Sari Nusseibeh, the president of the Palestinian al-Quds University, on Friday charged that the president of Brandeis University, Frederick Lawrence, had “gone overboard” in an escalating dispute between the two universities stemming from an Islamic Jihad rally held on the al-Quds main campus earlier this month.
During the demonstration two weeks ago, JTA reported, protesters marched in black military gear with fake automatic weapons while waving flags and offering Nazi-style salutes. Banners with images of Palestinian suicide bombers decorated the campus’s main square, according to a statement from Brandeis. Several students also portrayed dead Israeli soldiers.
Lawrence called on Nusseibeh to issue in Arabic and English a condemnation of the demonstration. Unsatisfied with a statement subsequently issued by Nusseibeh in English and Arabic, which Brandeis called “unacceptable and inflammatory,” the Waltham, Mass. university on Monday suspended its partnership with al-Quds, which had been in place since 1998. Lawrence said the university would reevaluate the relationship in the future.
Speaking to The Times of Israel in his office at al-Quds’s Beit Hanina campus on Wednesday, Nusseibeh said he hoped Brandeis would reconsider its position. But on Friday, in the latest round of the dispute, Nusseibeh sent a bitter email to The Times of Israel.
Nusseibeh was responding to a follow-up query in which The Times of Israel asked him whether he had condemned the rally — and any lauding of suicide bombers that may have taken place there — in Arabic to the students of al-Quds. Nusseibeh replied with a lengthy critique of Lawrence’s role in the affair and a defense of his own actions in the wake of the rally.
“I think president Lawrence has gone overboard in his reactions — the last being his decision to expel me from the Board of Ethics, justice and public life, with which I have been associated since its inception, and from many years before I forged a partnership between the two universities,” Nusseibeh charged. Brandeis maintains an International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, and Nusseibeh was a member of its international advisory board. (That board, incidentally, is headed by the South African judge Richard Goldstone, author of the Goldstone Report into the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead, which accused the Israeli army of deliberately killing Palestinian civilians in Gaza — a charge Goldstone personally later retracted.) The website of the Board now states that Nusseibeh is “currently suspended” from membership.
Nusseibeh continued, in his email, by protesting that Brandeis President Lawrence had “chosen to read my letters to students as ‘inflammatory’ — partly I understood because he will not accept that there are such people as ‘Jewish extremists’, and partly also because of my use of the Arabic term ‘majzara‘ — which was translated into English as ‘massacre’ — to refer to the holocaust (sic). This, in spite of there being no Arabic term to refer to the holocaust by, and in spite of the literal translation of majzara as slaughter.”
He criticized Lawrence for never bothering “to express any sympathy for the continued plight of my university — the latest being yet another vicious incursion by the army into the campus just a day after the rally, as a result of which more than 30 students were hospitalized from various gas-related effects.” Nusseibeh may have been referring to an incident last week reported by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency. “Nor has he shown any sympathy for the fact that my graduates continue to suffer from not having their degrees accredited in the Israeli system. In other words, nothing that he has done has shown any feeling for our plight under occupation. Yet he demands immediate reaction just based on a picture and comment circulated by someone who clearly wishes to inflame the political climate between Israelis (and Jews more generally) and Palestinians.”
Turning to the November 5 rally itself, Nusseibeh said he first learned of it “when someone sent me the blogger’s picture and comment. I reacted immediately by giving instructions to issue an official statement saying such manifestations of militarism are unacceptable (remember, I still had no information on exactly what all this was about).
“Secondly, I issued instructions to set up an investigation into the event: its nature, the people behind it, the occasion, the procedures employed to get permission for holding it, and so on. Thirdly, I received the call from president Lawrence expressing anger, and calling for a condemnation of nazi-style militarism. He said he was being pressured by his trustees and other members of the Jewish community. I assured him of our mutual agreement that I will act promptly to express our official rejection of such manifestations and that I will do whatever I can that such matters will not be repeated. I asked him to send a draft statement of what he needed.
“Fourthly, president Lawrence sent me a draft statement that expressed more his immediate needs than my needs as a university president having to handle a culture rather than a one-time event. I therefore preferred to draft my own statement, wishing to address the problem at its roots: so far ‘the problem’ as I knew was simply that of holding nazi-style militarist manifestations. What I had to address was therefore the matter of what free speech meant, its limits, and the values that go with it.
“Fifthly, I had to begin reacting to President Lawrence’s reactions. I and other colleagues were in close consultation about the matter with three Brandeis faculty who happened to be visiting us, trying to contain the fallout. These three were invited to attend an initial briefing by the investigation committee we had set up.
“Sixthly, and only yesterday, I learnt (still informally) from one of the people on the investigation committee what the occasion was: the jihad faction was protesting the manner of killing by the Israeli army a few days ago of the suicide bomber from three years ago: they had invited the parents of the person bombed inside the cave where he was hiding by way of ‘paying respects’ to them.”
Nusseibeh may have been referring to the late-October killing by the IDF of Islamic Jihad’s Muhammed Aazi, who was allegedly among the planners of a bus bombing in Tel Aviv last November in which 29 people were injured. Aazi, who was said by the IDF to be planning another attack, was shot in a clash in the cave where he was hiding out west of Ramallah.
Nusseibeh’s email continued: “Having said all that, I can now tell you that for me, there was neither a suicide bombing I was called upon to laud or condemn. What I was first called upon to do was to express the university’s rejection of militaristic parades. And my role here was not simply to express displeasure or condemnation, but to give students a message about what freedom of opinion meant. And I think that, judging by the number of comments (positive and negative or none) I received from students, I can say the message had the effect desired by all of us who hope to contain extremism and to create a climate conducive to peace (my own objective, if not that of others).
“As to suicide bombings,” he concluded, “I have never lauded them, and have always condemned them. And as to nazism, I should just add here that I was informed by the investigation committee member I mentioned above that no nazi or fascist sentiments were expressed. However, to my mind, fascism and anti/demur ism can be expressed in more than one way, and it is a duty to condemn and suppress it wherever it reveals itself.
“I am sorry for a long answer to a simple query, but simple questions can sometimes only elicit very shallow and incomplete answers,” Nusseibeh signed off.
Meanwhile, journalist and commentator Tom Gross, who first publicized news and photos of the rally, told The Times of Israel that he “and others writing about this absolutely resent being called Jewish extremists since I have for over 20 years supported an independent Palestine state and still do — and all I and others want is for the Palestinians and Israelis to both engage in responsible governance so that the Palestinian state in formation will live at peace with Israel.”
In his statement issued to al-Quds students Sunday, Nusseibeh had said that “Jewish extremists” were using the demonstration to “capitalize on events in ways that misrepresent the university as promoting inhumane, anti-Semitic, fascist, and Nazi ideologies.”