Book review: Higher education under occupation

Gabi Baramki’s Peaceful Resistance: Building a Palestinian University under Occupation (Pluto Press, 2009) is a memoir of Palestine’s flagship university, Birzeit, by its former acting president. The memoir is an indispensable tool for teaching Westerners about the ways in which Palestinian education exists and flourishes under a constant state of siege and the barriers to academic freedom that Palestinians experience on a daily basis.

Baramki begins his memoir by explaining why Birzeit University is a threat to the Israeli regime: “If a university subjected to continual harassment by the Israeli state, including its closure by military order for almost five years, can survive, continue to maintain its principles of freedom, respect and dignity, and even flourish, one can only imagine what would happen if it were given the space to grow. The threat is to the Zionist dream of having Palestine — the land — without its people, to ‘spirit’ the Palestinians out of Palestine as Theodor Herzl suggested. What Birzeit did was to make sure that the people stayed on the land” (1).

Although the book focuses on the history of Birzeit University, the narrative is intertwined with glimpses of Baramki’s own biography beginning with his childhood in Jerusalem as a member of a Greek Orthodox family who can trace its roots back five hundred years. Born in 1929, he centers his narrative on his own educational experiences that began when he enrolled in the Birzeit Higher School in 1934, established by the Nasir family, which at the time was groundbreaking for its use of both English and Arabic as the languages of instruction.

Later, the village of Birzeit became a temporary home for the entire Baramki family, after his graduation, when the Nakba (the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland) turned his family into refugees. In spite of this, Baramki managed to study chemistry at the American University of Beirut since there was no university in Palestine. In 1951, after his return, with the help of the Ford Foundation, Birzeit emerged into a private two-year college, which Baramki joined as a member of its teaching staff.

Tracing the evolution of Birzeit from high school to college to university, Baramki weaves in various stories about the pedagogical changes the institution sought to inculcate, particularly doing away with rote memorization and encouraging critical thinking. But the story of building a Palestinian academic institution was not so straightforward; first they had to contend with the Jordanian Ministry of Education’s “negative attitude towards Birzeit” (21) and after the 1967 war (which broke out while students were sitting for exams) it had yet another barrier to education when all of historic Palestine came under occupation.

Building a university under military occupation meant, among other things, that its stewards were forced to submit to visits by the military governor and a barrage of military orders. Nevertheless in 1972 Birzeit began the process of becoming a four-year university since it became even more difficult for students in the West Bank to travel to Lebanon or even Jordan for university after 1967. One of the early battles for Birzeit was over textbooks as the military governor wanted to approve them, as Baramki explains: “As time went by the military government became increasingly obsessed with our reading lists. Books we ordered from abroad were often permanently confiscated without us even setting our eyes on them. Among those banned were works on archaeology and history, as well as several journals on Arabic literature” (38). To contend with this obstacle, Baramki describes an informal network of couriers who carried books and journals into Palestine.

In these early years president Hanna Nasir steered the university through various barriers, including numerous closures of the institution, the first of which occurred in 1973. By the following year, accused of “inciting students,” Nasir was deported to south Lebanon. In his absence Baramki took over the helm. To be sure, Nasir was not the only faculty member targeted by the Israeli occupation forces and Baramki details many of the faculty members who have been detained or whose residency permits have been withdrawn over the years.

Although the Israeli regime feigns concern about matters related to academic freedom, Baramki makes it clear that “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. All remained aloof, even when Birzeit was closed down. There was no sympathy whatsoever for our plight” (79). This was true for the 15 military-ordered closures Birzeit endured, including the longest one during the first Palestinian intifada context as Baramki describes the continuing collective punishment directed at closing schools and universities: “There was no protest from the Israeli universities against any of these actions against the Palestinian universities, which were making the daily lives of the university community unbearable. Our Israeli colleagues ignored our problems, although there were constant appeals by Birzeit against its treatment” (154). These comments are important, especially when it comes to demonstrating to a Western audience the hypocrisy of those who claim they cannot support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions because of academic freedom.

When the closures first began Birzeit set up an underground network, which the Israeli regime denounced as “cells of illegal education”: “secretaries would grab their files and teachers their books. News would then be circulated about the locations in which secret classes would be held. Science students, whose practicals could not be shifted elsewhere, would be smuggled into the campus at night to do their lab work. A student who needed specific books would indirectly contact our librarian, who would climb into the closed library through a back window, find the volumes in question and pass them to the student outside” (81).

In 1980 yet another barrier to academic freedom was the issuing of Military Order 854 placing the Israeli regime’s military commander of the West Bank in charge of all educational institutions. Collectively all Palestinian universities chose to resist this order, although not without consequences. Under this military order foreign staff were required to sign a “loyalty oath” that demanded they refrain from any contact with a “terrorist” organization like the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Of course the story of Birzeit is also the story of its students and Baramki’s narrative also details the ways in which students have been targeted, from the first Birzeit student murdered by occupation forces on campus in 1984 and the constant arrest and detention of students. He reveals that, not including the recent assault on Gaza, 199 Palestinian university students were murdered between 1976 and 2007. There have been 372 Birzeit students in particular imprisoned between 2003 and 2009. Birzeit responded by pioneering a network to help prisoners’ families by setting up a prisoners’ committee on campus.

Such networks were necessary especially given what little outside support Birzeit had. At times European partners advocated on behalf of Birzeit. Baramki illustrates how different the US and Europe are with respect to both international law and academic freedom with a story about one Italian foreign minister who, after visiting Birzeit, was encouraged to argue for “freez[ing] the agreements they had with Israeli universities in the fields of research and cooperation until Israel reopened the Palestinian universities. Sure enough, the subject was brought up in the European parliament and the decision was taken to freeze this cooperation agreement in 1990” (125).

This action led to the re-opening of Bethlehem University, but not other universities, although Zionist propaganda made it appear as if it applied to all of them. This episode is particularly important in contradistinction to the action — or lack thereof — on the part of American academics and/or congressmen. Baramki explains that the only support coming from the American Congress has been financial, but he warns of the serious strings attached to that funding: “Many US (and even some European) grant-giving bodies will offer funds to Palestinian universities only for projects which also involve Israelis. This is seen as promoting peace and understanding by the donors, but actually humiliates the potential Palestinian recipients without any real advancement towards peace” (126). This scenario is told in the context of explaining to his readers how the Israeli regime “likes to present itself as the champion of academic freedom everywhere. This stance is the basis for its public criticism of the growing international movement for an academic boycott of Israeli universities” (124).

The history of Birzeit University is also in some ways a history of the Oslo accords, given the many Birzeit alumni and faculty who participated in that process from its earliest stages. Baramki’s reflections on that process and the key Birzeit players reveal a range of moods from great expectations to disappointment. One of the ways this hit the education sector most clearly is in the limitations of a government under occupation’s inability to write its own curriculum. Since 1967 Palestinian schools had been dependent upon Egyptian (for Gaza), Jordanian (for the West Bank), and Israeli (for 1948 Palestine, or “Israel proper”) curricula, all of which deleted references to Palestine. After Oslo, with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, there was the hope that a real curriculum about Palestine could be developed, but Baramki explains: “Teaching geography, for instance, could mean having to teach borders which were still unknown. We resorted to teaching ‘Palestine under the mandate,’ and referred to all towns and villages as parts of historic Palestine. The Israelis objected that this meant we did not recognize Israel. Our argument was that, until Israel decided where its borders were, we would continue to use historic Palestine as our base” (153).

For readers well versed on the subject of Palestine much of Baramki’s narrative contains contextual historical material that is documented elsewhere. But by placing this context within the frame of the assault on Palestinian education and the various ways in which Palestinian academics resist this siege makes this essential reading for those who are new to the subject as well as those who are on the fence about joining the academic boycott of Israel. Indeed, although the memoir only discusses the creation of the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israel briefly towards the end of the volume, it is an important culmination of the material that comes before it. It is the obvious conclusion for educators reading this volume, or indeed anyone else, to consider the boycott as the logical response and a way that those outside Palestine can participate in the “peaceful resistance” that Baramki chronicles.

Marcy Newman is a professor of literature at Amman Ahliyya University and a member of the organizing committee for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

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