Monday, January 11, 2010
palestinian higher education under israeli occupation
Professor Gaby Baramki‘s book tells the inside story of Birzeit
[original of article published in Al-Hayat in Arabic translation 11 Jan 2010]
One of the main arguments used by those opposing an academic boycott of Israel is that such a boycott would violate academic freedom. When in November the board of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology unanimously rejected a proposed academic boycott of Israel, the university’s rector Torbjorn Digernes cited the need to uphold academic freedom as one of the reasons for the decision. If the Norwegian university had decided to impose a boycott, it would have become the first Western academic institution to sever ties with Israeli academic institutions.
The rector of the University of Haifa Professor Yossi Ben-Artzi, who led the campaign by Israeli academics against the proposal, said: “I am glad that justice has won over and I welcome the decision that recognizes academic freedom and emphasizes the universal fundamentals of justice and integrity."
But while opponents of a boycott speak out loudly in defence of Israeli academic freedom, there is less knowledge of, or talk about, the extent to which Israel has for decades curbed Palestinian academic freedom.
Now Pluto Press of London and New York has published a remarkable book that gives a unique inside story of Palestinian higher education under Israeli occupation. The book is “Peaceful Resistance: Building a Palestinian University under Occupation.” Its author, Professor Gabi Baramki, was the vice president, and acting president, of Birzeit University for 19 years after Israel deported the university’s president Hanna Nasir in 1974.
The foreword to Baramki’s book is written by former US president Jimmy Carter, winner in 2002 of the Nobel Peace Prize, and author of “Palestine Peace not Apartheid”.
Carter writes: “Birzeit University is a testament to the resourcefulness of a people under military occupation and their desire to build a state of their own. Students and staff demonstrate the intense commitment to education that has long characterized the Palestinian people.”
Carter adds: “But perhaps most important, Birzeit illustrates a space where Palestinians of diverse political views coexist, despite their difference. I hope this book will help remind Palestinians – especially the leadership on all sides – of these values that have allowed their community to survive so many hardships, values that are needed now more than ever in the inexorable move toward statehood.”
Baramki turned 80 this year, and his book fills a knowledge gap and provides a detailed long-term view of Palestinian higher education in the context of Palestinian aspirations and Israeli occupation. Baramki comes from a Greek Orthodox Christian family that can trace its roots in Jerusalem back at least 500 years. His life has been intimately interwoven with Birzeit ever since the day in 1934 when, aged five, he became a pupil at Birzeit boarding school, four decades before it became a university.
As there was at that time no Arab university in Palestine he went to the American University of Beirut to study chemistry. While he was there his family in Jerusalem lost everything they had in the 1948 Nakba. He returned to Birzeit to teach in 1953.
Baramki is sharply observant and he writes with clarity and passion, as well as humour, bringing vividly to life the many dramatic incidents he and the university lived through. His book deserves to be read widely, including by policy makers, academics and members of the media. It shows how Birzeit managed to develop despite all the Israeli obstacles and dehumanising measures put in its way, and how, with a constant emphasis on democracy, it has helped nurture a civil society in Palestine in preparation for a future state.
Birzeit pioneered Palestinian higher education, and there are now eight universities in the West Bank and Gaza. Baramki writes: “It almost defies belief that Israel went on to claim credit for the development of Palestinian higher education”. Birzeit has survived “despite the occupying power’s best efforts to destroy it, and the other universities have also been established without the participation of Israel.”
Birzeit University’s origins go back to 1924, when Miss Nabiha Nasir founded a school in the town of Birzeit near the West Bank town of Ramallah. The school’s name was changed to Birzeit College in 1942, and after Nabiha died in 1951 her brother Musa became principal. Baramki says that Musa Nasir “set the tone of positive non-violent action to serve the community within the spirit of Birzeit – that of placing the public good above one’s own interest. I was brought up in this spirit and lived all my active life practising what I believed in.”
Birzeit gradually evolved from a school into the first West Bank university. In 1951 it started to offer a first (freshman) year at university level, and in 1961 it added a second (sophomore) year. In 1972, despite Israeli opposition, the university began to offer full four-year university courses.
Baramki writes: “What has enabled Birzeit to survive is our determination to stay calm in the face of provocation”. The Israeli provocations over the years were many and varied. After military occupation began in 1967, the students witnessed confiscation of land and property and preparations for Israeli settlement of the West Bank. There were detentions and deportations without due process of law.
The students responded with demonstrations to Israeli actions, including the military’s strenuous efforts to intimidate and control Birzeit. Israel tried to hamper Birzeit’s efforts to develop into a fully-fledged university. Baramki recalls: “The Israeli hostility to us escalated when we announced in the summer of 1972 that we would go ahead and develop the two-year programme into a four-year full degree programme for arts and sciences.”
There were two reasons why Birzeit was determined to become a full university. One was that it had become difficult for Palestinian students to travel outside the West Bank for higher education. In addition, “we were building a better future for our people...We needed a university to develop Palestine, train professionals, act as a laboratory for ideas and create a leadership”.
Providing a high level of education would also enable Palestinians to talk to Israel on equal terms. “As long as our people were not educated, the only possible discourse, we feared, would be by acts of violence.”
The Israeli military authorities insisted that Birzeit needed a military permit for its plans to become a university, but when the permit arrived it was for one year only. Birzeit was told it would have to reapply for a permit every year. But when the first graduation ceremony took place in 1976 Baramki [pictured with his wife Haifa] wrote to the military governor saying the university regarded the permit it had as permanent and that it would not apply again for a renewal. The university never received a reply, “but we felt we had established yet another fact on the ground and asserted our rights.”
Among the obstacles the Israelis put in the way of the budding university were problems over registering the land necessary for a new campus. It also attempted to control the inflow of books. The military government demanded to see copies of all textbooks, and there were sometimes problems getting these expensive books returned. As time went on “the military government became increasingly obsessed with our reading lists.” Books and journals were often banned or confiscated – including certain Arabic journals on culture and literature – and yet they were freely available to students in Israeli universities.
Another Israeli ploy was to impose huge taxes on imported teaching materials. But “perhaps the most destructive intervention was the denial of residence permits to our international staff”.
After the 1973 war the Israelis struck a major blow against Birzeit when, following student demonstrations, they closed the college for two weeks. They also harassed Israeli Arab lecturers and students at the university, who were “citizens of Israel, but also Palestinian like us.”
The university was subjected to hostile Israeli propaganda including allegations that it had, for example, been founded with the sole aim of agitating against the Israeli occupation. In November 1974 Israel deported Birzeit’s president Hanna Nasir over the border to South Lebanon without informing his family or the university authorities. This was one of many deportations of Palestinian leaders and activists: up to now around 1500 people have been deported.
When it was clear Nasir would not be coming back soon, the academic staff and students discussed the future and decided that Nasir would remain president, wherever he was, while Baramki would officially continue as his deputy but would take on the day to day presidential activities and would take the necessary presidential decisions, in consultation with Nasir.
Although the West Bank military governor had banned communication with Nasir, Baramki and Nasir found ways to keep in close communication. The sections of Baramki’s book that deal with these clandestine contacts read almost like a thriller novel. “For many years Hanna and I discussed the university’s education programme, problems and needs by indirect routes.”
Nasir and Baramki also liaised with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). At the time this was punishable by imprisonment for anyone living under Israeli rule, if discovered. “But the Palestinians had regarded the PLO as their sole representative since 1974”. Funding for the university came from the Joint Jordanian-Palestinian Committee, in effect the PLO. Israel was aware of this: “They knew all about the way we were being funded but seemed to prefer this to paying for Palestinian higher education themselves.”
It was not until 1993 that Nasir returned to Birzeit, and Baramki retired. Nabil Kassis took over as president when Hanna Nasir retired in 2004.
The military governor tried in 1980 to exert control over the universities, contrary to international law by issuing military order 854 modifying the Jordan education law by extending the law from schools to cover universities.
Birzeit has produced some of the most prominent Palestinians working in different fields in Palestine and around the world. Baramki writes: “We were trying to create leaders of their communities, well-rounded individuals prepared to build a successful new society and move towards a free Palestine. Our graduates continue to stand out in their communities. We have educated many of Palestine’s political leaders.” Among those he names are Ghassan Khatib, Marwan Barghouti, Mohammed Shtayyeh, Hassan Abu Libdeh, and Bassam Salhi.
Many outstanding professors were educated at Birzeit: Baramki names as one example engineering Professor Gabriel Alexander Khoury of London’s Imperial College and also a professor for life at Padua University in Italy. Khoury played a key role in getting Baramki’s long-planned book project off the ground and through to final publication.
Other notable academics who studied at Birzeit include nuclear scientist Mujid Kazimi of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Khalil Mahshi, deputy director of the International Institute of Educational Planning at UNESCO in Paris, and sociologist Salim Tamari who teaches at Birzeit.
At the Madrid peace conference of 1991 the core of the Palestinian negotiating team was made up of Birzeit academics and Birzeit graduates. The vice-chairman of the team, Nabeel Kassis, its spokesperson, Hanan Ashrawi, and its press attaché, Albert Azagharian, were all from Birzeit University. Baramki remembers how Israeli journalists joked that Israel was actually negotiating for peace with Birzeit.
Baramki believes that “one alternative towards regaining our rights is strong pressure from abroad.”
He welcomed the launch in 2004 of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in Ramallah by Palestinian academics and intellectuals. “This has created a new way for international groups and individuals to make a statement of their distaste for Israeli’s policies by breaking organisational links with Israeli institutions and liking up with ours instead.”
Baramki points out that Israeli academics and academic institutions have over the years shown very little concern over the plight of their Palestinian counterparts. “No head of any other Israeli university ever enquired about the difficulties we might be facing as a university under occupation, or showed any interest in visiting us” he writes. “They all remained aloof even when Birzeit was closed down.”
There was some solidarity from individuals in the “solidarity committee with Birzeit university”, active in the 1970s and 1980s. But it was only in 2008 that a group of the country’s higher education professionals issue its first joint protest against the restriction of academic freedom in Palestine and even then, no university rector signed.
Baramki asks: “How can the Jews, the world’s most education-oriented people, seek to destroy our children’s prospects of learning?”
Palestinian universities have suffered frequent closures. The closure in 1973 was the first of 15 military-ordered closures of Birzeit. During the first intifada Birzeit was closed for an incredible 51 months, from January 1988 to April 1992.
Baramki gives an extraordinary account of how during this long closure the university continued to secretly hold classes in locations such as private homes, fields, company offices, mosques and churches. “Soldiers would scour the town for such classes” and would try to arrest those involved. The Israeli army would often announce that it had found “cells of illegal education”. Academic staff and students caught in raids were frequently jailed.
Under Israeli occupation students have for years suffered regular beatings, imprisonment and torture. A report issued by Birzeit’s Right to Education campaign in April 2009 found that Israel had incarcerated 411 Birzeit students since November 2003, of whom 87 were still imprisoned, 47 of them without charge. One Birzeit student had been held in Administrative Detention for three years.
The state of euphoria after the 1993 Oslo accords did not last long, and the Palestinians began to realise that “Israel had no serious intentions of making peace.” As a result, the second intifada erupted in 2000, much more violent than the first. The building of the apartheid wall was another indication of Israel’s real intent.
The setting up of hundreds of Israeli checkpoints has severely disrupted education. Israel has often blocked the road to Birzeit at the small town of Surda, sometimes for long periods, and has at times dug the road up so that cars and buses cannot pass. When the road is blocked it can take students and staff an hour and a half to walk to the university. The apartheid wall is also seriously hindering Palestinian education.
Baramki is frank about the internal difficulties Birzeit has encountered over the years. These have included serious political differences between factions of students, for example disagreements between supporters of the Islamic bloc and of the PLO, or between supporters of Fateh and of the PFLP. With chronic shortages of funds, there have been problems over staff pay, sometimes leading to strike action.
The recent proposal that the Norwegian University of Science and Technology should impose an academic boycott on Israel came from 34 of the university’s professors and assistant professors who said Israeli universities “have played a key role in the policy of oppression” and that “Israel goes against all the ideals of open universities and academic freedoms.” Even though in the end the university’s board rejected the proposal, the fact that it was discussed at the university’s highest level reflects the fact that the international academic boycott movement is gaining ground and that criticism of Israel is growing.
Professor Baramki’s book is invaluable in recording the story of Palestinian higher education under occupation, backed up with facts and with the documentation he includes in the appendix. In addition, the book is a fascinating personal memoir and an important contribution to Palestinian social and cultural history.