Progressive Except Palestine: A Palestinian experience in US universities

Progressive Except Palestine: A Palestinian experience in US universities
Comment: While college life may be known as a bastion of liberalism, leftist thinking isn't always encouraged at the nation's seats of higher learning when it comes to Palestine.
7 min read
04 May, 2015
Brandeis has a reputation for supporting minority rights, but Palestine is a different question [Getty]

I was surprised when Najla Said, a Palestinian-Lebanese American writer and the daughter of the late Edward Said, wrote that, before the latest Israeli war against Gaza, she had not come across the acronym PEP.

I responded by telling her that PEP - Progressive Except for Palestine - is among the first things a Palestinian faces in the US. It reminds me of Pip, the protagonist of the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations.

However, my expectations of US attitudes towards Palestine are limited.

My experience as a Palestinian student at universities in the US was a mixed one. I met wonderful students, professors, staff and classmates at all the places I studied -  Brandeis University, Harvard Kennedy School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But in each there were also small groups and individuals who expressed their prejudice towards Palestine and Palestinians openly. I learned new concepts and abbreviations, and had direct experience of the socio-political structure that generates ideologies concealed under so-called academic work - ideologies which maintain the hegemonic power of the system.


At the Heller School in Brandeis University, the only Jewish secular school in the US, I lived between two opposing sets of feelings. The university is named after Louis Brandeis, a co-founder of the Zionist Movement, which is primarily responsible for the plight of my people.

Brandeis engaged in activities which contributed to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and their homeland, during what we call the Nakba, or Catastrophe.

But Brandeis is also known for its liberal approach. Angela Davis, the black civil right activist, graduated here, Malcolm X, a prominent leader of the civil rights movement, gave talks at its campus. These things happened because the school considers itself a secure environment for minorities, and American Jews consider themselves a minority.

At the beginning of one academic year, one of my Jewish American friends told me about PEP. Actually, she warned me. "You can talk in a friendly way about almost anything with the majority of American Jews in particular and mainstream Americans in general, but be careful when you talk about Israel, it is PEP."

I smiled and asked her what PEP meant. "Progressive Except for Palestine," she told me. I was in no need of further explanation. From then on I knew that I would have to be careful when I interacted with a "PEP" who held power - professors, members of staff and others.  

Normalisation and neutralisation

For a PEP, a good Palestinian is a neutralised one, the best Palestinian is one who works for the normalisation of the situation, by accepting the so-called peace process which demands that Palestinians suffer in silence on Israel's terms.

     For a PEP... the best Palestinian is one who works for the normalisation of the situation.

I experienced PEP on many occasions. One came during an event in which non-US students were asked to represent their countries through cultural activities. When the students began to prepare for the event, I found it odd that Israel was represented, though no Israelis were studying at Heller that year.

When I asked how this came about I was told that American Jews were going to represent it. I responded by asking if I could represent Sudan or Algeria. "No," the answer was, "because you are a Palestinian". It was also hinted that a Palestinian was supposed to represent the Palestinian territories, not Palestine.

In another incident, I learned from a group of undergraduate students that an application to Brandeis University for the establishment of a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group had been rejected.

A university representative had said that there was no such thing as Palestine. Thus, the proposal would have to be to repackaged into one that would promote cultural diversity, and it was under the umbrella of this group that SJP managed to exist. The group was headed by a "progressive" Jewish Israeli and succeeded in bringing Noam Chomsky to the campus to talk about Palestine.

One-sided mediation

When speakers who supported the Israeli agenda were invited, the process was much smoother. One Brandeis department organised a discussion between the retired Judge Richard Goldstone and the former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold. The event was ostensibly designed to discuss the Goldstone report - the UN Human Rights Council's fact-finding response to Israel's 2008-09 war on Gaza.

Goldstone presented the main report's findings in a professional way. Gold's defence of his country's actions tended to ignore the facts and made his position look weak and irrelevant. But the event's supposedly "neutral" moderator stepped in. He lambasted Goldstone in a furious tirade about how Israel had been unfairly treated in the report.

At the end of that year, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador at the time, delivered the graduation speech.

I also took several courses at HKS, mostly about organising and mobilising, as well as international politics. One task was to write articles based on our personal experience. I found that when I wrote about my experiences with the Israeli occupation in a way that was critical of Israel, I would receive a harsh grade.

     When I wrote in a more positive way about Israel, my grades improved.

But when I wrote in a more positive way about Israel, my grades improved. At first I took this personally, but I realized that I must learn how to deal with this situation skillfully in order to give an unambiguous picture about of the reality of the occupation.

Meeting in the middle

A friend and classmate Jimmy Tingle, a well-known comedian in Cambridge, wanted to organise an activity at HKS that brought together Palestinians and Israelis - something that needed all his humour and mediation skills.

As part of a course titled People, Power and Change, his intention was to create an atmosphere in which Palestine-Israel could be discussed openly at the John F Kennedy Jr Forum.

He brought together two classmates - one a former Israeli soldier, the other an employee at the Palestine Negotiations Support Unit (NSU). Both affirmed their government's official position with no reference to peace based on justice.

The presentations were followed by a performance from two stand-up comedians, one of them a Jewish American, the other a Palestinian American; they both touched several nerves with their satire.

A year later, a gentleman who used to work for The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) youth group approached me. He was looking for a Palestinian who would be willing to speak to a Jewish youth group in Boston to give the young people some idea about Palestinian "demands", as well as some historical background to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

He had, he told me, often contacted the HKS about the availability of Palestinian students.

A long discussion between us was full of disagreements. His war for Israel's independence was my Palestinian catastrophe, his Jewish communities in the West Bank including Jerusalem, settlements that need to be discussed in the peace negotiation, were my colonies. The Palestinian right of return threatened the existence of his Israel, for me it was a basic human right and national core principle.

In the end he exhorted me to be flexible, like other Palestinians who had collaborated with him, citing someone who later became a senior PLO official before moving to work for a non-partisan organisation that intends to spread democracy in the Middle East.  

First-hand experience

The environment at MIT had little room for political debate and cultural activities. I paid few visits to Professor Chomsky's office but the rest of my time was focused on technical issues.

The atmosphere suggested that the norm between engineering and non-social science schools was to stay focused and in an unquestioning way integrate into the system - that is already pro-status quo and pro-Israel.

Finally, my colleagues at HKS and I succeeded in organising what became known as the Palestine Trek.

In response to the long-standing arrangement whereby students would visit Israel and see it from a strictly Israeli perspective, the Trek was designed, through a week's field visit to Palestine, to allow the participants to have a general idea about some of the Palestinian views, and to have a light first hand experience with the Israeli occupation.

It was made possible by the unexpected munificence of the Palestinian business sector and a partnership of civil society entities. It succeeded because it gave the PEP the chance to participate in a subsidised tour where they would see the reality for themselves, and challenge their preconceived PEP ideas.   

Samer Jaber is a Palestinian activist and analyst.

Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.