The article below, by Danna Harman, was published by Haaretz on September 2nd, 2013 (http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.544778).
The Al Quds-Bard College Partnership graduates its first class, with diplomas and dabkaABU DIS, West Bank – One day at the end of May, Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, a liberal arts college in upstate New York, donned his commencement cap, draped on his gown, straightened out his signature bow tie and stood up to confer degrees on the members of the class of 2013. Six hundred and forty six undergraduates and 157 graduate students paraded by to shake his hand, smile for official snapshots and wave to their moms.
And then, on Thursday evening, he did it all over again: Cap. Check. Gown. Check. Bow tie. Check – there was Botstein, proudly passing out diplomas to another 135 newly minted Bard graduates.
Having been president of the college since 1975, Botstein has done this many, very many, times before, and the routine is familiar. And so it was on Thursday: There were banners and balloons. Handshakes and congratulations. There were excited parents holding up iPhones and iPads to snap photos and capture videos. There were graduates throwing caps jubilantly in the air. There was hugging and chanting and whooping, and a little impromptu celebratory dabka too.
Dabka? Yes, that too. For this late-August graduation featured some surprising variations on a theme, even for the old hand. There was the opening medley of “Arab Idol” season-two winner Mohammad Assaf songs, which had the graduates clapping and tapping, and Botstein (a musicologist and classically trained conductor, who flew to the graduation directly from conducting Prokofiev and Shostakovich at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles the night before) smiling brightly. There were the women’s head scarves, over which graduation caps were artfully balanced. There was the moment of silence “for the children lost to the Israeli occupation,” and there was a hearty rendition of the Palestinian national anthem.
All of which served as something of a giveaway to the fact that Botstein was not in Dutchess County anymore.
And indeed, all this handshaking, diploma giving, picture taking and whooping was taking place in East Jerusalem, in the village of Abu Dis, as the sun went down over the outdoor amphitheater at Al Quds University.
“We want to congratulate you graduates today,” intoned the vivacious chemistry-teacher-turned-master of ceremonies: “You have written a lot. You have read a lot. And you have spent a lot of hours waiting at the Qalandiyah checkpoint on your way to class.”
It was just four years ago that the plan leading to this day was hatched, said the Harvard- and Oxford-educated philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, a scion of one of the most distinguished Palestinian Jerusalem families, who has served as president of Al Quds since 1995. It all started, continued Nusseibeh, when a mutual friend – an Israeli, as it happens – brought Botstein to his office.
The two college presidents chatted, then, about how they might collaborate between beautiful, bucolic Bard and, 11,000 kilometers away, sprawling Al Quds, with its 12,000 students, the only Arab university in and around the disputed capital of Jerusalem.
It was, in a way, just daydreaming, Nusseibeh remembered. “But I am here today,” he told the graduates, “… with happiness and pride to say that, thanks to the exceptional vision of President Botstein and others, that dream has borne fruit.”
The joint venture between Bard and Al Quds, which began soon after that initial meeting, offers graduates a dual U.S. and Palestinian degree – either at the Bachelor’s or the Master’s level – and is the first U.S.-Palestinian collaboration of its kind.
Funded initially by liberal financier (and personal Botstein friend) George Soros and his Open Society Institute (now Foundation), and later with help from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the program has two, linked components: the small, four-years Honors College for liberal arts and sciences, which combines traditional disciplines and innovative interdisciplinary programs (and is, in and of itself, a first of its kind among Palestinian institutions), and the larger, two-year Master of Arts in Teaching program, which uses innovative Bard-developed education models to train practicing teachers.
Al Quds and Bard share responsibility for curricular development, faculty training, recruitment and governance, and the whole thing is to some extent modeled on Bard’s other two collaborative joint programs, in Russia and Kyrgyzstan, both of which aim to introduce liberal education to “countries in transition.”
“The thing about this program,” notes Anis Al-Qaq, a former Palestinian ambassador to Geneva who today sits on Al Quds’ Board of Governors, “… is that it is about strengthening bridges between the Palestinians and the United States – without being political. It’s about giving young Palestinian some exposure to the best of the United States. They don’t need a green card. They have a little bit of America coming directly to them.”
“When I graduated from high school four years ago, my plan was to be an architect … or a dentist. I had even been accepted to the Al Quds dentistry school,” said class valedictorian Anan Abushanab, a petite firecracker of woman from Bethlehem, who strode confidently up to the podium in six-inch heels to deliver her speech. “But when I heard about this program, I was relieved, because I knew in my heart that I was not actually sure what I wanted to be. I was too young to know.”
During her years as a member of the very first class of the small Honors B.A. program, which graduated a total of 17 students on Thursday, continued Abushanab, she dabbled in environmental studies, tried out computer science, threw herself into literature and finally “fell in love” with the area of human rights. “It was like magic,” she says. “I felt like my journey had found its objective.” Next year, Abushanab – who ended up majoring in human rights and law, with a minor in urban studies – is heading off to Oxford, where she has a fellowship to do a master’s of science in refugee studies.
Her best high-school friends spent the last four years becoming “something,” she explained: One is a chemist, one an architect, a third a teacher. She, at the ripe old age of 21, is still not sure where life is about to take her. But she would not have traded in her degree, or her experience, for the world. “Education,” Abushanab explained to her fellow graduates from the podium, quoting from her “favorite,” Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, “… is the practice of freedom.”
“I hate the regular system we have here. It’s all about deciding ahead of time what you want to be and then listening to a teacher at the front of a classroom for years, and learning the stuff by heart. That was not for me,” she said. “I needed to fall in love,” Abushanab said.
“We would like to think that there is a correlation between education and political and ethical justice and democracy,” Botstein reflected later, over a celebratory meal of kebab, kibbeh and hummus with Nusseibeh, American Consul General in Jerusalem Michael Ratney and two dozen other bigwigs from the Al Quds-Bard program, the U.S. consulate and the local USAID office. “But we know that is not necessarily true. Some of the worst evils are done by educated people.”
“But still, what we do know is the opposite proposition is true – that is, that there is a correlation between ignorance and a lack of political and ethical justice.” A good education, which gets students thinking, and then organizing those thoughts, Botstein concluded, showing off the gift he received from the students – a mother-of-pearl model of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock – is, to state the very obvious, a good thing.
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