Yasmin Khatib and Catie Stewart of the Brandeis-Al Quds Student Dialogue Initiative
Talking about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is difficult. Seeing it firsthand is harder. Living under it is nearly impossible. We learned this while leading a trip for a group of Brandeis students to Al Quds University in the West Bank this June. The purpose of the trip, organized entirely by students, was to open up a channel of dialogue between both universities and to establish ties on a student level.
After one of our long days of touring and dialoging, we, like any other group of students, wanted to have a bit of fun. Someone plugged their phone into the speaker system on the van from Jericho to Ramallah, and an impromptu dance party was born, complete with everyone singing and dancing in the aisle. Out of nowhere, the van came to an abrupt stop. A young face covered by a green helmet peered through the window and glanced at our group of American and Palestinian students, and then promptly demanded we all disembark and hand over our IDs. Outside, a group of Israeli soldiers stood by their jeep, stopping vehicles marked by Palestinian license plates. The music was shut off, and the laughter and singing disappeared. In the heavy silence, we did as we were told, obediently filing off the bus. We were no longer treated as individuals, but rather as faceless suspects. The soldiers’ gaze did not meet our eyes.
Brandeis University is deeply connected to Israel. It is a historically Jewish university, and 50% of its students are Jewish. Israel activism on campus is vibrant and ubiquitous. Brandeis historically has also taken a stance dedicated to maintaining communication and relationships with Palestinian institutions such as Al Quds, and working towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict. We had a decade-long partnership with Al Quds University, initiated at the height of the second intifada, when starting a relationship with a Palestinian institution was difficult. The partnership was instituted as a beacon of cooperation that showed we, as Jews and Palestinians, could work together despite some deep differences in ideology. We — Brandeis and the Jewish community — were willing to try and understand the Palestinian experience. Brandeis’ message was clear: its connection to Israel necessarily meant engaging with Israel on all levels — including with the conflict and occupation.
This all changed last November, when Brandeis President Fred Lawrence suspended the partnership as a response to what he deemed intolerant acts: an Islamic Jihad-affiliated political rally on the Al Quds campus and the response from Al Quds’ then-president Dr. Sari Nusseibeh.
The suspension not only damaged longstanding relationships, it also served to keep us — Brandeis students as well as the larger Jewish community — from seeing and understanding life under occupation.
Not only did Brandeis break a working relationship that included academic and student exchanges, it set the precedent in the American Jewish community that when we hear or see something we don’t like, we are not obliged to work through it. Our community no longer feels it has a responsibility to hear difficult opinions or experience things that make us uncomfortable.
Yet, as we felt so vividly that night on the road to Ramallah, the occupation doesn’t disappear when we look away. And though we all stood there and experienced the same humiliation, we from Brandeis walked away from occupation at the end of the project, while the Al Quds participants had no such choice. They don’t have the luxury to turn away when things become uncomfortable.
It is clear to us that we — as individuals, as a university, and as the Jewish community — must take steps to work towards a better reality. Progress is only achieved when we work with partners such as the administration and students at Al Quds University who seek similar goals. Yet, in order to have dialogue and a relationship on the same plane, we must first recognize and then strive to understand the experience of Palestinians. Otherwise, as we saw when President Lawrence suspended the partnership, we are merely talking over them, not with them.
Our project attempted to rebuild relationships and dialogue and put faith back into our joint work. We went to see what life is like for our Al Quds partners, and were thus able to engage in meaningful conversation and establish real connections. We were able to do what our administration gave up on — build a relationship despite some tension between our points of view.
So we ask the Brandeis administration: confront the consequences of the decision you made to suspend this partnership. Do not propagate an attitude that encourages ignoring difficult issues and turning away when the path to mutual understanding is rocky. This mindset is unhealthy for our community and must be remedied. We hope Brandeis will recognize where our friends and partners are coming from, and reevaluate the decision to suspend the partnership.
Eli Philip (’15) and Catie Stewart (’16) are Brandeis students and the co-organizers of the Brandeis-Al Quds Student Dialogue Initiative.