Research and Analysis, Skateboards and Olives

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Shaking the tree for olives in the village of A-Sira

Shaking the tree for olives in the village of A-Sira

This week, I am embroiled in a new teaching experience – “Research Methods and Analysis,” which complements the “American Politics” course that has been absorbing me so far.  My Brandeis University colleague Dan Kryder has come to town (taking two weeks off from HIS Fulbright at the British Library) for an intensive two-week stint. We are offering the course to the first-year M.A. students in American Studies and European Studies.   Dan is the instructor of record, but I told him that I would make myself available to help in whatever way I could to enrich the content of the course, so I am assisting.

For the students, the class meets three hours per day, five days/week, for two weeks.  This is a challenge for many of them, because they are juggling work and family responsibilities, in addition to the M.A. program.  Traveling from location to location within the West Bank can be a long and tedious process, so daily travel for class is a hardship.

So Dan and I decided to accommodate them.  Rather than giving the course three hours per day at a single location, we are offering the same sessions twice per day in two locations: the University’s main campus in the village of Abu Dis, and the University’s satellite campus (the Institute for Modern Media) in  Ramallah.  We’ve got around 16 students in each location.  It means six hours per day of teaching, plus a race between Abu Dis and Ramallah to get there in time for the late session. Dan and I have done some dividing of responsibilities – which helps! – but it’s still a fairly grueling schedule.   Still, it’s harder on the students:  one student in American Studies has a fairly senior job in a Palestinian Authority ministry, travels to Europe for work, and his wife just gave birth to the couple’s fourth child!  But somehow he is attending class and turning in his papers. Quite an endeavor.

For the class, we’ve asked them each to construct a research question focused on political opposition to immigration – either in Europe or in the United States.  Obviously it’s a issue that is very much alive on both sides of the Atlantic, and the focus on Muslims on both continents gives Palestinian students some additional incentive to dig deeply.  It’s proving a challenge to balance the mechanical aspects of this (introducing them to the technicalities of the APA style for citations, for example, or warning them about the perils of plagiarism) with the more engaging and substantive aspects of research methods (such as defining a clear research question and conducting a literature review).

To their credit, the students are showing up and forging ahead, understanding that these are tools that they need to acquire. Still, I think that the American Studies students will be happy when we can return to the arcana of politics in the United States . . and the new future after November 8!

After crowing in my last couple of posts about how quiet the Al-Quds University campus and that no class days have been lost, recent weeks have had their share of disruptions.  I showed up at 9:00 Sunday morning to an empty parking lot and empty halls.  Apparently the union for teachers and staff had called a one-day strike – announced on their Facebook page shortly before midnight on the previous evening.  Over the intervening eight hours, the word apparently got around efficiently to faculty, staff and students – to all, apparently, except the clueless visiting scholar.  It wasn’t bad, really.  I got to have coffee with one faculty member with whom I’d been meaning to connect, and I caught up on my students’ papers. . . and as it happened my own classes didn’t meet that day, so I didn’t lose any class time.  But it was a reminder that things can change quickly.  I never did get fully to the bottom of the issues behind the strike – it appeared that it was, at least in part, a response to the administration’s plan for increasing the University’s efficiency.  But the details were obscure to me.

Then there was the first day of the Research Methods class, when about 20 minutes before the end of class the young women nearest the window started covering their mouths and noses with their handkerchiefs.  Dan Kryder blazed right ahead, showing himself a faculty leader determined to proceed with the class no matter the obstacles.  But maybe it was just that his eyes and throat weren’t quite as sensitive to tear gas.  The incident – which apparently involved some back-and-forth with a jeep of Israeli soldiers – took place up the hill, at some distance from our Faculty of Arts classroom.  And it was raining, which helped minimize the effects.  So the impact wasn’t as great on us down the hill as it might have been.

On the plus side, the AQU campus is host to a constant series of overseas visitors, academic and cultural events, and extra-curricular innovations.  Unfortunately, I missed the opening of the University’s vegan cafeteria – a first for Palestine – which they opened in response to student demand.  Two American friends — Peter Hilton and Jodi Hilton —  came to campus with me today, and their visit reminded me to emphasize just how normal Al-Quds University looks most days of the week.  Students proceed with their classes, hang out drinking coffee, and celebrate the completion of mid-term exams.  With the weather still comfortable, a lot of campus life is still outside – in the pleasant gardens and cafes that the University has carefully cultivated and expanded over the two decades that I have been involved here.  Yes, the high and forbidding Israeli concrete wall  that separates Abu Dis from Jerusalem rings the western edge of the campus – a constant reminder of the political climate.  But inside, students go about the business of . .  .being students.

Last week I found a day to head up to the northern West Bank city of Nablus to visit two friends there.  Mohammed Sawalha is a longtime friend – a professor of English language at an-Najah University who also runs an innovative NGO called the Palestinian House of Friendship.  Mahmoud Suleiman is a newer friend – the other Fulbright Scholar in the West Bank in 2016-17.  Mahmoud teaches education in Bakersfield, California.  As it happens, he grew up outside of Nablus in A-Sira, the same village as Mohammed  . .. and they are even related.  But my visit provided the first occasion for the two of them to get together since Mahmoud arrived in Nablus in August.

It was interesting to spend the day on a different Palestinian campus.  An-Najah is the largest of the Palestinian universities, with 23,000 students or so, scattered across an old campus and a new campus with dramatic views of the city’s valley setting.  While there, I had a chance to listen in as a few students (many of them from the engineering faculty) practiced for an English-language debate competition.

Two students from An-Najah University practice for their debate.

Two students from An-Najah University practice for their debate.

The question was: Should Palestinians who are educated outside of the country have an obligation to return to Palestine, or is it OK if they stay and live abroad?   (Well, that’s not the exact wording, but you get the idea.)  The students were either terrific actors – or else they really brought deeply-felt and well-reasoned arguments to both sides of this difficult question.   They also had the benefit of working with Alia Gilbrecht, a dedicated staff member from the United States.

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Mohammed Sawalha and Mahmoud Suleiman in the new skateboard part in A-Sira

Later in the day, I had the pleasure of visiting the amazing skateboard park that Mohammed and his colleagues at the Palestinian House of Friendship completed in the last year.  Set on a beautiful hilltop in the village of A-Sira, it attracts young people from Nablus and the surrounding communities to hone their skills under the tutelage of international volunteers.  Mohammed even hopes to see the park be the training ground for a Palestinian skateboard team at the 2020 Olympics.  On to Tokyo!


Tasting newly processed olive oil in the village of A-Sira with Mohammed Sawalha

The day in Nablus concluded with a short stint in Mahmoud’s family’s olive groves.  It was the heart of olive picking season, so I got my turn to knock some of the small green fruits from the tree, and to drink tea from water boiled over olive wood. A visit to the A-Sira town press gave me a chance to sample the oil straight from the final stage of filtration!

Today, of course, everyone here is focused on what will happen tomorrow in the U.S. presidential election.  I was commandeered into service at the last moment this morning to speak in Dr. Mohammad Abu Koash’s political theory class about the Electoral College.  I hope that I didn’t confuse them too much!  As I think that I’ve said before, many of my students find Trump distasteful . . .but their enthusiasm for Clinton is tempered by their low expectations of her advocacy for the Palestinian cause.  But at the very least, they are primed to understand the state-by-state process as the returns come in here early Wednesday morning!

“Locker Room Talk,” “Extreme Vetting,” and Other Affairs of State

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(Most of) the first year class in the M.A. Program in American Studies at Al-Quds University

(Most of) the first year class in the M.A. Program in American Studies at Al-Quds University

Those are my students . . . in the dedicated American Studies classroom on the first floor of the Faculty of Arts at Al-Quds University.  The books you see behind them are part of an American Studies library, built up with donations over the 15+ year life of the program under the leadership of Dr. Mohammed Dajani.  There are hundreds of books – many of them classics of American political science and literature, and also many textbooks from a variety of disciplines.  (Yes, that’s a shelf-full of “Library of America” volumes at the upper left of the photo.)    As far as I can tell, the most recent donations came in around 2009 or 2010, so one of my projects for the coming year is to try to update the collection.  Suggestions welcome for sources of high-quality book donations in American politics, literature, and other fields.

Ten days ago, the infamous tape of Donald Trump bragging about groping and grabbing women was breaking news as my American Studies class was meeting.  In deference to my students’ sensibilities, I told them that I was not inclined to show the video as part of our class, though they could easily find it on the internet themselves if they were curious later.  But the group – to a person – insisted that I cue it up and let it roll.  If this was big news in the U.S. and a vital part of the campaign, then they wanted to see it – despite any vulgarities.  Of course I also showed Mr. Trump’s midnight apology-of-sorts (in which he claimed that Bill Clinton had done “far worse”), and we had a robust discussion of the place of sexual innuendo, attitudes, and actions in the course of American campaigns.

The students found the tape distasteful, but their outrage in the immediate aftermath was somewhat muted.  Part of this, I think, was that it was not actually easy for non-native speakers of English to hear what exactly was being said on the tape – the specific phrases that Americans found so shocking weren’t easy to parse in a single screening.  (I declined to show it multiple times!)  But for many of these students, the whole sordid mess represents a distraction from the issues that they would rather be talking about.  So while some of my students expressed strong criticism of Mr. Trump, many took a “pox on both their houses” attitude.   We have been spending a good bit of time on the U.S. Constitution (both its flaws and its glories) in recent weeks – and the contrast between the high-minded debates over the structure of government and what they saw as petty mud-slinging disturbed them greatly.

I did try – with modest success – to persuade them that what is at stake are important matters of government and policy.  It’s not difficult, in the end, to draw connections between attitudes towards women among political leaders, on the one hand, and the ways that government does or not advance the rights, dignity, and equality of women through its policies. And distasteful though the process has been, the campaign has served to continue in a certain way a national conversation about sexism and racism and their embeddedness in American society.

One thoughtful student, mulling all of this over, asked me after class whether Trump may have had a point about Bill Clinton.  We had previously discussed – in the context of studying the Presidency — that Clinton was impeached by the House but not removed from office in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  If Trump is unfit for office because of his attitudes towards women, the student wondered, shouldn’t the country have judged Clinton unfit for his actions with Monica Lewinsky  and the untruths that he told to the American people about those actions?  She understood that the situations were not exactly the same . . .but she also felt like there might be a double standard at work.  It was not an easy question to answer.

When it came to the second debate, we spent more time on the exchange between the candidates on the issue of Muslims in the U.S.  We looked at Trump’s December 2015 call for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. “until we find out what the hell is going on,” and his refinement of that ban to “extreme vetting” in the September 2016 debate.  Many of my students were surprised to learn that Hillary Clinton’s statement that there have been Muslims in the U.S. “since George Washington’s time” was true.  But they were also quite quick to pick up on the fact that Clinton actually echoed one of Trump’s points by saying that the United States needed Muslims to be our “eyes and ears” for potential threats to the country.

We also looked closely at the Republican and Democratic party platform positions on the question of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  To my eyes, there’s quite an enormous difference between them.  The Democrats (influenced heavily by Sanders supporters) voiced support for Israel and opposition to BDS, but also explicitly mentioned the two state solution, and legitimate Palestinian aspirations for independence and dignity.  The Republican platform calls for “unequivocal support” for Israel, and does not even mention the Palestinian people.  My students saw the difference in the rhetoric, but it would be hard to persuade them that the difference in language would make an appreciable difference in policy.  In their opinion, “strong support” for Israel, even if qualified with rhetoric about Palestinian rights, is not going to improve the situation; the recent signing of the multi-year military aid deal between the U.S. and Israel was very much on their minds.

In general, the academic year at Al-Quds University has continued to proceed smoothly.  Unlike in previous years, no class days have been lost yet this academic year to strikes, disturbances, or incursions.  Last year the campus experienced numerous clashes between students and patrolling Israeli police and soldiers.  There was one incident approximately one week ago on the outskirts of campus, where an altercation broke out between some young Palestinians and Israeli forces, and tear gas cannisters were lobbed into campus.  But this incident took place after 4:00 p.m., when most students and faculty (including me) had left the campus.  So the impact was minimal, except, perhaps on those injured (a Palestinian news agency gave that number as 52).

With many Jewish holidays this month and with the busy-ness of the academic year in full swing, I have not had time in the last couple of weeks to travel around.  But I will be holding small group meetings with my students in Bethlehem later this week, and heading to the northern part of the West Bank later in the month to visit another Fulbright Scholar, as well as friends and colleagues in that area.   So I will gradually be expanding my horizons as the fall progresses.

I have had a chance in recent days to spend some time with some of the alumni of the first year of the Our Generation Speaks (OGS) program, whom I got to know at Brandeis this summer.  Yesterday, for example, I visited Abeer Al-Natsheh at the new offices of My Pink Electronics, an IT services company in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina.  Abeer has built from scratch a business of women serving women.  She employs a cadre of female employees who provide IT services from their homes to female-owned businesses in Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Running now at full capacity, Abeer is now exploring options for how to scale up her business – it’s an impressive achievement in a difficult climate.


With Abeer Al-Natsheh at My Pink Electronics office in Beit Hanina, Jerusalem

Hillary and Donald: The View from the West Bank

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The semester at Al-Quds University (AQU) is now in full swing, so my work is now very much up-and running.

After several weeks of intense recruiting, I now have a class of 20 students in the M.A. Program in American Studies.   They are mostly in their twenties, young people who are early in their careers.  Several are working in the media – in broadcast journalism, newspapers or on social media platforms.  Three or four are in business – telecommunications, or accounting, or retail.  One (an older student) is a fairly senior government official in the area of vocational education.  A few are recent graduates – many of these majored in English language, so they are well-prepared for a mostly-English curriculum.

Why do they want to enroll in a graduate program in American Studies? They have a variety of reasons. Some were attracted to the program’s new emphasis on concepts of leadership and entrepreneurship; others were glad that the program’s emphasis on English-language comprehension and writing would be an asset in their careers.  But it is clear that the biggest motivation is their common understanding that the future of Palestinian institutions will depend in fundamental ways on successful interaction with Americans and American institutions.   The most common answer when I asked “Why American Studies?”  in their admissions interviews was some variation on this: “The United States controls the world, so I want to understand how and why.”

So I am teaching American Politics, in a dedicated American Studies classroom packed with thousands of books that have been donated to the program over the years.  That part is fun.  The collection is actually quite impressive  . .and of high quality . . . though the donation program has been dormant in recent years, so the most recent materials are from around 2009.   We squeeze in together around a rectangular table surrounded by books (as well as miscellaneous oddities like years and years of Newsweek magazines from the 1980s).  And we talk American politics.

I’m dividing the class between a more-or-less traditional U.S. politics curriculum, and intense attention to the 2016 presidential election.  We’re immersed in the U.S. Constitution at the moment . . . in our last class, for example, we spent some time talking about the second amendment – its wording, its importance in American culture, its place in the current presidential campaign.  I worried at first that they might find the concept of a “well-regulated militia” confusing . . .but of course, here I was completely off-base.  They’re well acquainted with the English word “militia” – perhaps better than most Americans – because there are plenty of militia-like organizations in the Palestinian sphere.  So we had a lively discussion militias, gun rights, and the role of the gun lobby in U.S. politics – grounded in a brief discussion of the role of militias in the colonies leading up to the American Revolution.

Naturally our attention this week was also fixed on the first presidential debate.  I hosted a debate-watching party at the U.S. Consulate’s outpost (“America House”)  in Ramallah.  (No, we didn’t watch it live at 4:00 a.m. local time . . .we caught it on YouTube!)  Like many Americans, the students were both entertained and appalled.   The most common initial reaction was how little time was spent on pressing issues, and how much devoted to matters of little substantive import like President Obama’s birth certificate or Hillary Clinton’s alleged lack of “stamina.” (A moment that provided an opportunity to expand their English vocabulary!)  “The Iraq war, tax returns, bankruptcies, and Obama’s birth certificate; all of these issues were a waste of time,” one student said.   But some grasped immediately that the debate was as much an opportunity to consider the character and values of the candidates, rather than their detailed positions . . . and they dived into their analyses in this spirit.

I asked them to focus their evaluation of the candidates on the debate itself (rather than the sound bites of the last year), to encourage them to be disciplined about analyzing specific quotations, rather than general impressions.   I have also been careful not to introduce my own political opinions – going out of my way, for example, to help them understand that Trump’s point about the loss of American manufacturing jobs is quite real.  (I have also introduced them to, which I have told them that they MUST check before citing anything the candidates say as “truth.”)

Most found Clinton the more persuasive candidate . . .but the sentiment was not overwhelming.  The majority found Trump overbearing and short on substance: “Trump was acting like a great business man trying to convince the people to buy his great toys,” one said.   but there were strong reservations about Clinton whose depth surprised me.   Some found her untrustworthy.  Others, even her supporters among the class, thought that she failed to articulate a clear enough vision.  “While Hillary so eloquently defended and articulated her party’s investing in the middle class,” said one student, “she did not define how she is going to add her touch to it. How she is going to make it different from Obama’s approach, for example, was unclear to me.”

All were disappointed that the Middle East merited so little attention – the only reference to the Israeli/Palestinian situation was Trump’s off-hand remark about Netanyahu and the Iran deal.  Some of the disappointment about Clinton may reflect the strong “pro-Israel” position that she has been taking this year . . though we did not yet discuss this in the class in depth.

Two more debates to go!  (Sorry Tim and Mike . . I didn’t make the upcoming vp debate mandatory!)

Beyond American Studies I’m involved in a variety of other projects at AQU, building on my relationships with many people across the University.  Last week, for example, I had the pleasure of helping to host my Brandeis colleague Sue Lanser, who came for five days on a project to help AQU re-consider and redesign its English language requirement.  The University recognizes that giving its graduates more command of English is essential to their future employment prospects, so it’s making a big push over the next year.  I’ll play a supporting role in efforts like this.

On the personal front, it was a pleasure to have Maggie here for the past three weeks.  Together we explored Jerusalem, went back-and-forth to Tel Aviv to spend time with my son Theo and his girlfriend Shelly, and headed into Ramallah to visit AQU friends.  She has headed back to the US for the time being . . but has promised that she’ll come for longer next time!

Today is the celebration of the Muslim new year – AQU (usually open on Sundays) is closed.  And meanwhile Jewish Jerusalem and Israel are preparing for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which begins at sunset this evening.  I’ve been blessed with warm invitations to holiday gatherings from friends and friends of friends. . . so I’m looking forward to celebrating and contemplating the new year with the special kind of intensity that Jerusalem provides.  To my friends of all faiths . . .a very happy new year to you and your families, even as we keep our minds and hearts alive to those who are suffering in these turbulent times . . .

A Quiet Start to the Academic Year

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We are now two weeks into the academic year at Al-Quds University, but things start slowly.  By tradition, very little happens during the first week of classes.  Students are still in the process of registering and deciding on their academic programs, and faculty members are still getting organized.  Few classes meet, and the general atmosphere is relaxed.  This year, the second week at AQU was fairly relaxed as well, because it was the week before a vacation!  The Eid-al-Adha holiday, a multi-day celebration, shuts things down for a week, so the semester is still struggling to find its momentum.

I have taken advantage of this slow start to continue my work of recruiting students for the M.A. Program in American Studies.  I paid a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to an American organization that offers English language instruction, and to the offices of a couple of NGOs in Ramallah, as well as spreading the word through AQU faculty, alumni, and the U.S. Consulate.   In the end, the program received several dozen serious inquiries/expressions of interest, and we have accepted a solid class . . .but I won’t really know final numbers for another week or so.  Everyone says that after the Eid ends, the University community will get serious about the academic year.

A quiet start to the academic year at Al-Quds University is a decidedly good thing.  The University had a tumultuous year in 2015-16.  The spate of violence in Jerusalem (and elsewhere in both Israel and the West Bank) took its toll on AQU.  Because the university is so close to Jerusalem (part of the city from the Palestinian point-of-view), reverberations in the broader community are felt very quickly there.  Israeli soldiers were patrolling regularly on the outside of the campus last year, which often led to clashes between students throwing stones and soldiers lobbing tear gas cannisters into the middle of the main courtyard.  Occasionally, Israeli troops forcibly entered the campus itself, leaving broken glass, debris, and minor injuries in their wake.  So far this year, Israeli forces have kept their distance from the campus – at least during school hours – and political activity has been muted.

And at least Al-Quds University is open for business.  The same can’t be said of Bir Zeit University.  Students there succeeded in shutting down the university in an extended protect over a sharp rise in tuition.  For a time a group of students was occupying the campus and had padlocked the gates.  I haven’t heard the latest, but I’m guessing that they have gone home now for the Eid.  But there is still no word on when the school year will start there.

I did attend my first formal academic exercise last week.  Students in the American Studies program are encouraged to undertake an M.A. thesis, which they defend before three faculty members.  I sat in on one student’s defense.  He wrote his thesis on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the U.S. and Palestine, offering comparisons along the way to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the earlier anti-colonial movement in India.  One of the questions that the student wanted most to explore was why BDS has not, in fact, become a “pillar of struggle” within the Palestinian community.  This surprised me a bit.  In the U.S., the BDS movement is getting a lot of attention from the press, and also from Jewish groups which see it as a growing threat to Israeli political, economic, and military security.  Yet according to this student, there is within the Palestinian community relatively little awareness about BDS, and little depth of popular support for its approach.  The student’s presentation was focused more on changing this dynamic than on analyzing it, so I am not completely enlightened about why this is so (presumably there are more answers in the text itself).  But his presentation raised intriguing questions about connections and disconnections between internal and international dimensions of Palestinian resistance.

Today is actually the first day of the Eid.  I spent several hours last night in Ramallah, where the city was still hopping well after 1:00 a.m., as people shopped, got their hair cut (I did too!), and did their last-minute shopping before things shut down for the holiday.  The Eid-al-Adha marks the test of loyalty that God put to Ibrahim in ordering him to sacrifice his son Ismail.  (In the Jewish version of the story, of course, Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac.)   Because God provides a sheep at the last moment in place of the boy, it is a Muslim tradition to eat lamb on the Eid, and for several days many trucks packed with ovine youngsters have been on the roads toward the main Palestinian cities.  Today starts traditionally with a visit to the cemetery to honor the departed among one’s family, and then the visits begin, with much consumption of meet and also with extensive obligations of charity both within and outside of the family.   I will pay my respects to friends later in the day.

In the meantime, I am also getting out and about in the West Bank beyond the Abu Dis campus and the city of Ramallah.  This weekend, I went with my son Theo and his girlfriend Shelly on a guided 14k hike through the beautiful stony hills north of Ramallah.  We started in the village of Nabi Saleh, which has become famous for its weekly demonstrations (the villagers have been trying for years to re-claim access to a spring that was taken over by residents of the Israeli settlement of Halamish, which lies on the next hillside).  From there we went down and up through small villages and down valleys, ending up in the town of Aboud, where we climbed through old Roman tombs and the site of a Byzantine church.  We passed through some of the oldest olive groves in Palestine, two or three surprising springs, and magnificent views across the rocky landscape.  Tough country to work, no doubt, but it was easy to see why people cling to it with such passion.

This Year in Jerusalem/Al-Quds

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I am now ten days or so into my stay in Israel and the West Bank as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar for 2016-17.  I am in residence at Al-Quds University (AQU) , a Palestinian institution, with which I have been associated for many years.  My main job for the year: to teach in and to help develop the university’s M.A. Program in American Studies.  The program was founded in 2003; it has been in transition since its founding director left AQU in 2014.

Over the past year or so, I have been working with the faculty of the Regional Studies Institute at AQU to re-design the program.  Two colleagues from Brandeis University – Sue Lanser and Dan Kryder – have also been participating in a significant way in this effort, along with AQU faculty colleagues Drs. Amneh Badran, Mohammad Abu Koash, and Awad Mansour.  The new curriculum builds on the program’s traditional attention to U.S. history, culture, and politics, but is also intended better to meet the needs of Palestinian professionals through an emphasis on conceptions of leadership and entrepreneurship and a focus on the study of American institutions.  The Regional Studies Institute will also, thanks to our work together, become the Global Studies Institute (if the University’s governing authority approves the change this week!).

I will be teaching American Politics this fall, as well as working faculty and administration closely on building resources and relationships that will be of long-term benefit to the program.  Among other things, the program design calls for many courses to be taught by U.S. faculty in an intensive format.   Identifying those faculty and helping to generate the resources and environment to make their stay at AQU as productive as possible is a big part of my job for this year.  Of course, it will also be quite interesting to be in a classroom this semester with young Palestinians trying to make sense of American democracy and the election of 2016!

In my first ten days, I have been settling in, as well as helping to recruit students for the incoming class. Because the program has been less active in recent years, we are undertaking a process to spread the word among the Palestinian community that the program has a new emphasis, and will also potentially offer students the opportunity to study in the U.S. as part of a customized summer program.  We will be conducting interviews of applicants in the coming days, and the semester will start in earnest for this program during September.

It also seems that I will be involved in a variety of university-wide initiatives.  I have worked closely for many years with Dr. Imad Abu Kishek, AQU’s talented and very active president.  Dr. Imad, as he is known, has a lot of plans for expanding AQU’s research capacity, its English language curriculum, and its international profile, and I expect to be involved as part of a team in some of these areas.

I am living in Jerusalem, in a small house on a dead-end street owned by an Israeli-born physicist who grew up there and now uses it only in the summers. I am composing this post on a balcony overlooking a verdant and pleasantly overgrown garden that shields me from the small apartment buildings that hover around me.  (My house is, as far as I can tell, the only remaining single-family dwelling for blocks in every direction.)  My own neighborhood is very quiet, but it’s only a fifteen minute walk to the busy center of town, or, in another direction, 15 minutes to the café life of the German Colony, and only a ten minute walk up the slopes of a valley to the front gate of the Israel Museum.

Commuting to the AQU campus is a bit of a schlep.  Al-Quds (“The Holy”) is the Arab name for Jerusalem — so to the Palestinians, AQU is Jerusalem University.  And AQU does have some operations in East Jerusalem proper.  But the main campus is in the village of Abu Dis, in the West Bank.   I have a car for the year, but it’s still a bit of a trek.  Because the security barrier (a concrete wall in Jerusalem) blocks the direct route, I drive north across the heart of downtown (passing Jaffa Gate and Damascus Gate of the Old City), through the tunnel under Mount Scopus, down towards the Dead Sea, and then loop around by the huge settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.  There I pass out of the Israeli security zone and into the Palestinian villages of Al-Azaria and Abu Dis.  (Those villages are not exactly Palestinian-controlled either – a subject for another post.)  The roads in the villages are crowded and chaotic – but in the mornings, I arrive at the Abu Dis campus in about 30 minutes door-to-door . . traffic isn’t too bad.  The afternoons have been a different story.  The Israeli army has been setting up temporary checkpoints in Al-Azaria and Abu Dis recently, which can clog up traffic, so it’s sometimes taken more than an hour to return.

I have also been spending some time in Ramallah, visiting NGOs and other individuals whom I know there, trying to spread the word in person about the American Studies program.  I will doubtless be traveling to other areas of the West Bank in the weeks and months to come, as time and security considerations permit.

So far I’m on my own here.  My wife Maggie is back in Concord, Massachusetts preparing for the opening of a show of her work at the Arsenal Arts Center in Watertown, MA early in September.  She will spend the rest of September here, after the show’s public opening on September 10.  But I have the pleasure of being close at hand to my son Theo and his girlfriend Shelly, who live in Tel Aviv . . .and it’s been a pleasure to share the last two Friday evenings with them (one at my place, and one at theirs).

As time goes on, I’ll try to be less general and give more textured portraits of the university what I see and do.

The “soft vengeance” of Albie Sachs

Brandeis Events, Brandeis University, International Justice, Law and Justice No Comments »


Abby Ginzberg has made a terrific new film, “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa.” It brings to life one of the great human rights heroes of our time, a Jewish South African who joined the African National Congress, became one of the principal crafters of the South African constitution, and then a member of democratic South Africa’s constitutional court. Sachs spent two long stints in solitary confinement in apartheid-era prisons, and he later lost his right arm and the sight in one eye as the result of a bomb blast in Mozambique in 1988, but his commitment to justice and his zest for life emerged intact from those searing experiences.

For Albie Sachs, the “soft vengeance” for the bomb blast was the triumph of justice and democracy in South Africa. Ginzberg’s film works splendidly on three levels. It is first a story of an special, vital individual whose open personality, sense of humor, and burning passion are contagious. Secondly, it’s a national story, reminding its viewers of the tremendous odds that South Africans working for democracy faced, and of the great triumph of their collective struggle.

Finally, “Soft Vengeance” is a story about what Sachs called in our discussion the “emancipatory” potential of the law. Sachs had grown up thinking of the law as an instrument to protect property and the interests of the powerful. As a lawyer in an activist movement, he came to understand how law can be used creatively in the service of freedom. Not only did he go on to play a part in the new constitution for South Africa, but as a member of the Constitutional Court he penned some ringing human rights judgments, including the decision that legalized gay marriage, the first African nation to do so. Abby Ginzberg was also trained as a lawyer before she started directing films 30 years ago, so she brings a special passion for the subject of “emancipatory” justice to each of her projects.

We were fortunate to have Albie Sachs and Abby Ginzberg with us at Brandeis University last week for a special advance screening of “Soft Vengeance,” the first on a college campus.  We at the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life were pleased to be joined by the National Center for Jewish Film and the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice in presenting the event.

After the screening, Sachs and Ginzberg talked together about the making of the film, and the tug-of-war between them about how certain aspects of his life would be portrayed. “It may be your life,” Ginzberg had to remind Sachs from time to time, “but it’s my film.”

The screening took place on September 11, and perhaps there was something appropriate in this. Albie Sachs has had a special ability to transform personal suffering into a force for social good. He spoke eloquently about how, in the aftermath of the bombing, he had an ebullient feeling: “They came for me . . but I am still here!”  Human rights activists around the world are his comrades, Sachs told the audience, but they can be so dour. Why not, he suggested, seek both joy and the struggle? Hearing from Albie Sachs on September 11 was an opportunity for all Americans in the audience to think about the extent that we have or have not used the events of 13 years ago as a motivation for positive, productive change.


L to R: Lisa Rivo, Sharon Rivo, Jules Bernstein, Abby Ginzberg, Albie Sachs, Dan Terris

New Minor Links the Arts and Social Change

Higher Education, Peacebuilding, Social Justice No Comments »

As the fall semester begins, I’m excited about a new program for undergraduate students that’s going to bring new energy to a developing global field.

For more than 15 year my colleague Cindy Cohen has been building an extraordinary program in “Peacebuilding and the Arts” within the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis. Along the way, she has been extending the reach in this expanding field through her courses for undergraduate and graduate students.

This fall, her program takes another step forward, as we introduce a new minor for Brandeis undergraduates: “Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation.”  Partly in tribute to the program’s strengths in theater and peacebuilding, the minor will go by the acronym CAST.

Students in this minor will take an introductory course, Introduction to Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation, that Cindy will develop and teach in the early years of the program. They will then be able to choose four electives from a strong array of courses in the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences.   A capstone will complete their CAST experience; this might consist of an internship, a directed study, or another form of immersion in the CAST approach.

Students in CAST will have access to the extraordinary network of artists and peacebuilders from around the world that Cindy has built, particularly through the extraordinary Acting Together project and her terrific collaboration with singer/activist Jane Sapp, A Way Out of No Way.  They will also have a chance to think about how they can combine their own creative impulses and practice with the knowledge and the skills necessary to work with communities to create meaningful social change.

I’ll be looking forward how Cindy and her students shake things up in the months and years to come.

Social Justice in Thought and Action

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In the depths of a cold winter on the Brandeis campus, there’s a lot of heat and light being generated by the undergraduates engaged in social justice projects through the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

Tomorrow is the official launch of ‘DEIS Impact, the University’s “festival of social justice,” sponsored jointly by the Center and by the Brandeis Student Union. It’s the third iteration of this new Brandeis tradition, and it’s bigger and better than ever. Featured events include a keynote address by two of Nelson Mandela’s grandsons, a return visit to Brandeis by Sister Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking” fame, a program on “spirituality and the quest for justice” with dynamic musician and community organizer Jane Wilburn Sapp, and “Portraits of Purpose,” an exhibition of social justice giants with photos by Don West. And of course there are dozens of events organized by student clubs and organizations on the full range of social justice issues.

What’s great about ‘DEIS Impact is that it brings the full range of Brandeis resources to the university’s commitment to social justice: rigorous intellectual exploration, the creative power of the arts, the energy of community engagement, and the determination to be practical as well as visionary. Come join us.


This is also the season for the announcement of the new group of Sorensen Fellows, six undergraduate students who will venture forth in the summer of 2014 to work in NGOs around the world. They will return in the fall to reflect on and write about their experiences in an intensive course together.SF2014 Congratulations to the 2014 Sorensen Fellows: Ibrahima Diaboula ’16, Shimon Mazor ’16, Elad Mehl ’16, Ngobitak Ndiwane ’16, Sneha Walia ’15, and Shane Weitzman ’16. You can read about them and their summer projects here.


Also available now: the terrific publication by the 2013 Sorensen Fellows: Parallel Paths: Journeys, Explorations, and Reflections. It’s a moving set of accounts that are both personal and analytical, exploring the complexities of identity and purpose among young people pursuing social change. Check them out:

Parallel_Paths_2013_Sorensen_Fellowship_Cover• Through the Lens of Birth and Illness: Rediscovering My Native Country – Damiana Andonova ’15
• Deconstructing One’s Paper Identity – Cynthia Wangui Charchi ’14
• Fighting for Choice: Navigating the Streets and Politics of New York City – Hailey Magee ’15• Impressions of Talibés and Islamic Education in Senegal – Nelly Schläfereit ’15
• An Informal Image in Different Voices – Abie Troen ’14
• Reversal of Roles: Lessons Learned as a Teacher in Uganda – Hannah Young ’15


These passionate, thoughtful undergraduates do honor to the memory of Theodore C. (Ted) Sorensen, who inspired generations with his eloquent words, and who helped guide the Center through its formative years.

Report on the Brandeis/Al-Quds Partnership

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Today, my Brandeis colleagues Sue Lanser, Dan Kryder, and I released our detailed report on the suspension of the partnership between Brandeis University and Al-Quds University.  The report covers the background of the partnership, background information on  Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, what we learned about the rally of November 5, 2013 and its aftermath, and our conclusions, which include a recommendation to resume the partnership.   We hope that our work will lead to a greater understanding and more thoughtful consideration of the complexities of the situation and the nature of the partnership.

On the Brandeis/Al-Quds University Partnership

Brandeis Events, Brandeis University, Higher Education 6 Comments »

I have recently returned from a five-day trip to Al-Quds University, continuing work on a decade-long partnership between Brandeis University and this prominent Palestinian educational institution. I was accompanied by my Brandeis colleagues Sue Lanser (English, and Women’s and Gender Studies) and Dan Kryder (Politics).

Our trip, scheduled months ago, was focused on projects for the next phase of the successful partnership with which we three and many others have been involved. Projects in progress at the time of our departure included faculty research exchanges, a women’s leadership institute, and curriculum development in the politics and English departments.

Because of the controversy surrounding a rally on the Al-Quds University campus on November 5, President Fred Lawrence asked the three of us while there to gather as much information as we could about the rally, its context, and the response of the Al-Quds University administration, and requested that we report back to him after we returned home.

As it turned out, Brandeis University suspended the Brandeis/Al-Quds partnership towards the end of our visit. Nevertheless, we were able during our visit to have a number of in-depth conversations with many key individuals, including Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh, Executive Vice President Imad Abu Kishek, and members of the committee whom they appointed to investigate the November 5 rally.

Once all of us return from our travels and have a chance to confer, we will put together a report on what we have learned. The issues on the ground at Al-Quds University are much more complex than has been reported on blogs and in the press. These issues deserve careful consideration and conversation.

What we can say at this point is that nothing that we have learned during this period has changed our conviction – built over many years of experience – that Sari Nusseibeh and the Al-Quds University leadership are genuinely committed to peace and mutual respect. President Nusseibeh’s comments following the suspension of the partnership, published in the Times of Israel, show that he is continuing his commitment to those values and to sustained dialogue even when circumstances are challenging.

In addition, I have just been informed that the University has suspended Sari Nusseibeh’s membership on the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, saying that this action is consistent with the suspension of the partnership.   While I have strong opinions about this, this decision is not in my hands, since all board members serve by appointment by the president of the university.  Sari has been a member of this board since 2000.  Among other things, his membership pre-dates the partnership.   This is a good time to recall Nusseibeh’s forty-year record of courage, innovation, and willingness to engage in challenging dialogue, the marks of a man whom I know personally to be a stalwart opponent of hatred and intolerance wherever they are found.   Brandeis need not agree with everything that Sari Nusseibeh says to value him as an important member of the Center’s extended community.

Over the past decade, hundreds of Brandeis University students, faculty, and staff members have participated in a variety of activities with Al-Quds University counterparts with the goal of enhancing mutual understanding through work together on shared scholarly and educational interests. At the time of this post, Brandeis has taken down the Brandeis/Al-Quds Partnership website, so the detailed record of our many years of work together is not available. [Note: as of November 22 Brandeis has restored the web site with a note on the home page about the suspension.]. However, a short video and a brochure describing some aspects of the partnership are available, and I encourage you to take a look to get a flavor of what we have done together.

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