Five students, a professor and an administrator from Al-Quds University, a Palestinian institution in East Jerusalem, arrived in late March for a week at Brandeis University, America’s only non-sectarian Jewish-sponsored university. Since August 2015, my partner Leah Susman and I had worked with Brandeis and Al-Quds students to bring together our communities for learning and honest communication. It was the first student-organized visit of Al-Quds students to Brandeis.
The Brandeis-Al-Quds Student Dialogue Initiative is an entirely student-run project that seeks to re-establish the formal academic partnership between Brandeis and Al-Quds, which was successful for more than a decade until it was suspended by Brandeis after an offensive rally at Al-Quds.
Brandeis’ decision to suspend the partnership lacked nuance. While the protest was deeply problematic, including masks and anti-Semitic symbols, the then-president of Al-Quds, Sari Nusseibeh, issued an apology in both Arabic and English. Students like me believe partnership and dialogue are the most important during conflict. Yet, to this very day, the Brandeis website reads, “The Brandeis University/Al-Quds University partnership was suspended as of Nov. 18, 2013. Brandeis University will re-evaluate the relationship as future events may warrant.”
This visit was focused on three pillars: academia, culture and dialogue. Al-Quds students shadowed their Brandeis counterparts in classes, the group engaged in text studies and recorded interviews of their experience as part of an ongoing oral history project. Students from both universities also engaged in experiential learning and team-building exercises and discussed why establishing a partnership is critical to our experiences and values.
We received great institutional support that week from the Brandeis community. We enjoyed a dinner at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, where the director led a text study, and the Crown Center for Middle East Studies hosted our Al-Quds compatriots for lunch and discussion. One of the most meaningful events was a dinner hosted by the Ethics Center, where we got to speak with Lisa Lynch, Brandeis’ interim president. During the dinner, students and faculty from Al-Quds expressed their hopes for equal exchange of ideas, values and opportunities between the universities. Al-Quds students and educators also shared their appreciation for the pedagogical and sociopolitical opportunities of experiencing Brandeis student life for the week.
This spring’s visit reminded me of my first evening in the West Bank, when I sat at an Iftar dinner (evening meal during Ramadan) with Al-Quds President Imad Abu Kishek. Despite the celebratory feel, I was still struck by the realities Al-Quds students spoke of earlier that day, including regular tear-gas attacks and raids on campus. During the week-long visit to Brandeis, several participants experienced lingering shock, frustration, empathy and honor.
Nearly all of the Brandeis students in the program talked to Palestinians for the first time. The group chatted about topics such as feminism in Palestinian society, religion, mobility and student life in America versus in the West Bank. In several dialogue sessions, Brandeis students asked Al-Quds students about their responsibilities for expressing solidarity and how to positively impact the Al-Quds students’ livelihood.
Witnessing delegation members’ inquisitiveness, meaningful conversations and experiences with Al-Quds students and faculty reinforced my commitment to work to understand and partner with Palestinian students’ voices in appropriate ways. Hearing the Al-Quds students’ narratives within the context of a school where 47 percent of the undergraduate population is Jewish is even more important. My discussions with my fellow Brandeis and Al-Quds peers encouraged me to personally examine the implications of being an American, a Jew and a Brandeis student bearing witness to these students’ realities.
Many Jewish students at Brandeis have never met a Palestinian. Conversations around Israel and Palestine dominate the sociopolitical conversation on the Brandeis campus and many say the school is a microcosm of the American Jewish community. This delegation served as a critical step toward the Brandeis-Al-Quds partnership that will be a great advance toward the American Jewish community truly seeing Palestinians.
As a Jewish person who is implicated in the dynamics and violence of the Middle East, I urge our community to listen: This March delegation was more than just a cross-cultural opportunity.` It was a direct message to the larger American Jewish community. Palestinian voices are wanted and needed for an ethical vision for the future of American Jewish leadership.
Risa Dunbar is a junior at Brandeis, where she co-directs the Brandeis University & Al-Quds University Student Dialogue Initiative. She grew up in the East Bay and is a graduate of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.