After the Delegation

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Al-Quds University (Source: Keleti, Transferred from he.wikipedia)


The first time I went to Israel, I was two. Since then I have returned for various different reasons. But it wasn’t until my gap year that I realized that Israel, a place I had the privilege of traveling to over six times, was at the center of a conflict I knew almost nothing about. On my gap year I took classes on the conflict, traveled to the West Bank, visited Israeli settlements, and learned about the complexities within Israeli society regarding ethnicity and religion. I returned from my year in Israel with the intention and determination to advocate for a two state solution, voice the reality of Palestinians’ lack of human rights, and fight for Israel’s tarnishing image.
But once I settled back into my apartment in New York, I realized that the in-depth global experience I had in Israel was not quite as well-rounded as I thought it was. I left Israel without ever having had an intentional conversation with a Palestinian. How was it possible that I lived in West Jerusalem for a year yet never even stepped foot in Palestinian East Jerusalem?
I was eager to begin my freshman year at Brandeis, where the conversation on Israel and Palestine dominates campus politics. But once I got here, I was disappointed to learn that I would not have the opportunity to engage with Palestinians’ narratives as I would have had several years earlier, before the suspension of Brandeis’ partnership with Palestinian Al-Quds University. Without this partnership, Palestinian narratives are scarcely represented at Brandeis.
In 2013, President Lawrence suspended Brandeis’ ties with Al-Quds in response to an Islamic-Jihad affiliated political rally held on the Al-Quds campus by a small group of students. Despite the Al-Quds administration’s condemnation of the protest, Brandeis suspended its ties indefinitely. Though Brandeis’ administration is unwilling to restore contact with Al-Quds, students from each school have maintained this valuable relationship for two and half years. The Brandeis-Al-Quds Student Dialogue Initiative (B-AQU SDI) is comprised of students from each university, working to take steps toward renewing our universities’ relations. 
Having been previously successful for over a decade, it is imperative to the embodiment of Brandeis’ values for civility of discourse, diversity, and social justice that this partnership is reestablished. A formal renewal rests in the hands of the presidents at both institutions, but the unique nature of Brandeis Interim President Lynch’s role limits B-AQU SDI from reaching our goal at this time. In response, the initiative brought Al-Quds students to Brandeis for the first ever student-led delegation from Tuesday, March 22 through Saturday, March 26.
Our week with the Al-Quds students surpassed my expectations. I awaited the Palestinian group with excitement and some trepidation. After the months of preparations and attention to details, we were left with the intangible: Would the groups mesh? Would the members connect? Could we find places of understanding?
The Al-Quds delegation arrived with toothy smiles and firm handshakes. We quickly fell into conversation. Relief. This was going to be fun! Almost immediately, we began with icebreakers. They helped us to get to know names and gain some familiarity with each other, but as cliche as it sounds, it felt like we had known each other long before that morning.
Then came the hard part. The Brandeis contingent had prepared ourselves for difficult conversation. We knew that our guests would be sharing a narrative that would be challenging, even painful to hear and possibly uncomfortable to absorb. We were right. Some of my schoolmates and I expected to hear stories of friction between them and Israeli counterpoints – neighbors, shopkeepers, bus drivers. What I – and other Brandesians – did not expect to hear was that the Al- Quds students personal experiences with Israelis was basically limited to soldiers at checkpoints, where they could wait for hours before passing through.
I ached for my friends’ hardships and humiliation. But what was most challenging took me even more by surprise. We both felt attachment to the same land, but we related to it almost completely differently. I came to this week assuming that we would be discussing issues concerning the land of Israel. But these young people – who live in that very land – do not necessarily consider it the same place that I do. Sometimes the Al-Quds students used the name “Israel,” but more often they said, “Palestine.” This wasn’t said with bitterness or resentment. It was said in matter-of-fact tones, which made it ring out even louder. I soon realized that we were starting even further than where I expected. It was like we were looking at the same flower and seeing it as two starkly different colors.
Ultimately, that contrast in ideology didn’t create an insurmountable wall between the two groups. The Palestinian students were ready to discuss concrete avenues toward co-existence. Our friends weren’t interested in fighting the reality of Israel as a political state. Most shared a similar perspective. A two state solution can’t happen – too many issues, like settlements, and land divisions stand in the way. A one state solution won’t work -equity would never be achieved in a single, unified country and they would exist as second-class-citizens. Our partners are looking for concrete changes that will bring humanitarian rights. They want better lives for themselves, their families and their communities. They want what every person deserves – the freedom and opportunity to pursue productive, fulfilling lives.
I don’t know that my challenge was every Brandesian’s challenge. We are a contingent of students from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The Jewish members of our group represent a wide spectrum stretching from secular to modern orthodox. Every one of us has individual feelings about Israel and a unique perspective on the conflict. But a wonderfully surprising by-product of this partnership is that the Brandeis students developed friendships and understandings about our own commonalities and differences which further strengthened bonds within the group, enriching the entire group’s experiences and creating a foundation for continuing the work that had just begun.
It’s hard to know if understanding leads to friendship or the other way around, but all of us developed both. Throughout the week we shared laughs and cups of coffee. We studied ancient and modern texts together, danced to traditional Palestinian music, munched on bagels and cream cheese. We tripped through the rainy streets of Boston and strolled on the paths of campus snapping selfies.There were moments of intensity and poignancy, but the connective tissue is what I believe will provide us with the motivation to move forward.
The exchange must not end here. Brandeis must move beyond the Brandeis-Al-Quds Student Dialogue Initiative transform, what is now called an initiative, into an ongoing expansion and deepening of human connection. Individual students are a force, but organizational commitment sends a message to each campus community. Re-establishing this as an official partnership, sponsored by both universities, will send profound statements of hope and solidarity to the American Jewish community and greater Palestinian community. In the meantime, every person in our seemingly small but substantive group who discovered transformation through this experience will inspire innumerable others. That is how we will make change.

Talia Bornstein is a first-year at Brandeis University. She was a delegate for the Brandeis-Al-Quds Student Dialogue Initiative’s 2016 Delegation.