A delegation from Al-Quds University spent last week at Brandeis as part of a trip organized by students working to reinstate the partnership between the two schools that Brandeis suspended in 2013.
Five students, one professor and the Director of Student Activities from Al-Quds arrived in Waltham on Tuesday, March 22 and spent six days participating in dialogue and experiencing life at Brandeis.
Leah Susman ’18 and Risa Dunbar ’17 coordinated the delegation from the Brandeis University/Al-Quds University Student Dialogue Initiative. They began planning the trip over the summer when they visited Al-Quds. In January, they released an application for Brandeis hosts and selected nine.
“I decided to join this delegation because I personally wanted to expose myself to Palestinian narratives,” said Ari Kiegan ’18, who participated in the Initiative’s actions her first year. “I believe that Palestinian perspectives would greatly benefit campus conversations on Israel and Palestine.”
The Al-Quds students attended classes with their hosts, like they would have through a formal partnership and were able to observe differences in styles of education, explained Marwa, an Al-Quds student who will be identified by her first name.
Aseel, another Al-Quds student, attended Black Feminist Theory with Professor Jasmine Johnson (AAAS), who encourages the class to develop their own opinions on material, said Aseel. “It’s not just…a class about giving or transferring information from one side to the other. It’s about interaction and participation from both sides,” she said.
Since the Dialogue Initiative was founded in November 2013, Brandeis students have taken three trips to Al-Quds, but this trip marks the first time Al-Quds students have come to Brandeis since the partnership was suspended.
The trip cost approximately $11,000, which the students paid for with grants from the Peace Conflict and Coexistence program, the Brandeis Pluralism Alliance and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. Al-Quds University also donated funds, and Brandeis students raised $4,082 through a GoFundMe campaign.
During their summer trip to Al-Quds, students wrote letters to Interim President Lisa Lynch asking that she help fund the spring delegation. Unable to do this, Lynch pointed the students towards various grants, said Susman.
Due to the high cost, it is “unlikely that the Initiative could do this again,” said Susman, but students are hopeful the partnership will be reinstated to allow for future exchanges. Lynch has said decisions regarding reinstatement of the partnership must be left to the new president. “We’re looking forward to transferring our positive relationship with President Lynch to incoming President Leibowitz,” said Susman in an email. Ron Liebowitz takes office July 1.
Then-President Fred Lawrence suspended the Al-Quds partnership after a student demonstration on their campus with fake weapons and anti-semitic slurs. Lawrence asked the president to condemn the demonstration, but Lawrence found his statement inflammatory and suspended the partnership. Catie Stewart ’15 and Eli Philip ’15 founded the Initiative to maintain a relationship with Al-Quds and promote reinstatement of the partnership as well as cross-cultural dialogue.
“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?” said Susman at an event last March.
The delegation participated in a range of events. “Every night we have a text study that is supposed to prompt dialogue,” said Susman, on topics ranging from religion to revolution to feminism, she said.
Students discussed the history of the Al-Quds partnership with Professor Sue Lanser (ENG/COML/ROMS), who has been involved with the partnership since its inception.
“The intense learning on both sides, and the deep bonds forged between Al-Quds and Brandeis students, have been a hallmark of every encounter between members of the AQU and Brandeis communities,” said Lanser in an email.
She said the trip “underscores the unique value” between an American university founded by the Jewish community and Palestinian university.
Daniel Langenthal, director of Experiential Learning and a member of BPA was a liaison to the Al-Quds project. Before the Al-Quds cohort arrived, Langenthal led workshops with Brandeis students to help them figure out how they would introduce newcomers to their school. He then led sessions with the delegation on “community building” to help the students develop trust and communication skills as they approached difficult conversations.
“I have a very strong background in this exact type of program where college students are coming together having difficult conversations, engaging with each other, learning to built trust,” he said.
Marwa said her first day at Brandeis was exhausting but successful. Their first night, they discussed the true meaning of zionism.
“It was an amazing discussion, because everyone was interacting in a respectful way…Even though it was a sensitive topic … everyone was calm and just talking and listening to the other person,” said Marwa.
On Wednesday, the students attended the lecture with artist and activist Theaster Gates, the new Richman Fellow.The Ethics Center, which awards the fellowship, hosted a breakfast with Gates and the delegation as well as a dinner, which President Lynch was able to attend.
“I was struck by how much [the Al-Quds students, faculty and staff] enjoyed the pedagogical approach of our faculty in the classes they attended, the beauty of our campus and most importantly the dialogue that they engaged in with members of our community,” said Lynch in an email to The Brandeis Hoot. “As has been true for Brandeis students and faculty who have visited Al-Quds, it was apparent that all involved in the visit found meaningful points of commonality despite cultural and experiential differences,” she said.
The Initiative hosted a coffee house at Chum’s open to all students which featured a performance by the a cappella group Starving Artists. The Al-Quds visitors explored downtown Boston, touring Faneuil Hall and attending a lecture at Harvard, said Dunbar.
Members of the delegation will create oral history projects to be posted online to record their personal experiences with the delegation in a tangible way that is accessible to Americans, Palestinians and everyone. They will use video and writing to convey the “evolution of [their] experience” from their “assumptions” about what the trip would be to what they have felt and experienced this week, said Dunbar.
“It’s been amazingly rewarding,” said Dunbar during the trip. She feels “accountable” to her peers in her work with the Initiative.
“It excites me that so many Brandeis community members were willing to play a role in the visit—whether it be through engaging with the Al-Quds students in classes, performing at our Chum’s coffeehouse or joining the Initiative for lunch,” said Susman in an email.