How much responsibility do you have to the culture in which you live? If Brandeis students turn their heads and choose not to see what is uncomfortable, will this perpetuate a culture of ignorance within the American Jewish community?

Eli Philip ’15 and Catie Stewart ’16, founders of the Al-Quds Student Dialogue Initiative, believe that this is the case. This June, Stewart and Philip led a five-day intensive trip for a group of Brandeis students to visit Al-Quds University, a Palestinian university with locations in Jerusalem, Abu Dis and the Central West Bank,  with the hope that while administrators may let these precarious ties slip, students would find a foothold before it was too late. 

Stewart believes this foothold will be gained through young people focusing on what they have in common. “We [at Al-Quds and Brandeis] are all students, we’re all young, we’re all doing the same things every day. Despite different ideologies, we are able to move past obvious discomfort and engage on a personal level,” Stewart said. 

This seemingly insurmountable discomfort stems from the administrative friction that occurred in November 2013 following an Islamic Jihad-affiliated political rally on the Al-Quds campus and the subsequent response of Sari Nusseibeh, the recently-retired president of Al-Quds. Nusseibeh called media coverage of the rally a “vilification campaign by Jewish extremists,” a characterization that University President Frederick Lawrence deemed intolerable when he suspended the decade-long partnership between the two universities. Brandeis’ official statement on the issue read: 

“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.”

By Photo courtesy of Catie Stewart

ACADEMIC PRECEDENT: Dialogue founders Catie Stewart ’16 (left) and Eli Philip ’15 (right), Al-Quds president Imad Abukishek and former president Sari Nusseibeh were instrumental in the success of the Al-Quds Peace Prize initiative.

By Photo courtesy of Catie Stewart

A CIRCLE, NOT POLARITY: Students participating in the Al-Quds Dialogue initiative that took place in Israel over the summer circle up for a intercultural group discussion.

Lawrence’s decision exposed dissension within the Brandeis community towards not only the practical and moral nature of such a controversial partnership, but also the long-disputed role of American Jews in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Stewart’s hope for kinship despite deep ideological differences was the spirit upon which the former partnership was founded. The partnership was founded in 2003 to act as a symbol of cooperation and peace between Jews and Palestinians during the second intifada. Philip, who was living in Israel, recalls a precarious time.

“There was terrorism, the mood was very different, very intense. Negotiation in that region did not exist. Creating, and standing by, this unprecedented partnership required very bold leaders,” Philip said. These bold leaders were  Nusseibeh and President Emeritus Jehuda Reinharz. In a series of conferences taking place in 2003, they formed an unprecedented link between an Arab institution in Jerusalem and a Jewish-sponsored American institution. Funded initially by the Ford Foundation, this partnership involved administrative exchange and academic exchange.

Following the events of November 2013, partnership founder Nusseibeh was asked to step down from the international advisory board of the Brandeis Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, an action which heightened Stewart’s urgency toward this issue. 

To Stewart and Philip, Nusseibeh and his academic community represent the most secular and moderate sector of Palestinian politics—Stewart feels that if we cannot find common ground in this liberal academic environment, there is little hope for Jewish-Palestinian relations in a broader context. 

“[Nusseibeh] is really well-respected in Israel, really well-respected in America. If we can’t get along with him, I’m just disappointed. There is justified discomfort, but we have to find ways to move past that, or else the divides between us will continue to grow,” said Stewart.

Stewart and Philip’s sincere admiration for these leaders does not take convincing—they embodied Reinharz and Nusseibeh during their stay at Al-Quds, doggedly seeking out difficult dialogue. Discussion topics ranged from Palestinian prisoners to the Holocaust, to anything that was on their mind—the crux being they were talking at all, close enough to read each other’s facial expressions, to reach out and touch an arm.  In addition, the group participated in structured team-building activities and workshops led by students and professors from both universities, including Brandeis professor Susan Lanser (ENG).

During their stay, which was sponsored by a Davis Projects for Peace Prize—a grant for projects which address the root cause of conflicts worldwide—Stewart and Philip witnessed how deep the Al-Quds and Brandeis ties ran. “Many of the faculty members at Al-Quds have long professional relationships and friendships with Brandeis professors, and have spent a lot of time at Brandeis. They saw the partnership as something very solid,” Philip said.  

Before the events of Nov. 2013, Philip was not aware of the  partnership, but it became evident to him how important the relationship was to the students of Al-Quds. “They saw Brandeis as an ideal—as a Jewish and American institution that believed in social justice, and promoted equality, and whose ideals were in line with those of Al-Quds. To have the partnership severed, and to have it happen in the way that it did, was very disappointing for the students at Al-Quds,” Philip said.

Yasmeen Khatib, an Al-Quds student, shared with the Justice a letter  that she wrote to Lawrence after the Al-Quds Student Dialogue Initiative. “Our discussions were governed by understanding, as we created during our meetings a small community,” she wrote. “But, who can help us achieve this holy mission? Who is responsible for helping us?”

Khatib’s letter expresses the same urgency Stewart and Philip feel. However, they acknowledge the difficulties of such a task—engaging in dialogue with people whose ideologies differ dramatically from their own. “I don’t blame people who find it really difficult to have this type of dialogue. I find it difficult,” Stewart said. “Especially as someone who identifies as a Zionist, who grew up in an   American Jewish community, I really want Israel to be perfect. It’s hard to accept that Israel is perpetuating an occupation, that Israel does things that are not right.”

Stewart argues that there is a way to care about Jewish issues but remain empathetic to the plight of humans everywhere. “To me, being pro-Israel encompasses being pro-Palestine,” said Stewart. “If we want to see Israel be the best it can be, that means being pro-Palestinian. I would love it if everyone on campus understood that.”

Al-Quds Student Dialogue Initiative was founded upon the belief that the difference between tolerance and intolerance is simple: It’s a matter of meeting someone, face-to-face. 

“It’s easy to not think about what is happening on the ground. But when you go there, you can’t not feel how important this is,” Stewart said. “If our top administrators traveled there, and had the same face-to-face interaction that we had, they would come to the same conclusion that we did.”