To those familiar with Brandeis University's reputation as a Jewish institution, being an Arab at the school might seem anathema. But Brandeis' latest venture to bring Arab students, professors, and administrators to the Waltham, Massachusetts campus is only the latest installment of its ongoing efforts to shape the future of American and world Jewry. Nowadays, its sights are set on coexistence on campus and peace in the Middle East.
Founded by members of the American Jewish community in 1948, Brandeis was an anomaly at a time when top-notch colleges set quotas on the number of Jewish students. Nearly 60 years later, Jews are disproportionately represented at top-tier universities, and Jewish student issues have changed. Whereas the nationwide struggle used to be about succeeding in anti-Semitic environments, today it's often about building meaningful relationships with Arab students on those same campuses.
Brandeis' challenge has evolved accordingly. As scores of Middle Eastern Studies departments across the country navigate accusations of anti-Israel bias, Brandeis decided to do Middle Eastern Studies on its own terms, create a bubble of peaceful coexistence, and radiate its successes outward.
Though no university spokesperson has ever declared such a sweeping vision, the recent boom in innovative academic programs, partnerships and recruitments testifies to Brandeis' effort. By bringing Arab administrators, scholars and students to campus, the university is making a statement to the Jewish community and to academia: Middle East peace, it seems to be saying, starts here.
Despite its desire to walk the middle line, Brandeis's allegiance to the American Jewish community puts the university in a risky position. Officially a "non-sectarian, Jewish-sponsored university," most of its principal donors are Jewish, and some members of the larger circle of alumni and community members have already registered their displeasure.
Robin Katz, a Brandeis senior, recounts in an interview what her great-aunt told her when she was an incoming freshman. "You know, they're sending blacks there now," she warned. "And Arabs."
Institutional Partnerships and Politics
"We need a first-rate center for Middle East Studies that is not pro or con anything," Brandeis president Jehuda Reinharz said in a Feb. 27 article in The Jerusalem Post, an English-language Israeli daily.
The new Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis claims to be just that, committed to "expanding study of the region beyond Arab-Israeli tensions to include economic development, ethnic relations, regional security and social and geo-political questions." A fall course entitled "Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East" was taught by a tag-team of Middle Eastern scholars – one Israeli, one Palestinian and one Egyptian.
The course was hailed by students as painstakingly balanced. Preston Neal, a junior at Brandeis, assisted the professors in its development. "[Crown Center Director] Shai Feldman really knows what he's doing…He is committed to finding out how this Middle Eastern Studies center can be different and add something unique to the picture that the others don't," Neal wrote in an email.
As the world saw during last year's controversy at Columbia University, being situated in an academic context, complicates the terrain of this conflict. On January 17, at the start of Brandeis' spring semester, The New York Sun reported claims linking Khalil Shikaki, the Palestinian lecturer of the course, with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an insurgent group that has taken responsibility for dozens of attacks on Israeli civilians.
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) responded to the claims by threatening to ask alumni to financially boycott Brandeis if it did not conduct a full investigation into Shikaki.
In a February 7 letter to the ZOA, Reinharz called Shikaki an esteemed Palestinian pollster and peace advocate, and wrote, "the ZOA's charges against Professor Shikaki constitute a form of Jewish McCarthyism — accusing and judging him before any credible evidence has been put forward." He added that the university's namesake, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, served as the ZOA's honorary president when it was first established and "would be saddened and distressed to see the depths to which the ZOA has fallen."
Despite protests from the organization, Brandeis is following through with its plans. In February of this year, the university announced a partnership with Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem aimed at connecting academic communities and strengthening the two universities.
Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds, takes an unsentimental and no-nonsense approach to the partnership. "If you bring people together to discuss microbiology or math or public health, as a byproduct you are addressing the surrounding issues," Nusseibeh said in a February 1 New York Times article about the partnership.
Arab Students in a Jewish World
The Crown Center and the Al-Quds-Brandeis partnership have brought influential policymakers and scholars from the Middle East to the administration and faculty, but successful integration of an Arab minority in the majority-Jewish Brandeis student body is an equally important part of the vision.
Since 1996, twelve Israeli undergraduates — six Arab, six Jewish - have received full scholarships in honor of their coexistence work to study at Brandeis. Known as Slifka Scholars, named after Alan Slifka, a renowned champion of Israeli/Palestinian coexistence projects, these students pursue whatever academic subjects they please; their presence alone is what Slifka hopes will spark dialogue.
"When Arab and Jewish scholars come to Brandeis, they get to know each other and have shared experiences," Slifka said in a phone interview. "What we've found over the years is that the Slifka Scholars have exemplified coexistence on the Brandeis campus."
Slifka's other goals for the scholarship are to expose American Jewish students to Israeli students, and to teach them that Arabs and Jews are both equally Israeli.
"It creates a very rich understanding of what it means to be an Israeli," Slifka added.
Slifka Scholar Iman Haider is a junior Economics major, and comes from Majd el-Krum, a village in northern Israel. Coming to a Jewish school did not start off as she expected.
"Brandeis was supposed to be more familiar than any other school in America," she recalled in an interview. "Since it is a Jewish school, I assumed, ‘Oh, I know what Jews are all about!' But it was different. I was used to a different Jewishness."
Asked whether she received criticism from family and friends back home for enrolling in a Jewish university as an Arab Muslim, Haider laughed.
"So what? We live in a Jewish country. For me to go to a Jewish school was not a big deal." The hostility she encountered did not come from her own Arab community, but from her fellow Brandeis students.
"In my dorm," she recalled, "people were very mean, and didn't accept the fact that I was Arab. When I told them I was from Israel, they were shocked. ‘How come you are Israeli and not Jewish? Israel is only a Jewish state. Are you really from there? Is your family from there?'" they'd asked. "It was a ridiculous question."
Ayham Bahnassi, a recent Syrian-American Brandeis graduate, recounts a similarly trying experience as the lone Arab student brushing up on his writing in an Arabic class full of Jewish students.
"I didn't like people's intentions for studying Arabic," Bahnassi said in an interview. "At the beginning of the semester, when the teacher asked everyone why they were taking the class, one girl said, ‘I want to learn Arabic so I can talk some common sense into Osama Bin Laden.'"
Jewish and Arab students' perceptions of the Arab world within and beyond Israel are among the issues discussed in the Arab-Jewish Dialogue Group, which the first Slifka Scholars founded, and in which Bahnassi was a regular participant.
"It changed who I am," he explained. "It really did teach me to open myself, to discover new cultures...geographical diversity, ethnic diversity, political diversity — all of that I found at the dialogue group."
Bahnassi's experience as the lone Arab student studying Hebrew was mostly positive, with teachers always asking him if particular Hebrew words had Arabic cognates. But when he took issue with a passage on his final exam in his Hebrew class, he spoke up.
"The story was about an Algerian woman who ran off to escape her religiously strict Muslim family," he recalled. "Her brother chased after her, found her and killed her."
"It's great that you want to constructively criticize Muslim culture," Bahnassi later told the teacher. "But do it with people that know something about Islam."
The teacher defended its inclusion by referring to the fun she makes of religious Jews. "To be critical of Jews in front of other Jews was not the same," he responded. The teacher later apologized and modified the exam for the following semester.
First-year graduate student Ahmed Alfrayan was also attracted to Brandeis for its strength in Judaic Studies. Born and raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Alfrayan is the first Arab graduate student in Brandeis' Hebrew department.
As an undergraduate, Alfrayan was in the first graduating class of a new Hebrew language and translation major at King Saud University in Riyadh. "In Saudi Arabia, we don't have a lot of materials about the subject, because we don't have a history of Jews in our country. I traveled to Egypt and Lebanon to get materials written in Arabic about Jewish history, language, anything."
When asked why he chose to study Hebrew, he replies. "At the beginning I started to read, and got to learning about Jewish people. Then I wanted to find a good way to help bring peace. I realized that the conflict is not far away from me in Saudi Arabia."
Change and Criticism from Within
These individual stories seem to speak highly for the future of Arab and Muslim life at Brandeis, but these are still only two stories within what remains a minority community at the university. In seeking to improve the lives of Arab and Muslim students, the university recently hired a new spiritual and pastoral advisor to the Muslim community. Imam Talal Y. Eid is also filling a long-vacant position as the new principal adviser to the Muslim Student Association (MSA). The MSA, along with the three-year-old Arab Culture Club, are the Muslim and Arab student organizations on campus.
There is no official count of the number of Arab students at Brandeis, but the Muslims among them represent a small portion of the approximately 300 Muslims at Brandeis.
The celebration of the minority Arab culture at Brandeis, coupled with the school's initiatives to bring Arab students to campus, is seen by some as a demeaning measure.
"I do think the Arabs have been tokenized, because there aren't a lot of [them] on campus," said Katz. "I definitely see it as Brandeis's larger goal of diversifying the campus…But the recruitment of Arabs runs the risk of making them tokens."
Neal agrees. "Many administrators and faculty and students feel like they need to ‘make up' for the low number of Arabs at Brandeis, and so a significant amount of the initiatives…often ring with a placating overtone."
"The scholarship is a cute idea," echoed senior Avital Okrent, "but I don't know if it will ever accomplish anything, except to give the scholars a Brandeis education. I am pretty pessimistic about it."
Senior Moran Eisenbaum, a Jewish Israeli Slifka scholar, disagrees, and thinks the scholarship is beneficial.
"If you look at the Slifka graduates, they have continued in their fields. I'm planning on going back to Israel, and Manar [Fawakhry, her Arab Slifka counterpart] is going back for that purpose, to better the situation."
She does criticize the scholarship, though, for showing an unbalanced commitment to Israel; the Arab Slifka scholars are from Israel, not from the Palestinian territories.
"Wanna make coexistence?" she said. "Bring a Palestinian from Gaza for me to talk to."
But Slifka hastened to emphasize that his program has a very specific focus: to fortify the society inside of Israel.
"I have two interests: to strengthen the State of Israel internally, and to strengthen the relationship between America and Israel," Slifka explained. "Bringing Palestinians to campus is an entirely different thing. It's not that I don't think it's nice to have Palestinians on campus, but my interest is society within Israel."
The Arab students interviewed for this article downplayed their ambivalence about the program and highlighted their happiness at Brandeis.
"Brandeis has been ups and downs for me," Bahnassi reported. "After 9/11, which was my freshman year, my parents told me to come home. They thought I would be [the] target of hate crimes after what happened. But I never give that kind of threat much credibility — of all the places I felt comfortable, it was Brandeis. At Brandeis, there was a big demand about what I had to say. In my Middle Eastern Studies classes, professors were always eager to let me talk in class, since they knew the Arab voice was lacking."
After her chilly welcome, Haider, too, feels accepted at Brandeis. With three undergraduate years under her belt, she spends much of her time with Jewish Israeli students, who she says share her same culture, eat the same foods, and display a "warmth" that reminds her of home.
She works as both an Arabic and Hebrew language tutor, and has become close friends with the Israeli teachers in the Hebrew department, one of whom hosts her for Thanksgiving and Rosh Hashana barbeques each year. "Brandeis is my home," Haider reported. "And I like it."
While many individual Arab students have found acceptance at Brandeis, the true success of the school's initiatives are hard to gauge. Most students do seem to share a common sentiment that the university has good intentions behind the Slifka Scholarship and the Crown Center.
"Brandeis really does want to affect positive change," Katz said, emphatically. "What does it mean to be a Jewish secular school? Brandeis has these new initiatives, which are pretty progressive for American Jewish standards, but it is also invested in an American Jewish community, which is moving increasingly toward the political right. There is an equal pull in both directions."
Daniel Estrin is a senior at Brandeis University, where he studies English and Hebrew Literature and Jewish Studies. He is a hummus connoisseur and an editor of the New Voices Web Wire