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Students return to Lawrence’s office to promote renewal of Al-Quds partnership

By Hannah Schuster

Section: News

March 20, 2015

More than 30 students and alumni from the Brandeis University and Al-Quds University Student Dialogue Initiative staged a press conference in President Fred Lawrence’s waiting room to express their dissatisfaction with the administration’s behavior regarding the Brandeis/Al-Quds partnership on Friday, March 13. Participants sought to express why they believe the university must reinstate the partnership. They believe dialogue is an essential value of the university, which suspending the partnership threatens.

In November 2013, demonstrators marched at Al-Quds wearing dark clothing, carrying fake weapons and shouting anti-Semitic slurs. According to an August 2014 Hoot article, the Al-Quds president issued a statement condemning the events, which Lawrence found “unacceptable and inflammatory.” Lawrence suspended the partnership and Catie Stewart ’16 and Eli Philip ’15 founded the Initiative shortly after.

Initiative students have attempted to meet with Lawrence for five months. On Friday, March 6, they held a sit-in at Lawrence’s office demanding a meeting, and on Tuesday, March 10 Stewart ’15, Philip ’15 and Naomi Hornstein ’15 met with Lawrence and Provost Lisa Lynch. However, they were disappointed with the meeting, leading them to host the press conference. Participants expressed their dismay that Lawrence was not present during the event, even though it was held during his student office hour.

During her opening remarks at the conference, Stewart stated that at the Tuesday meeting Lawrence “demonstrated clearly that he is uninterested and unwilling to take a step toward renewing the partnership.” Stewart stated Lawrence refused to support student dialogue initiatives or look at their proposal for renewing the partnership.

“It is unacceptable to silence student voices and to mislead the student body,” said Stewart. “Calling the status of the partnership suspended is only acceptable if the administration has plans to renew it.” Stewart feels renewing the partnership “has always been a ‘no’ in [Lawrence’s] mind.”

Philip and Hornstein also spoke at the beginning of the conference. Philip believes it is Brandeis’ duty to “make right the hurt” caused to those who value the partnership and dialogue, noting they’ve “made strong connections and relationships with students at Al-Quds, and our experience with Al-Quds students have shown the power of dialogue between and across cultures.”

Hornstein discussed the past Brandeis/Al-Quds relationship, explaining that Brandeis offered training and support to Al-Quds faculty. She also stated, “[F]aculty exchanges created a lot of really close bonds,” between faculty and staff.

“It … allowed for a really amazing exchange of knowledge and ideas.” Hornstein believes the relationship between a Jewish-sponsored and Palestinian university signifies an ability to “reach across barriers.”

At the conference, Leah Susman ’18 shared the proposal the Initiative had hoped to share with Lawrence. It calls for Brandeis’ administration to reach out to Al-Quds and devise a plan to reinstate it this year. It compels the administration to support student dialogue initiatives, including a summer trip to Al-Quds.

During a Q&A in which Stewart, Philip and Hornstein discussed their meeting with Lawrence, Stewart said they asked Lawrence to match financial contributions from Al-Quds for the summer trip and to help bring Al-Quds students to Brandeis, but he refused.

According to Stewart, Lawrence was unphased by student support for the partnership. “He didn’t understand the full power that we have, and how dedicated this group of people is,” she said.

During the event many students spoke, discussing the importance of the partnership and dialogue, telling stories of how they became involved with this issue and reading poetry.

Elizabeth Villano ’16 shared an email in which Al-Quds students thanked Brandeis students for striving to renew the partnership and promote cross-cultural understanding.

For Risa Dunbar ’17, the partnership was a major reason she came to Brandeis. Though she believes Brandeis encourages students to acquire knowledge, she said, “I’m outraged that my university is not doing all that it can to give me the modes to experience a critical kind of learning and that’s cross-cultural exchanged academia.”

Josh Berman ’15 said he was eager to explore different perspectives on issues related to Israel in college, discussing his involvement with bVIEW. Though at first he felt the university supported open-dialogue, he believes curtailing the partnership is a departure from this.

Susman also feels the university “is not living up to its values.” She asked, “If the Brandeis administration claims to be a liberal-minded institution that firmly believes in embracing plurality and respecting all perspectives, then why is dialogue with Palestinian students now unacceptable?”

Niri Halperin ’15 read an excerpt of the statement from the Al-Quds president, which Lawrence found “unacceptable and inflammatory.” She believes suspending the partnership harms the people of Al-Quds and Palestine.

“We silenced a people already muted. We continued a narrative that says that these are people who are not deserving of rights or anything of that sort,” said Halperin, who feels Lawrence does not recognize this.

Sophie Warren ’18 (Hoot staff writer) described her experiences working with Seeds of Peace International, which promotes dialogue between youth from areas of conflict. “In spite of everything that they’ve gone through, they’re willing to sit down and talk about it,” said Warren. Relating to Brandeis, Warren stated, “We need a partnership because dialogue is a revolution for peace and justice and truth, all the things that I believe this university has stood for in the past and can stand for again.”

Philip concluded the event by thanking students for attending both on that day and on all future days and for continuing to work towards the restoration of the partnership. “This movement and this partnership is going to grow, and we’re going to make it grow,” said Philip.

The Initiative has now begun a photo campaign, where students are photographed holding signs that express support for the partnership.

The Brandeis Hoot inquired as to Lawrence’s reaction to the students’ efforts and requests, but Lawrence and the Office of Communications did not respond to The Hoot’s questions by press time.

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