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Brandeis faculty urges renewal of ties with Palestinian school

The student rally at Al-Quds University was expected to include a ceremony to honor the best students at the Palestinian campus near Jerusalem, as well as Islamic music and a dramatization about student life. Instead, what occurred on Nov. 5 stunned officials at Brandeis University, prompting them to suspend the Waltham college’s long academic partnership with Al-Quds.

The Al-Quds students, clad in black, military-style uniforms and black masks, raised their arms in what appeared to be a Nazi salute. Banners with images of dead suicide bombers hung in the campus square.

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A Brandeis University team that visited the Palestinian campus after the demonstration is asking Brandeis president Frederick M. Lawrence to reestablish ties with Al-Quds, saying that the Arab school’s leadership acted quickly and appropriately after the demonstration.

“Our clear impression from the five days we spent at Al-Quds University was of a leadership that was angry and appalled,” said the report, issued this week by three members of the Brandeis faculty who have long ties to the partnership, which has included faculty and student exchanges and academic development.

“Al-Quds University is playing a courageous front-line role in working for peace by engaging those minority factions in its midst that hold extreme attitudes,” the report said. “We call on Brandeis University to resume and indeed redouble its commitment to this scholarly partnership.”

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Ellen de Graffenreid, a spokeswoman for Brandeis, stressed that the suspension does not mean the relationship has been terminated. Lawrence, she said, “has been in contact with the administration at Al-Quds and is having discussions about what the next steps would be.”

The final catalyst for the suspension of the partnership appears to have been a Nov. 17 letter by Al-Quds president Sari Nusseibeh to his university community, which Brandeis had hoped would be an unequivocal condemnation of the rally staged by a student group affiliated with the Islamic Jihad political party.

‘I hope that our report provides the context that wasn’t available when the suspension occurred.’

Susan Lanser, report coauthor 
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Nusseibeh, who has a record of peace efforts in the region, opened the letter by saying that “the university is often subjected to vilification campaigns by Jewish extremists with the purpose of discrediting its reputation.”

He added, “These extreme elements spare no effort to exploit some rare but nonetheless damaging events or scenes which occur on the campus of Al-Quds University . . . to capitalize on events in ways that misrepresent the university as promoting inhumane, anti-Semitic, fascist, and Nazi ideologies.”

The next day, when Lawrence received an English translation of the letter, the partnership was suspended.

“While Brandeis has an unwavering commitment to open dialogue on difficult issues, we are also obliged to recognize intolerance when we see it, and we cannot — and will not — turn a blind eye to intolerance,” the university said.

In addition to putting the partnership on hold, Brandeis suspended Nusseibeh from the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, which is based at Brandeis, a nonsectarian university with deep roots in the Jewish community.

In their report, the Brandeis faculty members who visited Al-Quds said that “while we understand the reasons why many people were disturbed or offended by Sari Nusseibeh’s Nov. 17 letter to his student community, the letter expressed neither intolerance nor hatred.”

The reference to “Jewish extremists,” according to report coauthor Susan Lanser, did not refer to Brandeis but to voices and factions outside the university.

In his letter, Nusseibeh also wrote that “while the university strives to provide an atmosphere of freedom, it is at the same time committed to preventing breaches by those who do not respect its principles. . . . Whoever harms another individual or group is also harming the university, its image and its reputation; this is an abomination.”

Immediately after the rally, according to the report, the Palestinian university’s student affairs staff convened an emergency meeting of student leaders and said that the rally violated Al-Quds policy. The following day, the university’s executive vice president said that “the threat of violence implied by the military dress, the fake weaponry, and the fascist salutes are not acceptable on our campus.”

Lanser, who is head of the humanities division at Brandeis, said in an interview that she hopes the broken partnership can be repaired. The faculty team had been at Al-Quds on a previously scheduled visit when Lawrence asked them to investigate the rally and the university’s response. The suspension was announced before they had completed their work.

“I hope that our report provides the context that wasn’t available when the suspension occurred,” Lanser said. “It’s difficult to know what” Lawrence “was dealing with here, as it was difficult for him to know what we were learning there. I was disappointed we didn’t have the opportunity to put those pieces together.”

Lanser compiled the report with Daniel Terris, director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life; and Daniel Kryder, chair of the politics department at Brandeis.

Terris said that Lawrence’s continued communication with Al-Quds “definitely gives me hope that we can move forward to resume this relationship.”

The faculty said that Al-Quds faces a difficult mission in a difficult environment and that the work that brings together faculty, students, and staff from the two universities is a boon for both.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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