US Christian Zionists plan to take over Palestinian university in Israel

Texas A&M Chancellor John Spencer Sharp, Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Texas Governor Rick Perry meet in Jerusalem on 23 October 2013.

Debbie Hill UPI/Newscom

Palestine solidarity activists are campaigning against plans by Texas A&M University to take over a college in Nazareth, the city in present-day Israel with the highest number of Palestinian citizens.

“We find it impossible to support an A&M branch in Israel,” Jala Naguib, an Aggies for Palestine spokesperson, told The Electronic Intifada by email. Aggies for Palestine is a Texas A&M student human rights group.

“I believe it is a poor precedent to set in continuing to support a nation that has repeatedly violated human rights and has repeatedly pursued a policy of apartheid towards the Palestinian people,” Naguib added.

Texas A&M, the sixth largest university in the United States, intends to raise $70 million to assume control of the Nazareth Academic Institute.

Texas Governor Rick Perry and Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp announced the plans to establish an international “peace campus” while meeting with with Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem in October (“Rick Perry to announce Texas A&M campus in Nazareth,” The Daily Beast, 22 October 2013).

John Hagee, a right-wing Christian Zionist pastor leading the lobby group Christians United for Israel, is also involved in the project.

“We think this is an extremely dangerous project for Palestinians in Nazareth,” said Omar Barghouti, founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

“It’s another colonial project by Israel — to further colonize our space, whatever space is left of the Palestinian space within the state of Israel.”

In a recent statement, Texas A&M noted that the agreement to establish a branch in Nazareth was signed on 23 October (“Texas A&M University to open a branch in Israel,” 23 October 2013).

Perry’s involvement first became known back in July, when he ostensibly confused religious affiliation and ethnicity while telling The Washington Times that he “will be going to Israel to bring together Arabs, Christians and Jews in an educational forum” (“Rick Perry’s October trip to Israel sign of another White House bid,” 11 July 2013).

Yet North Texas BDS — a Fort Worth-based organization that promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — has called on Texas A&M to halt the project so long as Israel “continues spending billions of dollars to destroy a people both inside and outside [its] borders,” said Diane Wood, the group’s co-founder.

Noting Perry and Hagee’s support for Israel, Wood said that “erecting a North American university in the midst of an area where Palestinians are suffering from illegal apartheid … raises serious questions as to the reason for this [campus].”

Racist comments

Perry is known for his staunch support of Israel as well as a number of racist and misinformed comments about Palestinians. Additionally, since his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign, Perry’s longstanding ties to Christian Zionist leaders have been brought to light.

“Historian T.R. Fehrenbach once observed that my home state of Texas and Israel share the experience of ‘civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies,’” he wrote in an opinion piece for The Jerusalem Post in September 2011 (“The Palestinians’ illegitimate UN gambit,” 15 September 2011).

Appearing next to extreme right-wing Israeli diplomat Danny Ayalon in New York City that same month, Perry told a group of reporters that Christians “have a clear directive to support Israel, so from my perspective it’s pretty easy. Both as an American and as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel” (“Rick Perry’s speech reaches out to pro-Israel Jews, Christian Zionists,” The Houston Chronicle, 20 September 2011).

Perry has also consistently denounced Palestinians at large for “terrorism” (“The GOP’s fiery front-runner,” Time, 15 September 2011).

In August 2011, Perry hosted a prayer rally that included Zionist speakers such as Hagee and C. Peter Wagner (“Rick Perry’s Jesus imperative,” Religion Dispatches, 7 August 2011).

Wagner is a regular attendee of the Glory of Zion church in Denton, Texas, whose delegates are known to regularly visit illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Omar Barghouti said that “Christian Zionists from the US … are not interested in justice or peace. We know their ideology — it’s a genocidal ideology, it’s an anti-Semitic ideology, and it’s an Islamophobic ideology.”

“They want all Jews to convert to Christianity when the messiah comes or they will die, they’ll be killed. The fact that Israel is going along with this extremely dangerous, anti-Semitic Christian Zionism is because it serves its goals of spreading Zionism in the US,” Barghouti said.

Incidentally, Hagee also “helped connect Mr. Sharp and other Texas A&M officials with Israeli leaders,” The New York Times has reported. It added that Hagee “has helped raise tens of millions of dollars” that contribute to illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank (“Texas A&M pursues a campus in Israel,” 21 October 2013).

“Governor Rick Perry and John C. Hagee promote the Israeli government and their actions,” Diane Wood said. “They do not speak of Israel’s apartheid or the fact that there is a deliberate and overt plan to destroy the Palestinian people.”

Struggling to keep afloat

Established in 2010, the Nazareth Academic Institute (NAI) has struggled to keep afloat due to the Israeli government’s refusal to provide it with adequate funding.

NAI has, until now, received primarily private funding, some of which came from Munib Masri, a Palestinian billionaire who has cooperated with Israel’s settlement activities. After Texas A&M’s takeover, it will remain privately funded, though from sources that are unnamed at present.

The architects of the new project have excluded the input and participation of NAI officials and local community leaders.

Bishara Qattouf, chairperson of the board for NAI, told The Electronic Intifada that the news coverage has so far been misleading.

“We haven’t made any agreement with Texas A&M and we haven’t signed a single paper with them,” Qattouf said. “We know nothing about it for the moment. We haven’t had any discussion about in the board at the academic association yet because we have demands.”

The board’s primary demand is that “the degrees awarded — BA, MA, or PhD — be recognized by Israel as legitimate degrees,” Qattouf said. Until now, the NAI has not been recognized by the Israeli state.

Another demand is that Israel’s higher education council recommend that the state transfer land to the institute in order to build the campus. “If we don’t have any land to build on, we simply have nowhere to put the campus,” said Qattouf.

“If these demands are not met, we will not sign any agreement with Texas A&M or any other university,” Qattouf said, declining to comment further.

Barghouti also confirmed the top-down nature of the plans to establish a new campus in Nazareth. “No one asked the Palestinians what they need,” he said. “No one consulted with Palestinian educators within Israel to ask them, what are your educational needs?”

Organizer Najwan Berekdar of the Love in a Time of Apartheid campaign, which challenges Israeli laws that govern Palestinians’ abilities to enter or reside in present-day Israel, said that the campus would not improve higher education access. This is because only a specific and limited group of Palestinians — those who have Israeli citizenship — would be able to study in the new campus.

The new university “might bring many Israeli students and international students from across the world, but it will not be accessible to the majority of Palestinians because they are prevented from entering the country due to racist laws, such as the Citizenship and Entry Law,” Berekdar said, referencing an Israeli law that prevents the reunification of Palestinian families from present-day Israel and the West Bank and Gaza.

Those with Israeli-issued Jerusalem identity documents, who are stateless under international law, could theoretically attend the university — however, few have the financial means to do so, largely due to Israeli policies that strangle the economy in occupied East Jerusalem.

Those in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, would have to apply for permits to study inside present-day Israel. Such permits are only granted in extremely rare cases.

“Erasing our existence”

Palestinian citizens of Israel, seeking an alternative to Israeli universities, have been seeking to establish an Arab university for years. By taking over the Nazareth Academic Institute, Israel is attempting to undermine that goal, according to Berekdar.

“When we called for an Arab university, it also meant calling for an Arab faculty because Arabs only make up around 1 percent of [professors] in Israel,” said Berekdar. Yet the “faculty will be drawn from Arab, Israeli, and international scholars,” as well as result in an influx of Jewish Israeli and international students.

“The real concern is what exactly they mean by ‘peace campus’ — co-existence, or erasing our existence?”

“Racism is very, very entrenched in Israeli academia,” said Barghouti, adding that racist incidents and university policies are part and parcel of student life in Israeli universities. Other concerns include the potential gentrifying effect of establishing an American-Israeli university — rather than an Arab university — in the heart of the last Palestinian-majority city in present-day Israel.

In other historically Palestinian cities across Israel, such as Jaffa and Akka (Acre), gentrification policies have had detrimental effects on the indigenous Palestinian populations, pushing them out of their homes as living costs soar and making way for Jewish Israelis.

Already encircled by Jewish-only settlements, Palestinian villages and towns across the Galilee region — where Nazareth is situated — have been subjected to enforced “Judaization” policies for decades.

For Nazareth, this has meant the establishment of Nazareth Illit — or Upper Nazareth, an adjacent Israeli colony that was established for the purpose of swallowing Nazareth and breaking up the contiguity of its Palestinian population.

Adding more fear to the situation, Israel has recently promoted a Christian Zionist project in Nazareth in a crude attempt to recruit Palestinian Christians into military service.

“This is using education for a political agenda,” Barghouti said, adding that it is “a very far-right, racist agenda.

“Such projects are not welcome because they are only ostensibly educational projects, whereas the real goal is a colonial goal, to further Israeli apartheid. We hope that solidarity groups — especially in Texas and in the US at large — will stand up against this.”

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist whose articles have appeared on Al Jazeera English, Truthout and The Electronic Intifada. Follow him on Twitter @P_Strickland_.