Until this week, Al Quds University freshman Sama Dabait had never met a Jew. Curious, she joined a three-day program that brought six students from Brandeis, an American university with a large Jewish population, to visit Al Quds in the West Bank.
“It’s a new experience for me to listen to ideas from other views of the conflict,” she told The Media Line. She admits that at first she had concerns because she is Palestinian and the Brandeis University students are Jewish.
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“Before they came my thoughts were that we wouldn’t get along together, but when we met it was totally different, I learned a lot. It won’t be easy for me to say goodbye,” she said.
Hosted by the student affairs department of Al Quds University, officials at Brandeis University were aware of the three day exchange program, which was a student initiative on both sides. Brandeis suspended its long relationship with Al-Quds last November after an on-campus rally where Palestinian demonstrators wore ski masks and carried fake weapons.
The demonstration also featured posters of “martyred” Palestinian suicide bombers. Brandeis President Fred Lawrence said the university cannot “turn a blind eye to intolerance” and suspended the partnership, saying it could be reevaluated based on future events.
The Brandeis students who came to the West Bank said the tensions between the two institutions should not affect the trip.
“Regardless of any decisions universities make, we wanted to be able to take matters into our own hands and meet people if we want to meet them,” said Brandeis student Catie Stewart, one of the organizers of the trip.
The students visited Ramallah, Jerusalem and Jericho together. They also held a session at Al Quds University, talking about peace, stereotypes, fears and the future.
“If that kind of relationship existed, we value it. And that’s why we decided to do this,” said Brandeis student Eli Philips, who organized the trip with Stewart. The trip was funded from a grant obtained from the US-based Davis Project For Peace.
The aim of the program is to have more dialogue between Palestinians and American Jews. Philips said there was some opposition to the trip from American Jews.
“There are always people who say “don’t come”, he told The Media Line. “What was most inspiring for me was the amount of support that we received. Al Quds University has been extremely supportive, so welcoming.”
Like Palestinian Sama, American Jewish student Elizabeth Villano was also nervous about meeting Palestinians for the first time.
“The first Palestinian I ever met was on the first day of this program. I wasn’t sure we could find any common ground and not really sure how it would play out,” she told The Media Line. “Now after three days, I feel like I have made a lot of really good friends. We do have a lot of tense moments, but I think it’s a constructive dialogue,” Villano said, adding that her father and brother tried to talk her out of being involved in what she describes as a ‘life changing event.’
Both sides had a chance to listen to each other’s narrative and gain insight into perspectives that they had never heard before. Palestinians and American Jews who participated both said it is important to experience the reality first hand.
“I feel as Palestinians we really need to express ourselves more often to outsiders or foreigners,” said Nour Hamayel.
“I think it’s a really good thing that two academic institutions, an American Jewish one, and a Palestinian one could have a partnership together,” Brandeis student Mitch Mankin told The Media Line. “I think it’s good to see what life looks on the ground for both peoples.”
Palestinian Rand Shaar, a political science major, heard about this exchange from one of her professors and got involved because she was interested in ‘breaking down the barriers’ between the sides and hearing ‘the other point of view.’ “We can find a common ground where you can discuss and talk,” the third year student told The Media Line adding that she encourages everyone to ‘keep an open mind.’
“It seems they would like to establish an alliance between the students of Al Quds University and students of Brandeis University,” Al Quds University President Imad Abukishek told The Media Line.
He says the Brandeis students considered the move by the university administration to suspend the ties with the Palestinian university to be ‘biased’ and ‘unacceptable’ and says this meeting came about because they wanted to see Al Quds University for themselves.
Brandeis University student organizer Stewart agreed. “When we have a relationship like this, it’s much easier to hold each other accountable to be in conversation. If we don’t have a relationship, there’s no ability to do that. So it’s important that we understand the culture, and the people. Without that, there’s no way to bridge that gap,” said Stewart.
Abukishek said he considers Brandeis to be a model for Al Quds because of its ‘prestigious’ reputation and ‘long history of teaching.’ He said he regrets the suspension of their close ties.
“We have partnerships with many American institutions but Brandeis was the first,” he told The Media Line. “It was very shocking for us that this long partnership with Brandeis was suspended.”
Abukishek says some media outlets at the time of the suspension wrote negatively about Al Quds University and hosting the Brandeis students here is important.
“It’s a shame that some people tried to portray Al Quds as a terrorist institution,” he said. “We hope the Brandeis students will discover the value of tolerance and freedom we have at Al Quds.”
Professor Susan S. Lanser, head of the humanities department at Brandeis University joined the students.
“We’ve had other student exchanges before and wonderful relations between our groups of students because we have a university which academic freedom always revails,” she said. “Students and faculty are continuing our relationships with the university and we hope that our partnership will be restored officially.”
But in an email to The Media Line, on whether or not ties would be restored between Brandeis University and Al Quds University, Ellen de Graffenreid of the communications department at Brandeis wrote: “There have been no changes to the status of the partnership. It remains suspended.”
Reviewing the three days, Brandeis University trip co-organizer Catie Stewart says one thing is clear. “In light of our experiences here, we think that it would be very good officially if the university were able to restore its partnership,” she told The Media Line.
Professor Lancer agreed. “I would tell (critics) to come to Al Quds University, to talk to students at Brandeis, in order to understand each other better. Our universities share our values. We share the values, of a commitment to peace and justice and open inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge and that brings us together always.
Al Quds University President Abukishek said that despite the suspension faculty members from both institutions remain in close touch. He said he hopes the formal ties will be renewed.
“We believe that this is the only way that we can close the gap among the cultures is by having the people understand each other, by knowing each other, to learn about each other, not by distancing themselves from such a relationship because (communication) is how people can strengthen their relationship,” said Abukishek.
It’s a feeling that Al Quds University political science major Marwa Ideis shares.
“We (Palestinians and Jews) will be more united. And this way we can, maybe, spread peace and I would love that,” she said.
Meanwhile back in Jericho, on the last night with her new Jewish friends, Sama Dabait says she will definitely tell others about her experience meeting the students from Brandeis.
“I wish to keep a connection, build new bridges and hope for a peace that still needs time.”
Article written by Abdullah H. Erakat
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line