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Students describe summer dialogues at Al-Quds

Published: October 9, 2014
Section: Front Page, News

A group of Brandeis students shared their experiences from spending five days this summer in Israel, with students from Al-Quds University, a Palestinian institution with campuses in Jerusalem, Abu Dis and al-Bireh on Tuesday, Oct. 7 in Pearlman Lounge. The trip was sponsored by a $10,000 Projects for Peace grant, funded by the Davis United World College Scholars Program. Two Brandeis students, Catie Stewart ’15 and Eli Philip ’15, were the recipients. The event was cosponsored by the Brandeis Democrats and the departments of Peace, Conflict and Co-existence Studies (PAX), sociology and Social Justice and Social Policy (SJSP).

Their project, “Brandeis University—Al Quds University Student Dialogue Initiative,” strove to create the basis for a long-term student dialogue between the two universities. The core of the project, the five-day intensive trip, included a tour of a Palestinian city to visualize life in the West Bank, a day at Al-Quds to engage in conversations between students and Al-Quds professors and discussions about how to continue to dialogue in the future. On the third day, a Heller School graduate from the program in Coexistence and Conflict, met the group and helped to facilitate a dialogue about a further relationship between the two universities.

Four Brandeis students shared their personal stories about the experience of connecting with the Al-Quds students and being on their campus.

“I couldn’t get my head around how it would be to go to school every day and not know if you might walk into a pile of tear gas,” said Mitchell Mankin ’16, referring to a day that the group experienced tear gas on the Al-Quds campus this summer. “Here we have students protesting when the dining halls get converted, so what would we do if we had tear gas canisters going off on South Street?”

Another student, Elizabeth Villano ’16, described her experience as “the summer of opposites.” She spoke about how her understanding of Israel was formed by growing up in a conservative, Jewish community and how some of this changed when she went on Birthright, a free trip to Israel for young Jewish adults, this summer.

“When we talked about the conflict, which wasn’t often, it was referred to in very broad terms,” said Villano. “They very specifically told us to call the Wall a ‘security fence.’”

Nathan Young ’15, an observant Jewish student, spoke about his experience of interacting with the students from Al-Quds. Though he was hesitant to wear his kippah and tzitzit, traditional items of Jewish clothing worn by men, he recounted a story about he was later relieved to hear that they were actually expecting him to do so, because they wanted him to feel comfortable around them.

Naomi Hornstein ’15 shared a personal story about her grandparents who were refugees, and how this connected her with a handful Palestinian students who also identified as refugees.

“I understand now that the identity of a refugee holds many meanings,” Hornstein said. “This is important in understanding the Palestinian narrative, as well as contextualizing my own identity.”

In 2003, then Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz and Al-Quds president Sari Nusseibeh created a partnership to, “improve the administrative and infrastructure capacities at Al-Quds, one of Palestine’s nascent civic institutions; strengthen academics and offer opportunities for faculty, staff and students at both institutions and educate the campuses about the advantages of cooperation, goodwill and understanding.” The partnership was supported early on by the Ford Foundation, that gave $1 million in funding to sustain academic and administrative exchanges between the universities, as well as documenting the partnership’s development through videos, photographs and publications.

However, in November of 2013, the partnership was suspended after a rally took place at Al-Quds. The events of the protest were described as “glorifying portrayals of hatred and violence that are antithetical to the institutional values of both Brandeis University and Al-Quds University.” Nusseibeh issued a statement after the demonstration, that was published in both Arabic and English, condemning the events of the protest. Lawrence called the statement “unacceptable and inflammatory” and also suspended Nusseibeh from the advisory board of the International Center of Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

Stewart and Philip, among others involved with the project, hope that somehow the partnership can be restored because they believe their experiences from this summer demonstrated a relationship of acceptance and the power of effective dialogue.

“We believe that only through mutual understanding on an individual level can we change policies on a larger scale, and thus that meaningful dialogue between students from a Jewish-sponsored university and students from a Palestinian university is an important step—both practically and symbolically—in shaping a more peaceful future between Jews and Palestinians,” the proposal stated.

Faculty involved with the project include Professor Susan Lanser (ENG/WMGS/COML) and Professor Daniel Kryder (POL), both of whom have traveled extensively to Al-Quds and have been among the leaders of the partnership. Lanser noted that President Lawrence is supportive of student efforts to keep the conversation going and mentioned that the administration is “well-aware that our work will continue.”

Professor Gordon Fellman, chair of the PAX Program, was also in attendance at the event and commended the group of students for their efforts.

“I just wanted to say how incredibly proud I am of this group,” Fellman said. “I am bursting with pride to what you have done.”

Philip said that they are currently working toward fostering more dialogue and hopes that there will be more exchanges between the two universities in the future.

“In terms of next steps, we are building a broad coalition of students, campus groups and faculty to show support for the partnership with Al Quds University, and encouraging President Lawrence and the administration to officially reinstate the partnership,” said Philip. “We’re excited by the large and diverse turnout at our launching event, and hoping President Lawrence will show leadership and take bold steps moving forward.”