion for reclaiming Judea and Samaria for the Jewish people. But my daily commute is a vivid reminder of how sensitive this would be. The road that I take abuts the settlement, and it is also the only legal route for Palestinians traveling between the northern and southern halves of the West Bank. Annexing Ma’ale Adumim would mean, in effect that Palestinians traveling from Ramallah to Bethlehem, for example, would have to cross through Israel proper. The two halves of the West Bank would be severed, which would feel to the Palestinians like a further blow to the viability of a Palestinian state. The vote on this controversial proposal keeps getting delayed, apparently at the request of the Netanyahu government. The last I saw, the vote was pushed back to March 12 . .but who knows.
On the positive side, there is . . the weather! Spring has arrived full throttle here, with mild sunny days this week, and flowers and trees in opulent bloom. The hills in both Israel and the West Bank are bursting with green, but we are still some weeks away from punishing heat. At Al-Quds University, the outdoor campus has come to life again, with students thronging around the fountain, in the gardens around the cafeterias. In these days I’m sure that the campus is a pleasant oasis for students from the rigors of life here beyond the campus gates.