“God Kristian, I can’t even remember how many times my school closed this semester,” Amanda Mansara, a Palestinian university student wrote to me in January 2014.
When Amanda and I met in the West Bank last September, she was supposed to be starting her second year at Al Quds University, but her classes were canceled. Her school was closed because the Israeli military had been firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at students on campus every day during the first week of the semester. So Amanda and I passed the hours when she should have been learning in a downtown Ramallah cafe working on a crossword, playing cards, drinking tea and smoking hookah with her friends. Days later when I saw her again, the campus was still closed. It took two full weeks before the Israeli army stopped attacking the university, but even this peace was short-lived: Just over a month later, Al Quds had to close again following a military raid on Abu Dis, the adjacent town. And less than a month after that, students commuting from Abu Dis were among 40 injured by rubber bullets from the Israeli military.
When these attacks occur, Amanda said, the Student Body Council suspends all classes and, if bullets are included, evacuates campus through the back door. Amanda and her peers do not get to make up this lost time.
“Our university has been on constant attack this semester,” she said to me. “WE NEED whatever support we can get.”
The experiences of people on the ground in Palestine paint a very clear picture of academic freedom under attack – from kindergarten all the way through college.
The troubles that Al Quds and other Palestinian universities face have never been mentioned by those who have been loudly attacking the American Studies Association and other institutions that recently voted to support the academic boycott of Israel. As reactionary legislatures in New York, Illinois and Maryland and the US House of Representatives have considered bills to deny public funding to institutions like the ASA for supporting the boycott, the need for critical support of Palestinians’ academic freedom becomes paramount. These bills and university administrators’ claims that the boycott limits the “academic freedom” of Israelis are distracting and disingenuous to the experiences of people on the ground in Palestine, experiences which paint a very clear picture of academic freedom under attack – from kindergarten all the way through college.
The University Under Occupation
Earlier in September 2013, I had spent an afternoon at Birzeit University meeting with Sundos Hammad, a recent graduate and the coordinator of the Right to Education Campaign (R2E). Sundos said that Birzeit has been closed by Israeli military order over 15 times throughout its history. The longest stretch lasted four-and-a-half years. Students have also faced restriction of movement and imprisonment. The occupation has compromised education for generations of Palestinians. Resisting this oppression, students at Birzeit launched R2E in 1988, which today calls for student and faculty unions and other institutions to affirm the right of Palestinian students and academics to pursue an education free from Israeli occupation. By last September, the campus was preparing for closure again – not from a military threat – but from students striking against tuition hikes.
The strikes happen regularly, as Birzeit relies on student tuition to cover up to 60 percent of its operating costs. Neither families nor the Palestinian government can afford these costs. The World Bank estimates that the occupation has cost the West Bank economy $3.4 billion, while unemployment in the West Bank is 20 percent across the territory but as high as 44 percent among youth. The Palestinian Authority, which is expected to provide a certain amount of the budget, has been hindered by reductions in foreign aid and Israel withholding Palestinian tax revenues as political punishment. PA budget cuts reduced contributions to Birzeit from $2 million in 2008 to $120,000 last year. Universities across the West Bank and Gaza are in financial crisis.
“The meaning of the university is to have universal thoughts on everything. And we don’t have that.”
Beyond financial woes, Sundos highlighted how the infrastructure of Israel’s occupation limits Birzeit and other universities through its control of borders and entry and its checkpoints inside the West Bank. While visiting faculty and students at Birzeit receive a three-month visa upon entry to Israel, the Israeli border control frequently denies visa renewals to academics, disrupting course-work in the middle of the semester. Sundos said this tends to discourage academics in the Palestinian shatat (diaspora) from becoming involved with the university, which limits academic discourse available on campus. “The meaning of the university is to have universal thoughts on everything. And we don’t have that,” Sundos said.
“Stephanie” is an American citizen of Palestinian descent who experienced this process herself. She asked that I use a pseudonym given current legal affairs concerning her entry into Israel.
Stephanie and I met during our two-week delegation to Israel and Palestine with Interfaith Peace Builders (IFPB) in August 2013, two weeks before she began a semester studying Arabic at Birzeit. Though Birzeit schedules international classes to fit within Israel’s three-month visa period, because Stephanie had arrived in Israel two weeks early, she had to leave to renew her visa before the semester ended. Stephanie was denied re-entry at the border.
“The only reason they gave was ‘security reasons,'” she said.
Stephanie is now working with Human Rights Watch, the Palestinian Right to Enter campaign and an Israeli lawyer to determine whether she can enter Palestine and visit her family again.
In January, Israel held six members of an academic delegation to Palestine led by San Francisco State professor Rabab Abulhadi at the Jordanian border for ten hours. The delegation reported that “[One] delegate was told explicitly not to pursue research on colonial gender violence.”
Such restrictions and intimidation, combined with military checkpoints in between Palestinian cities and Israel’s restriction on students traveling between Gaza and the West Bank, have led Palestinian universities to become local or national institutions, rather than international ones, Sundos said. This is in contrast to the international partnerships Israeli universities like The Technion and Hebrew University enjoy.
Stephanie commented on how this affects where international students study in the region.
“There are so many headaches of daily life linked to the occupation that it doesn’t surprise me that there are so many well-intentioned students who wind up studying in Israeli universities,” she said.
Sundos was also sure to connect her compromised education to its larger context: “The occupation is the disease and what’s happening in Palestine are the symptoms.”
Education Beyond the University
The entire structure of Israel’s occupation, siege and discrimination against non-Jews in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel all prohibit any true access to education.
University education does not exist in a vacuum, and so before looking at academic freedom for those in the highest levels of learning we must also examine primary and secondary education. The entire structure of Israel’s occupation, siege and discrimination against non-Jews in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel all prohibit any true access to education.
During my delegation, we met with people in a Jahalin Bedouin village in the Jordan Valley, a part of the West Bank that Israel’s deputy foreign minister has said Israel will not give up under a two-state solution. In the 1980s, the Israeli military declared the land to be a closed military zone under its control (as 60 percent of land in the West Bank is classified) and the residents of the Khan al-Ahmar village found their water, electricity and even road access cut off. Eid Abu Khamis, one of the villagers, focused the majority of his conversation on education.
Until a few years ago, children had to travel between 18 and 20 kilometers to school in Jericho or Azariya. Because the PA still had not provided the buses they promised in the late 1990s, students had to walk, Eid said. Due to the distance, families would not send their daughters and some of their sons would live at school for the week. Some parents discovered their children would hide near home rather than attend classes; others grieved for children either killed or handicapped by vehicles during their travel. The village soon decided to build its own school, which now holds 110 pupils and has an Israeli relocation order against it since the village is unrecognized. Eid called this a war crime.
“Education is a human right – only here is it forbidden,” he said.
Just over the hill from where we sat with Eid was Maale Adumim, a massive Israeli settlement with running water and electricity, an Israeli-approved school, and even an Ace Hardware store. Three members of the Knesset live in the settlement, Eid said, as well as the former ambassador to the US and the administrator of the Allenby Bridge to Jordan, where Stephanie was later denied entry.
In the Aida Refugee Camp directly outside Bethlehem, our guide from the Lajee Center walked us past a UN school where the Israeli military’s shooting had killed a teacher inside in 2005. The bullet holes were still visible on the exterior of the building.
To the north in Nablus, we learned that until 2008, there were no schools for the 6,000 residents of the New Askar Refugee Camp, where over 55 percent of residents are children. Though the UN recognized the refugees living in New Askar as refugees, it did not view the camp as distinct from Old Askar camp two kilometers away. So instead of going to school close to their homes, children had to walk back and forth each day. People like Amjad Rfaie, manager of the Social Development Center, work to fill the void of education in the camp.
On a later visit to the camps, one of my friends showed me the end result of education in the camps: unemployment. Pointing to a group of his friends standing around in the narrow streets of Old Askar Camp, he said: “These are the people of the camp and all they are doing is standing, watching each other. This is the only thing people can do.”
Youth Against Settlements (YAS) in Hebron has responded to a similar need for schools in its own neighborhood. Between late August and September 2013, I made repeated trips to visit YAS, which is run by Issa Amro and, at the time, Badia Dwaik. Issa and Badia live and work in “H2,” the heart of Hebron that has been under Israeli control and closed to Palestinians since 2000 to protect the 700-800 settlers living there illegally. What used to be the thriving center of the city is now a ghost town, with nearly all Palestinian shops closed and roads accessible to settlers and foreigners only. The majority of families have since moved out, leaving thousands of abandoned buildings. For those who remain, YAS visits families to see what resources they can provide. In one case, a school was needed. So during multiple visits over the course of a week, I witnessed Issa, Badia and roughly a dozen other young and grown men rehabilitate one of these abandoned houses into a kindergarten that they had been planning for months.
“I believe in this more than I believe in the protests,” Issa commented.
Rights Beyond Education
Around the same time the kindergarten opened in Hebron, news from Tel Aviv showed that the city had approved separate public schools for the children of Eritrean and South Sudanese refugees. Many discussions of Israeli racism tend to focus on anti-Palestinian policies, but as tens of thousands of asylum seekers demonstrated beginning in December 2013, Israel’s systemic issues extend far beyond that. Universal human rights become an even more imperative goal in the region.
As many have said already, we cannot talk about “academic freedom” without recognizing the material rights that are tied to it.
As many have said already, we cannot talk about “academic freedom” without recognizing the material rights that are tied to it, such as free movement, protection from discrimination, political imprisonment and military violence, and control of economics and civilian infrastructure.
During a video conference with youth and student organizers from Gaza last summer, the extent of these connections became clear to me. Aya, one of the young women, recalled how during the year she was studying in the United Kingdom, she thought she would be able to visit friends and family in the West Bank and Jerusalem under a tourist visa since she was no longer in Gaza. Unfortunately, she realized that while her British friends could travel with no restrictions, she would be barred from entry.
“It took me 22 years to realize I was living in a prison,” she said, using Gaza’s nickname as the world’s largest open-air prison.
While Israel has allowed only three Gazans to study in the West Bank since 2000 and has denied travel to Fulbright scholars, its assaults on academic freedom go even further to the core. When fuel and electricity shortages caused by Israel (with help from Egypt) force students to take exams by candlelight, academic freedom is threatened. When 42 percent of post-traumatic stress cases in the Gaza Strip are in children under the age of nine following two Israeli military bombardments on the territory, academic freedom is compromised. And when 128 Palestinians refugees living in Syria’s Yarmouk Camp have died of starvation since last July, academic freedom becomes meaningless. Having the freedom to live free from occupation and siege, having the freedom to leave the camps and return home, having the freedom to live free from Israeli discrimination – those will all create a world where Palestinians can enjoy true academic freedom and these are all freedoms supported by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
As discussions of Palestinian and Israeli academic freedom become a mainstay in the American academy, everyone must consider academic freedom in its fuller context. Education is a fundamental human right that is not just limited to the realm of Ph.Ds. We must protect it in all of its levels. At this point, there is no question that Israel is occupying the West Bank or blockading Gaza, there is no denying the hundreds of thousands of refugees in substandard conditions across Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The list of human rights violations by Israel against Palestinians is indefensible and the failed negotiations are detached from these urgent issues. Boycotts and divestment are becoming the most compelling option for increasingly mainstream organizations like the American Studies Association and national banks in Europe to respond.
The voices and organizations that have since lashed out against the academic boycott do not decry the innumerable limitations Israeli institutions place on Palestinian freedom (academic or otherwise) and none of these anti-boycott institutions have defended or affirmed Palestinians’ right to education on such an urgent and public scale.
The rhetoric from BDS detractors is reminiscent of the same red herring arguments used against Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations… It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
The resonance of these words across time speaks for itself.
So even when the academy or political elite do not agree with the methods of BDS, they have been presented with facts and with a call from a suffering people to do something.
The question is no longer whether or when to act, but how will we respond now?