A Temporary Farewell

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My year as a Fulbright Fellow at Al-Quds University has come to an end.   I am writing this post en route to the United States, nine and-a-half months after my arrival in Jerusalem.  I’m sentimental about this departure, but I will be maintaining a significant commitment to the American Studies program and to Al-Quds University more generally in the year (and the years) to come.

I put my students through a challenging final few weeks.  First they had to complete their research projects for “Leadership in American Life,” papers of 20-40 pages that analyzed the life and work of an individual or an organization.  Then they sat for their exam on “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice,” in which they had to try to make sense of the American experience through the lenses of race, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality.

With American Studies student Helda Ereqat and the gifts that the students gave me.

After they finished writing and I finished reading and grading, we celebrated.  First we put some finishing touches on the American Studies library, which is now reasonably well organized into coherent sections. We’ve still got some cataloguing work to do in 2017-18, but at least now a student can reasonably well browse sections on literature, foreign policy, gender, popular culture, religion, and so forth.  (Yes, some books have stickers indicating multiple categories.)

Then we headed in a caravan to the town of Beit Jalla, adjacent to Bethlehem for a year-end celebration.  The original plan was for a barbeque in a public place called Solomon’s Pools, but the students thought better of it.  With Palestinian prisoners into the fifth week of a hunger strike, the spectacle of a group of young people enjoying cooked meats in the open air seemed insensitive (and might have aroused an angry response from others in the area).  So we opted for a lunch at a restaurant called Makhrour, in a dramatic setting on a remote hilltop.  We talked over how far we had come during the year, enjoyed lunch together, and then the group presented me with two beautiful gifts – handmade tile and glass works, one framed for the wall, the other mounted on an organizer for my desk.  I was touched and honored by their thoughtfulness.

We also discussed their upcoming summer study tour.  I felt from the beginning that some kind of guided experience in the United States is a crucial element of American Studies for students from overseas.  So we have managed to organize a two-week tour in mid-July.  I had been hoping for a more extensive program, but it was difficult to raise the funds.  (There was no way that most of them could begin to afford this without a subsidy.)   Eventually I managed to cobble together enough from various sources to manage a short visit to Boston, New York, and Washington D.C., and they are excited about the opportunity.

My last three days were absorbed in part by a conference that Al-Quds University hosted under the title, “Jerusalem: Fifty Years of Occupation.”  This month, Israelis are marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day Way by celebrating the “unification” and the “liberation” of Jerusalem.  In fact today Israel is celebrating “Jerusalem Day,” since this is the date on the Hebrew calendar that the Israeli army succeeded in re-taking the city from Jordan.

Al-Quds University, in cooperation with some of the leading Palestinian-Israelis in the Knesset, wanted to showcase the Palestinian perspective.  The focus over three days of speeches and papers was on the experience of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.  Those families feel both hemmed in and neglected by what they perceive as a steady and systematic half-century effort by Israeli to “Judaize” the city and displace its Palestinian residents.  Palestinians in Jerusalem have an anomalous status – residents of the city, but not citizens of Israel, which puts them at a disadvantage for jobs, services, education, and which, by many accounts, undermines their dignity.  I’ll try to give a fuller account of the complexities of Jerusalem and the messages of this conference in a later post.

Of course, my last days also coincided with the visit of President Trump.  I’m afraid that in the whirlwind of my own preparations for departure, I did not have time to follow closely and think about the impact of his visit, much less really talk about it in depth with my students, friends, and colleagues.  This will have to be done from a distance, as both he and I have cleared out of town!

I don’t have time today for a longer consideration of my experience of this academic year.  And perhaps, too, I need a little time for more thoughtful reflection over the summer.  But the good news is that my connection to the students and the university will continue in a concrete way.  As I mentioned, I will be hosting the American Studies students in July in the U.S.  And during the next academic year, I will be spending a total of 12-15 weeks at AQU, where I will be helping students with their Master’s research projects, as well as continuing to help put the program onto a solid footing.  I will also do part of that work from the United States – one of the big challenges is to raise a substantial sum over the medium term and long term to support tuition scholarships for the students, as well as to be able to bring in U.S. faculty members to offer a truly outstanding program.

I am leaving in a swirl of conflicting feelings, but the most powerful among them is gratitude. Above everything, I was extraordinarily well cared-for this year by two of my closest friends in the world, AQU president Dr. Imad Abu Kishek and my 20-year AQU counterpart, Dr. Khuloud Khayyat Dajani.  My immediate colleagues in the Global Studies Institute, Dr. Amneh Badran and Dr. Mohammad Abu Koash, were everything that I could want from partners in an effort to raise intellectual standards and academic output.  I was glad to be able to continue a program started with great effort over many years by Dr. Mohammed Dajani.   The American Studies students whom I came to know over the course of year inspired me with their scholarly commitment, their personal resilience in the face of tough circumstances, and their fierce loyalty to one another.  Newer friends like Ghassan Al-Deek and Adel Ghaith made sure that I took some time to enjoy the country between periods of intense immersion in work.  I thoroughly enjoyed learning Arabic this year with Saed Mashal; any shortcomings in my progress are entirely my own fault, not his!  To former AQU President Sari Nusseibeh, whose intellect and courage have always inspired me, I am grateful for two decades of friendship, sometimes through choppy waters. My Brandeis colleagues Dan Kryder and Sue Lanser, with whom I have worked on AQU projects together for more than a decade, made invaluable contributions through multiple visits over the course of the year.  My co-workers at the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis University successfully hid their frustrations at the extra work that fell to them during my absence; I’m particularly grateful to Cynthia Cohen for serving as acting director this year.  Gina Cabrera-Farraj and her colleagues in the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem made me comfortable and proud to serve with the support of the United States government.  In Jerusalem, my neighbors Ellen and Dov Spolsky and Howard Rosen and Ron Kronish hosted me regularly, and made me feel that I always had a home for holidays and Friday nights. David Benninga made sure that I was comfortable and well-settled in my wonderful house with its beautiful garden.   Also in Jerusalem, I’m grateful for that James and Tina Snyder took me under their wing; their friendship will be one of the great legacies of this journey.   Many other friends and colleagues too numerous to list made time for stimulating conversations in many corners of Israel and Palestine, helping me see a region that I have visited regularly for more than twenty years in a new light.  My son Theo and his fiancée (!) Shelly Alchanati, based in Tel Aviv, took care of me with a thoughtfulness that far exceeded what any father can reasonably expect from his children.  Finally, without the support and love of my wife Maggie, none of this would have been possible.  She patiently endured my absences, obsessions, and distractions, and then uprooted herself (and our dog Phoebe!) for more than half of the year so that we could share this extraordinary experience together.

After an extended family get-together in California (happy birthday, Susan Terris!), I will be back at Brandeis by early June.  But attachments to Al-Quds University – and to the city from which it takes its name – are stronger than ever.

Seismic Shifts

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We closed the semester in my class on “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice” with two quite interesting class sessions.

After talking for much of the term about the struggles for equality of racial, ethnic and religious groups, we turned to the issue of LGBT rights in our penultimate session.  Our focus was on the seismic shift in American law and public opinion over the last 20 years on gay marriage.

My students, found, I think, the conversation somewhat unsettling. Most came into the class steeped in a conservative society’s view that same-sex relationships were “abnormal.”  Some were clearly uncomfortable even that the topic was raised in a classroom discussion.  Yet most were also struggling with their own opinions, believing that in some way that LGBT people were owed some form of rights and respect even if their behavior was morally questionable.  A handful said bravely that their opinions about gays had evolved, and they saw and understood LGBT rights as parallel to and intertwined with the rights of other marginalized and oppressed groups in U.S. life.  But the majority saw LGBT identity as a matter of “choice,” and thereby not entitled to the same level of protection by society that was owed to people who faced discrimination because of accidents of birth.

I tried to shift the conversation away from the moral issues to the larger question how a democratic society deals with differences at the level of basic values.  Within our classroom, I said, we were bound to have significant differences – just as every society has such differences.  The question that we had to wrestle with was this:  how does the United States, as a democratic society, use the law and other tools to promote equality and mutual respect even in the face of ideological and moral diversity?

I was aided in this part of the discussion by the presence of my brother, Michael Terris, who in his work as a political consultant has been involved with the emergence of gay political leaders in San Francisco and California more generally.  Michael was very direct in speaking of LGBT equality as a matter of simple justice, and he provided a capsule history of the evolution of public opinion in the U.S. on this subject over the past quarter-century.  The students were surprised at this shift, though we also took pains to let them know that acceptance of gay couples and families varied widely from region to region in the U.S., and often, of course, within individual communities as well.

We did not have time to explore the issue thoroughly (I’m counting on my colleague Sue Lanser to explore this topic in more depth in her course on “Gender and the American Experience” in fall 2017!), but I think that the discussion began to open some minds to thinking about diversity and equality in broader terms than they had previously considered.

For the last class session, we did some readings on working-class whites in the U.S., and issues of marginalization and outsiderness on the basis of class.  Selections from Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and Larissa MacFarquhar’s excellent reporting from rural West Virginia for the New Yorker (from October 2016) provided the backdrop for our discussion.  MacFarquhar’s article included an in-depth profile of a third-generation Arab American, now a dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter who roundly rejected (and resented) the implication that support for Mr. Trump was fueled by racism or anti-Arab sentiment.

Among other things, we had a chance to talk about the paradoxes of American patriotism.  It was puzzling to some how the United States could generate such fervent devotion and such unfettered anger – from the same people at the same time.  Yet it resonated with them as well.  The most fervent Palestinian nationalists can also be unsparing their critique of their current leadership.

Today, students are finishing up their research papers on various American “leaders,” a kind of warm-up for the more ambitious research projects that most of them will take for their Master’s theses next year.  On Sunday, they will sit for their final exam for “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice.”    Then they’ll breathe a sigh of relief, and be able to turn a little more attention again to their full-time jobs and their families.

Too bad there are no more class sessions.  I’d be curious to hear what they have to say today about the sacking of Mr. Comey!  But I think that they are too busy working on their research papers to focus on that right now.

A worn thread through the West Bank

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The wall separating Israel from the West Bank, immediately opposite the main gate of Al-Quds University in Abu Dis.

At the entrance to Abu Dis, the village on the edge of Jerusalem where Al-Quds University is located, there is a congested traffic circle.  Big yellow vans – shared taxis – double park to discharge passengers.  Wares from hardware and kitchen stores spill into the street.  Cars dart in and out of driveways to the ubiquitous repair shops.   If traffic is clogged in one direction or the other, drivers pull out and accelerate up the wrong side of the street, sometimes in the process creating secondary traffic jams going both ways.  Drivers like me going 270 degrees around the circle nagivate between all of these distractions, as well as pedestrians threading their way from one side to the other.

It would be an otherwise unremarkable traffic circle in the West Bank, except for this: the road through this congested intersection lies on the only route between the northern and southern halves of the West Bank that Palestinians are allowed to traverse.  If you are traveling from Bethlehem to the seat of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, or if you live in Hebron and wish to visit cousins in Nablus, the road through Abu Dis is the only way to get there.  At rush hour, you can easily wait 20 or 30 minutes at the traffic circle, while young men from the neighborhood jump into the fray to volunteer as informal traffic cops, waving cars around to allow the gridlock to ease.

Once upon a time, there was another way.  The direct route from south to north goes right through Jerusalem, offering many options when traffic gets clogged.  But most Palestinians who live in the West Bank do not have permits to enter Jerusalem or Israel, so they have to take the scenic back road around Jerusalem through Wadi Nar, past the Container checkpoint, through the middle of Abu Dis, and then past the front gate of the enormous settlement of Maale Adumim.   During rush hour, the journey from Bethlehem to Ramallah – only 10 miles or so if one could drive directly – can easily take an hour-and-a-half or more.

The roadway is a reminder of the constrained circumstances under which so many Palestinians in the West Bank live.  Everywhere the Israeli occupation imposes limits: on where Palestinians can go, what they can buy, to whom they can sell.  Even for those with decent jobs and a reasonable standard of income, these limitations are simply baked into everyday existence.  If West Bank residents want a day in the sun, they cannot by and large drive an hour to enjoy the shores of the Mediterranean; they must make do with the below-sea-level desert heat of Jericho.  If they want to start any kind of business that involves good, services, or capital, everything has to go through the byzantine complexities of cross-border exchange through Israeli checkpoints.  If they approach the main gate of the Al-Quds University campus, they come face-to-face with a high concrete barrier that keeps them safely separate from neighborhoods of Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites, that once were minutes away.

Here I am leaving aside the harsher aspects of the occupation: encounters with Israeli soldiers and police; pre-dawn raids; conflicts on agricultural land with residents of settlements; “administrative detention” policies that allow Palestinians to be held in prison for months without charges.   These matters obviously have an impact too.  But the day-to-day constraints in the West Bank affect everyone, even those with positions of privilege.  A life of limitations is bound to have its costs.

No wonder Palestinians have a reputation for being the most avid users of social media in the world; if your life is hemmed in by political circumstances, virtual networks are one way to break somewhat loose.

In another month, Israel will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war, and particular the re-unification of the city of Jerusalem.  The Palestinians will mark the same date as the 50th anniversary of the occupation.

Most of my students, Palestinian professionals in their twenties and thirties, grew up under occupation, or have at least lived their adult lives under its constraints.  They maintain a spirit of hope about making changes within Palestinian society, but the years of limitations have taken their toll on their optimism about the larger prospects for Palestinian dignity and freedom.

The daily grind reinforces their adherence to a conventional Palestinian narrative.  Since 1967, as they understand it, Israel has tightened a noose around the Palestinians, moving more and more Jewish Israelis into settlements up and down the West Bank.  The Israeli goal seems clear to them:  annexation of the West Bank, and somehow the removal of the Palestinians or their diminishment to a state of insignificance.  Most of them believe that Zionism’s logic, if taken to its end point, will ultimately push Palestinians into smaller and smaller spaces.  The small box that they are living in – marked off in many places by a high concrete wall – will keep getting smaller.

They understand, of course, that Israelis live in fear as well, that the steady presence of the soldiers and the walls and the roadblocks has its roots in profound insecurity.  They understand, too, that the people of the West Bank have it better than the Palestinians in Gaza, where two million live in a virtual prison governed by a political and military organization that embraces violence.

But though their box may be more permeable than that of Gaza, it is still a box.  And it’s not hard to see how a world of narrow options is a breeding ground for resentment, especially when they need look no further than a few miles away to a place where the opportunities appear to be endless.

Palestinians look across the Green Line to Israel’s vibrant start-up culture and its spirit of unbounded possibility with envy.  Yes, start-ups are possible on the West Bank as well, but the hurdles to success are much, much higher, given the lack of capital, the lack of reliable infrastructure, and the artificial constraints on markets, among other factors.  Even the most motivated individuals can be worn down in a place where you can count the available routes on the fingers of your hands.

They are open to solutions.  President Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to President Donald Trump lifted some spirits here this week.   Seeing the Palestinian flag over the shoulder of the U.S. president offered some symbolic solace.  And despite Trump’s ties to some staunch supporters of the Israeli settler community (including the new ambassador to Israel), many still hold out hope that the president’s idiosyncrasies may be just the thing that the stultified peace process needs.

Still, it seems clear that nothing will make any substantial difference until Palestinians are able to make with some consistency the kinds of choices that free people can take for granted:  which road to travel, which career to pursue, which passions to follow.  The road through Abu Dis is a worn thread through the middle of the West Bank.  It is nowhere near strong enough to bear the aspirations of a proud people.

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