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December 11, 2020 10:54 am

Who Is Harming Palestinian Academic Freedom?

avatar by Cary Nelson


A Palestinian man shops ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 22, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Mohamad Torokman.

Not in Kansas Anymore: Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities, by Cary Nelson (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2020)

It is fundamental and axiomatic on the international left, an unexamined article of faith, that the State of Israel suppresses the academic freedom of Palestinian students and faculty. Not in Kansas Anymore: Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities, a new 180-page book by Cary Nelson sets out for the first time to ask what evidence supports this claim and determine whether or not it is true. The evidence gathered here shows that Palestinian students and faculty in fact do not have the protections they need to exercise freedom of speech; indeed they are coerced and threatened to conform. But it is not Israelis who do so.

An excerpt from the book is below:

From 1978 to 1991, Professor Sari Nusseibeh taught philosophy at Birzeit University on the West Bank. He had studied at Oxford and received a doctorate in Islamic Philosophy from Harvard. In September 1987, at the end of a lecture on John Locke, he learned that a group of masked students armed with clubs were outside his classroom seeking “a traitor” — whom he shortly learned was himself. Keeping his colleagues at bay with knives, they beat him “with fists, clubs, a broken bottle, and penknives.” Thanks to adrenaline, he was able to escape his attackers, though “my heart was pounding hard enough to pop my eardrums.” His colleagues, now free to help, drove him to the hospital where his forehead wound was stitched up and his broken arm set. The reaction of the university and the public was essentially non-existent. He had been identified as a traitor for participating in discussions of Israeli-Palestinian possibilities for peace.

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Nusseibeh’s narrative is far from unique. When higher education institutions worldwide carry the name “college” or “university,” we often assume that these institutions are roughly similar everywhere. It’s true that an accounting or engineering course in one country will resemble courses in the same subject elsewhere. But a Religion course in a theocracy that imposes a state religion on its people will be different from a course of that same name in countries where religious and democratic freedoms prevail. Similarly, a course on Government or Politics in a dictatorship will not resemble comparably named courses elsewhere.

We also tend to assume that the principle of academic freedom — the principle that underlies higher education and governs its educational functions — means the same thing from one country to another. Academic freedom is the right of faculty members to express their ideas freely and publish accordingly without fear of retribution; it also gives students the right to express their views freely and study fields of their choosing. A number of countries and educational institutions claim to honor the principle of academic freedom, and in some cases this is true. But regarding the two most sensitive subjects — religion and politics — academic freedom is often claimed disingenuously. In a number of Palestinian institutions … academic freedom really does not exist at all.

Responsible international authorities conclude that academic freedom in Israel proper functions as it does in European countries and in the US and Canada. Lively and often heated debates about politics and religion take place on campuses without fear of sanctions. Colleges and universities operate without state intervention in intellectual matters. Fear of violence does not govern daily life on campus.

On Palestinian campuses in Gaza and the West Bank, this is not the case. At Islamic University of Gaza, the entire curriculum is required to be taught from a radical Islamist perspective. Violent clashes between rival student political factions occur frequently, and the campus as a whole is dedicated to the service of the terrorist group Hamas. Faculty members and administrators there and in the West Bank are sometimes threatened and even, as in Nusseibeh’s case, assaulted.

At An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus and at Birzeit University near Ramallah, Hamas regularly wins the elections to control the powerful student governments. But conflicts with Hamas’s political rival, Fatah, are commonplace. During the Second Intifada (2000-2005), some students helped organize or participated in suicide bombings. Those perpetrators who were killed continue to be celebrated as martyrs. When suicide bombings began to fade as a strategy (the Intifada ended and Israel erected barriers to protect its citizens), Hamas shifted tactics to conventional bombings and began to organize student terror cells trained to build explosives to be set off in public places. Terror cells are still operating in 2020. Israeli security services identify, track, and arrest members of these student cells. Some have been caught with assembled explosives in hand. But it will only take one terrorist success to dramatically change relations between Palestinians and Israelis.

In addition to maintaining bomb-making squads, both Hamas and Fatah train student groups to enforce their versions of political and religious conformity on campuses, delivering selective beatings as regular intimidation tactics. The rival groups, along with Islamic Jihad, openly recruit new members from each entering class of freshmen. Neither faculty members nor students feel free to express unpopular political opinions A climate of fear regarding religion and politics prevails both on and off campus.

Despite the accusations regularly advanced by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement and its allies on the left, Israelis are not the source of that climate of fear. It is the Palestinians themselves who have made ideological conformity a hallmark of their campuses. Israel has made some poor decisions, most notably staging raids on Palestinian campuses that accomplished little, in particular because most student terror cells organize off campus. But the omnipresent repression of political opinion is a Palestinian, not an Israeli project.

The Palestinian Authority’s hostility to freedom of the press, enabled by recent legislation, contributes significantly to the enforcement of conformity on campuses. The only way to prevent running afoul of incredibly vague regulations against political offenses is to practice extreme self-censorship. Faculty members feel compelled to resort to this strategy. The decades-long persecution of Palestinians accused of “collaboration” with Israel or “normalization” of relations with Israelis is a potent way to short-circuit and condemn peace initiatives.

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