The “Holy Fire,” as seen from the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher


It’s the end Easter break week at Al-Quds University, and we are coming into the home stretch of the spring semester.  The students in my class on “Leadership in American Life” are deep into their research projects on significant figures in the field of their choice.  Last week we had presentations on Eleanor Roosevelt, Condoleezza Rice, Sheryl Sandberg, and Anita Hill.  This week we’ll be hearing about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Harry Truman, Frances Perkins (the first woman member of the cabinet . . .secretary of labor under FDR), and Huey P. Newton!  The assignment asks students to research key historical moments in the professional lives of their subjects, and to analyze their work with reference to some of the scholarly literature on leadership.  Among other things, the idea is to give them a taste of what it means to undertake long research project with several stages and much re-writing . . . a kind of warm-up for the Master’s thesis that I hope that most of them will undertake during the next academic year.

Interestingly, they seem to be struggling a bit with one requirement that I thought might be easy – making connections between issues in the U.S. and issues in Palestine.  For some it’s easy.  The student who is writing about Harry Truman is very interested in the dynamics of Truman’s decision to back the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.  (He has zeroed in on the political advantage that Truman was seeking by courting favor with the Jewish community in the run-up to the 1948 presidential election.)  And the student who is writing on the Black Panthers has ample opportunity to consider attempts at solidarity between radical black activists in the U.S. and Palestinian activists.  For others, this is tougher, perhaps because the issues can be sensitive.  The young woman writing about Anita Hill, for example, may be struggling with the challenges of writing about issues of sexual harassment in Palestinian society – an issue widely discussed in private but not much in public.  And Condoleeza Rice’s response to the 2006 Palestinian elections brings up the delicate question of the manner in which both the Fatah and Hamas parties in many ways abandoned democratic institutions in the wake of that troubled contest.

Meanwhile, all eyes and ears are on local political matters.  The hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody has inspired rallies of support across the West Bank, even as it has inspired cries of outrage in the Israeli community.  The strike is still in its first week; it remains to be seen how things might heat up if the prisoners maintain their discipline and hunger begins to take a physical toll on them.  Now that a date has been set for the visit by Mahmoud Abbas to Washington D.C. to visit President Trump, speculation about the future of the peace process is also on the rise.  But there are concerns as well.  One of Washington’s key demands is that the Palestinian Authority cease payments to the families of prisoners – a demand that would be difficult to meet under any circumstances, but is particularly challenging with the emotional charge of the hunger strike.

With Passover and Easter coinciding this year, Jerusalem was particularly frenzied.  With the help of our friends James Snyder and Tina Davis, Maggie and I secured a special perch to watch an extraordinary ritual: the miracle of the Holy Fire in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City.  The day before Easter, in the Orthodox tradition, a special flame emanates from the tomb of Jesus.  The Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the tomb and emerges with a taper lit from that flame, which in turn is used to light hundreds .  .and then thousands of tapers of ecstatic worshippers  inside the church . . then outside the church . . and then thanks to the miracles of modern transportation, to Orthodox churches all over the world.   (Yes, the lit flames are carried in special boxes on airplanes so that the Holy Fire can make its appearance on Easter morning in churches in every corner of the globe.)

Maggie and I (and our son Theo and his fiancée Shelly) had an amazing view from a balcony near the top of the dome inside the church.  From there we could look down as the Patriarch made his way three times around the sepulcher, then entered the holy place . . and then we watched with amazement as men ran at full speed through the crowds, bearing the torches and the light and the smoke filled the cavernous space as taper touched taper below us.

Now, with the holidays behind us, I will be settling into an intensive final month here, with a great deal to accomplish between now and late May, when I depart for the U.S.  I have this year’s coursework to finish, and also a lot of planning to ensure the smooth continuation of the American Studies program in the fall of 2017 and beyond.

Many thanks to the many people who contributed new books to the American Studies library!  My students have been inhaling them as part of their research projects.  I will be re-filling my on-line wishlist over the summer, in anticipation of bringing another suitcase full when I return for some shorter visits in the fall.