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Students crossing boundaries: Al-Quds community members share stories at Brandeis this week

Published: November 13, 2009
Section: Front Page


Sharing cultures: ICC Staff serves Al-Quds University student Ban Muwaswes a meal in an event focused on displaying Brandeis student life to visting Al-Quds University commnity members.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Alan Tran/The Hoot<br />

Sharing cultures: ICC Staff serves Al-Quds University student Ban Muwaswes a meal in an event focused on displaying Brandeis student life to visting Al-Quds University commnity members.
PHOTO BY Alan Tran/The Hoot

In a Ridgewood suite, visitors to Brandeis have slightly redecorated in order to feel more at home, including brewing a fresh pot of strong Turkish coffee and hanging a Palestinian flag in the window.

The visitors are students and recent graduates of Al-Quds University, one of the few Arab universities in Palestinian-controlled East Jerusalem. Students of the university were at Brandeis this week with other Al-Quds community members as part of a partnership between Brandeis and Al-Quds meant to encourage understanding and acceptance between community members at the Palestinian university and a historically Jewish-sponsored university. To reach these goals, Al-Quds and Brandeis community members have participated in exchanges since 2006, when administrators, faculty and students from Al-Quds visited Brandeis both at conferences in Istanbul and during a trip to East Jerusalem. This is the second time students from Al-Quds have come to Brandeis.

For the past week, five Palestinian Al-Quds students, and eight administrators have been at Brandeis, getting to know students here and attending classes, including an Arabic language class and a class concentrated on the events of the Iranian Revolution.

Brandeis’ guests include current Al-Quds students Abdelrahman Aqel, Marwan Aqel and Hasan Odeh, and recent graduates Raneen Hadeed and Ban Muwaswes. With the exception of Muwaswes, who lives in East Jerusalem, they live in the West Bank, a disputed but Palestinian-controlled territory.

Living in an incredibly politically volatile area has had an effect on them, even if the Al- Quds students don’t all consider themselves politically active compared to their peers and classmates. Abdelrahman is active in the Student Union, even serving as president when the Israeli government arrested his predecessor. Two of them, Odeh and Marwan, express themselves through music and poetry.

One of the intents of the partnership is to learn about each other’s schools, therefore the five students also joined the Student Union at their meeting on Sunday. After Student Union President Andy Hogan ’11 explained the system used at Brandeis, Abdelrahman Aqel, who is deeply involved with the student government at Al-Quds, shared his experiences, including his three-month tenure as president after the Israeli government arrested his predecessor.

The primary difference Aqel gave between the Brandeis student government and his own was the causes it supports. While Brandeis students run with campaign promises of better cell phone reception and more convenient meal plans, the Al-Quds student government has to remember where they are. Odeh described the students’ protests as being political, rather than social, citing the example of check points between Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled territories.

The Al-Quds students know that by being here, they aren’t changing everyone’s beliefs or ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They do, however, know that they are making a small but important difference in the way people think.

“Obviously we are not in the government, and we don’t have the magic power to change things,” Hadeed said. “But we can meet our supposed enemy, and know him better, and know the human side of him. We can chill with him and know that we have many things in common, more than what we think.”

The significance of Brandeis’ historically Jewish background is not lost on them, but they choose to view it as a teaching experience for all involved, rather than an immediate barrier.

“When we meet [people from Brandeis] we understand they are not Israeli people, but that most are Jewish,” Hadeed said. “We suppose that Jewish people are more pro-Israel, more than pro-Palestinian…they know about Palestine from statistics and other, but when they meet Palestinians, they see it as a human side of the story…We know they will understand stories better because they see it from another point of view.”

On the other hand, they generally agreed that they would feel far less comfortable participating in the exchange if it was with an Israeli university, even one in the United States.

“I don’t have any trouble with Jewish people. I believe in them as a religion, and I believe in them as humans,” Abdelrahman said.

“But we all have troubles with Israel,” Hadeed added.

They went on to describe the destruction caused in their homes by Israelis, but immediately after expressed hope for possible peace.

“There will [be peace], but how will it come? If you want to have peace, there must be constraints, no, foundations,” Abdelrahman said. “You can’t have peace, say you want to talk about the future, you can’t make peace when Israelis attack cities everyday, when there are check points everywhere, when there are more than 10,000 prisoners in the Israeli’s jails.”

“I don’t think it’s impossible to have peace,” Hadeed said. “But it will not come when we can not control anything.”

“We can’t just say we want peace,” Odeh said. “It needs to be real peace. In my opinion, there’s not going to be a real peace in Palestine.”

Odeh went on to say that he does not think that they as individuals can change the government, but Hadeed interrupted him saying, “Governments don’t always do the best for their own people…but if people are educated about peace, they will vote for people who bring peace. You should have faith in people,” Hadeed said.

Their solution to educating people, both Palestinian and Israeli, enough to vote for a government that will choose peace? Humanization. The five of them are here to learn, but they are also here to teach.

“There are two narratives that people know, the Israeli one and the Palestinian one,” Hadeed said. “People listen to the different points that people make, but they aren’t understanding of why [things happen]. That would help them be more understanding of other people. Sometimes you educate yourself and the other side, and that helps the fear to be removed. You can’t have peace with people that you don’t trust.”

There are two sides to every story, and the students from Al-Quds know that. They also know that they are human, just like the Israelis. They are not all suicide bombers, just as not all Israelis have destroyed homes and families in Gaza and the West Bank.

The unanimous conclusion of their visit was that the best part of being here was they people they have met, and seeing the people they met when they were in Istanbul and at Al-Quds.