International scholars are important to universities throughout the world. Their unique perspectives, emanating from different cultures and places, enrichen intellectual conversations among students and faculty. International scholars help orient local students toward global citizenship, and in turn those students help visiting scholars to understand their host country and culture better.
In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, however, Israel routinely blocks international scholars from reaching Palestinian universities and places severe restrictions on their movement, preventing them from fulfilling their scholarly duties and depriving Palestinian students of critical educational opportunities. These actions infringe on Palestinians’ right to education as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Right to Education in Palestine
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights presents a specific reason for the Right to Education: “Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Consistent with the spirit of the entire declaration is the belief that people need to have the freedom to develop their lives to the fullest. Hence the need to have access to work, health, education and housing. And alongside these and others, is the right to justice and freedom of expression. Therefore, an attack on the right to education is an attack on the ensemble of rights that allow individuals to participate fully in the world.
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Of course, Israel’s attacks on Palestinians’ right to education go far beyond its systematic attempts to block international scholars’ presence in Palestinian universities. The organization Defense for Children International-Palestine (DCIP) reports that in its 2014 attack on Gaza, Israel damaged more than 200 schools and completely destroyed 29 others, seriously injuring nearly 1,000 Palestinian children. The World Health Organization has reported a massive mental health crisis among children in Gaza following that attack. Meanwhile, the same DCIP report states that since the Occupation began in 1967, Israel has demolished over 24,000 Palestinian homes — seen from a child’s point of view, there is no safe harbor at home or at school, and these attacks on Palestinian children follow them into their time in higher education.
While instances of Palestinian schools being bombed, demolished or invaded by soldiers who destroy equipment and physically harass students, staff and faculty comprise the most direct attacks on Palestinians’ right to education, Israel’s tactic of creating a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare for any international scholar wishing to teach at a Palestinian university constitutes a subtler part of the same broad assault.
A statement from the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association asserts that Israel’s actions “imperil the right of Palestinians to education, isolate the Palestinian community from the rest of the world, and may eventually cause severe harm to the educational and employment opportunities of the next generation of Palestinian students.”
Palestinian Universities Demand Israel Respect Their Rights
Two human rights NGOs (Al-Haq, and Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel) have joined Birzeit University, located in the West Bank, near Ramallah, to protest Israel’s chokehold on international scholars over the past two years. They cite numerous cases of “denial of entry to the West Bank; refusing visa extensions; delays in processing visa extension applications beyond the duration of the period the visa is valid; arbitrarily granting visas for short periods, sometimes ranging from only two weeks to three months; restricting visas to the West Bank only and permitting entry and exit only via the Allenby Bridge crossing rather than via Ben Gurion Airport; requirements to deposit large sums as guarantees, sometimes as much as NIS 80,000 (approx. US$23,300).”
This is more than simple harassment — these actions are intended to show the deep reach of the Israeli state into all aspects of Palestinian life. In this case it is interference with whatever semblance of normal functioning Palestinian universities might have. It sends the message that Israel does not want international scholars in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and that if one wants to travel there to teach, Israel will make that as hard as possible.
Israeli journalist Amira Hass observes:
as Mudar Kassis, an associate professor in philosophy, puts it, “suddenly I looked around and discovered that my colleagues were being deported.”
He found that their visas aren’t extended and they’re required to leave before the end of the academic year, or they’re not allowed to return for the next year. Some decide not to abandon their students in the middle of the year and are left without a valid visa. In fact they’re imprisoned in the Ramallah enclave. They don’t leave for fear that a soldier at a checkpoint will check their passport … [and] order their deportation….
All this took place after lecturers had passed the security vetting.
In terms of numbers, The Jerusalem Post quotes these figures: “Already in February 2018, a study done by the Palestinian Education Ministry found that half of the international lectures in Palestinian universities — 32 out of 64 — had been impacted by visa restrictions, the NGOs said.”
The picture is quite different for international scholars coming to teach at Israeli universities. In another piece, Hass notes: “There is a clear and convenient Interior Ministry procedure for hiring foreign academics by Israeli universities. For West Bank universities, there is no parallel procedure — and it must be an Israeli one, because Israel controls the borders and determines who enters the Palestinian enclaves.”
It is precisely this lack of parallels that indicates the dramatically uneven situation for Palestinians — in terms not only of education, but all aspects of everyday life.
When people try to shine a light on these conditions, they too are targeted by the Israeli government. Such is the case of Professor Katherine Franke, a distinguished law professor at Columbia University, who was “banished” by Israel for “thinking differently,” as Roger Cohen, writing in The New York Times, put it.
It’s even worse for those who openly support the Palestinian-led, international human rights-based Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and refuse to conduct business as usual with Israel until these conditions are remedied. Pro-BDS scholars in the U.S. find themselves targeted by anti-boycott laws; and if they are professors they sometimes find themselves fired or otherwise penalized for participating in their constitutionally protected right to boycott.
Those against the academic boycott of Israeli institutions often appeal to the value of “dialogue.” This line of argument is deeply cynical in a context in which Israel allows only a particular set of people to be part of the conversation.