A R C H I V E S
Madinat al-Muslimeen Islamic Message Board
|Time for a rethink|
|08/06/02 at 17:50:37|
|Quite good actually.|
If the issue of an academic boycott of Israeli universities becomes more interesting than the suffering of Palestinians, it is time to think of a new campaign strategy, says Gargi Bhattacharya
Tuesday August 6, 2002
Returning last month from Gaza to more pictures of carnage was more than unsettling. On the Saturday I was exchanging seriously innovative sign language conversations with children in Gaza, watching my very sweaty comrades try to match the practiced ball skills of the 11-year-olds who had gathered round. By Monday I was back in Britain, watching the footage of another demolished building, the broken bodies of yet more Palestinian children.
In the circumstances, it is hard to stay focused on the relatively trivial scandal about an academic boycott of Israel. The forces of careful dialogue and academic community without borders are making such a poor job of changing the world, I am thinking about boycotting myself. Maybe it is better to keep our mouths shut.
However, if there is one lesson that visiting Palestinian territories has taught me - one lesson from the shaming hospitality of people who would take time from the brief lifting of curfew to meet with us, from the endless flow of fizzy pop that was offered in towns where no-one can attend work, from the deep desire that the outside world should understand what is being done to the Palestinian people, with all its complexity - that one lesson is not to take education for granted.
Birzeit University, near Ramallah, has been running intensive and accelerated courses through July to prepare students for examinations. The university had been closed since the beginning of May, effectively shut down through military intervention. Students only managed to return from June 28 - and even then, not all could return to their education. Of the 180 students registered at Birzeit who come from the Gaza strip, 70 had been forced to drop out in the week before our visit. The strangulation on Palestinian economic life means that they cannot afford to stay at university.
For those who are struggling to continue their education, things are far from easy. It is impossible to travel to campus every day - the combination of curfews and ever more intrusive checkpoints force students to stay in the area, bunking down in whatever shared makeshift accommodation becomes available. For those unable to move to the immediate area, academic freedom is hampered by controls on freedom of movement. The Israeli army has bulldozed the link road between Ramallah and Birzeit - so even on the rare occasions that Ramallah is not under military curfew, students cannot travel easily to campus. Armed checkpoints block the route between the university and 33 villages in the surrounding area. In effect, the Israeli occupation is ensuring that Palestinian students cannot attend university. Yasser Darwish, assistant director of public relations at Birzeit, explained that "they considered Birzeit a terrorist place" - a dangerous hotbed of future radicalism, but also supposedly yet another haven for terrorists. In response, Israel enforces the collective punishment of denying education to all - despite the inconvenient fact that collective punishment is against international law.
Mr Darwish suggests that this clampdown on educational establishments is more sinister in intention - it is notable that a number of key Palestinian negotiators during the difficult Oslo "peace process" were graduates of Birzeit. It does not take much political acumen to guess that any future Palestinian leadership will emerge in part from campus activity and organisation. Shutting down universities may form part of a strategy that hopes to postpone any chance of a sustainable peace process for another generation. As Mr Darwish says: "They know that education is their enemy."
At the University of Bethlehem, where students work in a library with one wall still smashed through from an Israeli missile attack, staff have been struggling to prepare their students for final exams. Bethlehem has been subject to curfew since March 27. When the curfew is lifted for short periods, the university functions around an accelerated emergency timetable - a series of short classes to ensure students and teachers have some contact before exams. But these exams have no date because that too depends on a gap in the curfew.
Assistant dean of students, Vera Baboun, shared her thoughts about the attacks on Palestinian education.
"When you want to build a nation you have to concentrate on the academic level, on the power of the mind. When they want to destroy a nation, they concentrate on the other part, to destroy the life of the mind. ... They want to stop all life sources, to make things even more difficult, so we will be grateful with little."
However difficult life has become in the West Bank, everyone still warned of the horrors we would encounter when we saw Gaza - "the slave cage" as it is known colloquially. The Gaza Strip is surrounded by military fortification - in recent months it has become almost impossible for the inhabitants of Gaza to travel to other Palestinian towns. Even Palestinians from the West Bank expressed concern about our trip to Gaza. Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Committee for Human Rights, summed up the feeling in his greeting: "Welcome to Gaza, the other side of the moon."
Mr Sourani also saw the attacks on academic life as part of a larger strategy to crush Palestinian civil society. He explained that international academic exchange had formed an emerging ground of activism, secularism and organisation - and that this was part of the resistance to occupation. Also - and importantly for a people who are struggling to rebuild their relation with their homeland - "if you study here you are more attached. You are not a product of Saudi Arabia. You are likely to stay, even with only a fifth of the salary".
You may even become part of the skilled professional population who will rebuild the structures of Palestinian society. This is the possibility that is under attack. Mr Sourani explains: "Now only the children of VIPs from Gaza can study in the West Bank - the connections between Palestinians are being dismantled."
In the end, the university staff and students I met on my trip regard education in both pragmatic and idealistic terms. As the student activist from the General Union of Cultural Centres (GUCC) told us: "If you want to develop, you need to educate. If you want a good relationship with the UN, you need educated people." Like it or not, the future of the Palestinian people in part relies on this recognition and regard from international bodies. But alongside this hard-headed acknowledgement of public relations, we also met a fierce belief in the power of knowledge, the thing described by the student representative as "our belief that education is one of our main weapons against the Israeli occupation".
I know harsh words have been exchanged about the prospect of severing relations with Israeli universities and academics - and I don't want to go over this already dull ground here. My opinion is that the purpose of any proposed boycott is to draw attention to what is being done to the Palestinian people, quite knowingly, by the State of Israel. If the issue of boycott becomes more interesting than the suffering and struggle of Palestinians, then it is time to think of a new campaign strategy.
So for all my colleagues who wish to hold on to the values of academic freedom and their belief in the power of dialogue and exchange, I am suggesting a change of emphasis.
· If you have colleagues or acquaintances in Israeli universities, ask them what they are doing to protect Palestinian access to education. If you meet Israeli academics at professional gatherings, ask them about the situation of Palestinian colleagues
· If you belong to professional associations or other disciplinary networks, raise the issue of Palestinian access to education and pass a resolution deploring the current shutdown of Palestinian academic life
· If you are holding a conference, editing a journal or collection, engaging in any kind of academic networking activity - actively seek participation and contributions from Palestinian academics. Make space to explain why this participation is so important now
· Build links with Palestinian academics and universities. Find ways to provide some day-to-day support. If you can, visit and see for yourself.
During our visit, a student at Birzeit asked us: "For ordinary British citizens, is it clear for them what is going on? Who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor? And do they care?"
If academic freedom is worth anything, surely we need to provide an answer.
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