Bigotry at the Arab University of Al-Quds

In light of the recent demonstrations of ignorance, bigotry, and possibly anti-Semitism exhibited by the members of the two academic bodies -- the Association of Asian American Studies in April 2013 and the American Studies Association in December 2013 -- who voted in favor of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, it is a seemingly ironic twist of fate that on November 18, 2013, Al-Quds, an Arab University, was suspended by an American university, Brandeis, from continuing the partnership arrangement between the two institutions.

Al-Quds, now with 12,000 students, Palestinians, and residents of Jerusalem, was set up in 1995 in the village of Abu Dis, just east of Jerusalem.  Its chief source of funding has been the Ford Foundation; recently it has received funding from the Bronfman Foundation.  Its president since 1994, Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of philosophy, is a well-known and respected intellectual, partly educated at Harvard and Oxford, who has established academic relationships with Israeli universities.  Regarded by most people as a political moderate, he has publicly called for a peace process leading to a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for the renunciation of the Palestinian demand for the "right of return."

Brandeis defines itself as the only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored college or university in the U.S.  Since 2003, Al-Quds has been a partner with Brandeis, which has 4,000 students, in a link intended to foster cultural understanding and to provide educational opportunities for faculty and students.  To this end, more than 200 faculty, students, and administrators have engaged in joint research projects and conferences, such as issues of effective teaching and communications.  One such exchange, highly paradoxical in view of the bigoted behavior of the American Studies Association, was on the subject of American studies.  Others were on conflict resolution and women's studies.

This harmonious working relationship came to a halt as a result of the event on November 5, 2013 on the Al-Quds campus.  This was a rally sponsored by a student group, the "Islamic Bloc" or "Islamic Association," a direct affiliate of the Islamic Jihad political party that probably provided funding for it.  The group was trying to popularize its ideology.  It was supposed to use the event to honor the best students, to make speeches, and to play Islamic music.

However, the group betrayed the declared intention of the event.  Instead, it became a celebration of terrorism and incitement to violence.  The rally featured individuals in paramilitary dress, wearing black masks, trampling on Israeli flags, carrying fake automatic weapons, and extending their arms in a Nazi type of salute.  One of the speeches made involved a re-enactment of the recent death of a member of Islamic Jihad in a fight with the Israeli Defense Forces.  Not only was all of this a demonstration of hostility to the State of Israel, but it was also a violation of university policy and contrary to the institutional values and principles of both Al-Quds and Brandeis.

The immediate comment on the event by university officials on November 6, 2013 was unfortunately not satisfactory.  The Al-Quds executive vice president, Imad Abu Kishek, who had spent two years (2005-2007) at Brandeis for advanced study, remarked that the leaders of the event were individuals from outside the university.  He did also say that the rally had violated university policies and principles.  Fred Lawrence, the president of Brandeis, thought this was an oversimplification, since the rally portrayed hatred and violence.

Even more unsatisfactory for Lawrence was the statement of Nusseibeh in his letter of November 17 posted in Arabic addressed to Al-Quds students.  In his version of the rally, Nusseibeh stated, "The University is often subjected to vilification campaigns by Jewish extremists with the purpose of discrediting its reputation as a prestigious academic institution with a unique humane calling."  He continued, "Some people capitalize on events in ways that misrepresent the university as promoting inhumane, antisemitic, Fascist and Nazi ideologies.  These "opportunists," he wrote, were quick to describe the Palestinians as a people undeserving of freedom and independence.  They were using the event to muster opinion that "sustains the occupation, the extension of settlements, and the confiscation of land, and prevents Palestinians from achieving our freedom."

As a result, Lawrence, who regarded this statement as "unacceptable and inflammatory," suspended the partnership with Al-Quds on November 18, 2013.  Al-Quds had displayed intolerance, not open dialogue to lay a foundation for peace.  He also removed Nusseibeh from the board of advisers of Brandeis's Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public life, on which Lawrence has sat since 2000.

As a result of the event, on November 21, 2013, Syracuse University also suspended the relationship it had with Al-Quds concerning its Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism.  However, Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, which has joint degree programs with Al-Quds in teaching and liberal arts, differed from the other two U.S. institutions.  Although he did not publicly address the issue of the rally, Botstein decided to continue the partnership with Al-Quds.

One can accept that Al-Quds University and Nusseibeh himself are among the more moderate Palestinian advocates for peace and a two-state solution, and that the university operates in an environment that is volatile and full of ideological divisions.  It is also probably true that the university administration did not condone the actions of a small group of students.  Though Nusseibeh did not offer the desired fulsome apology for the behavior of the students on his campus, he has proposed a conciliatory sop: a course to be given in summer 2014 in English on "Hate Speech and Racism."

Yet the rally event belies the aspirations of Al-Quds that the university hopes to instill a message against hatred, against violence, and against extremism, and also a message to make use of reason in every way.  There is little that can excuse the extreme behavior, anti-Semitic as well as anti-Israeli, or that can justify an American partnership with an institution that does not fully outlaw flagrant Nazi-style activity.  Expression of differences of opinion is one thing and is most welcome; Nazism is something else.  Brandeis was correct and should be applauded.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.