on the right to education

former president mahmud abbas poster @ entrance to my university today
former president mahmud abbas poster @ entrance to my university today

in palestine there is something called the right to education campaign. the strongest such campaign exists at birzeit university, the flagship palestinian university. the birzeit campaign is the only one with its own website that updates people on news related to the right to education on their campus, elsewhere around the country–including in 1948 palestine–and with respect to international solidarity with palestinians’ right to education.

the right to education is, in theory, the same on every palestinian university campus, but on some level the university administration is what ultimately enables a this campaign to have the freedom to actively work to freely or to limit its activities. dr. hanna nasir, who founded birzeit university in 1974, knew very well what the right to education meant given that he was exiled because he founded the first palestinian university. here is some of that context related to nasir and his institution:

This is how Israel “got” Dr. Hanna Nasir, president of the West Bank’s Bir Zeit University. He had been a prime target of the drive as early as 1972, when he developed Bir Zeit College into the first Arab university in Palestine. In the 1974 academic year, he had successfully calmed a student body grown restive over harsh Israeli occupation policies and physical interference by Israeli soldiers with campus life.

One midnight in November 1974, Israel struck. Seized by armed Israelis, Nasir was blindfolded, driven across the border into Lebanon and released in the darkness of night. His wife Tania (Tamari) Nasir was left behind with their three sons and one daughter to agonize about his whereabouts and safety. The Israeli army announced that Dr. Nasir had been expelled for promoting demonstrations against the Israeli occupation.

Hanna Nasir moved to Amman, Jordan, where his wife and children joined him when it became obvious that the Israeli authorities meant his expulsion to be permanent. He and his family are victims of a fixed Israeli policy aimed at ridding Palestine of all Palestinians and which, with natural increase, now counts between 2.6 and 3 million exiled victims.

Talking to the family last Easter in Amman, it seemed to me that the pain of being jerked from home and country had imbued the Nasirs with a gritty determination never to accept the fate to which Israel would consign the Palestinians. As an eloquent university president in exile, Hanna speaks often in the U.S. and Europe on the Palestinians, with special emphasis on the Israeli policy of denying them an education since the Palestinian intifada began in December 1987.

From the Bir Zeit University Liaison Office in Amman, Hanna Nasir carries on university administration, raises funds and talks on the Palestinian issue with fact-finding groups visiting the area. During his exile, Bir Zeit has continued to grow. A junior year was added to the curriculum in 1974, followed by the senior year in 1975. In 1978, a Faculty of Commerce and Economics was established, and in 1979 a Faculty of Engineering. The university became a member of both the Association of Arab Universities and the International Association of Universities in 1976.

In January 1988 Israel closed Bir Zeit University entirely, after a long campaign of harassment and acts of violence including shooting and killing of students, administrative detentions, deportations of students and staff, restrictions on receiving books and periodicals and frequent closures. A few weeks ago, after being closed for more than four years, Bir Zeit was allowed to re-open, but for only half of the normal student body of more than 2,000, of whom one-third are women.

nasir is no longer president of birzeit. nabeel kassis is currently birzeit’s president. under nasir’s guidance the right to education campaign and its relationship to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement flourished. while it both still exist and birzeit and both are still connected at birzeit, the support from the administration is not as strong.

at its core right to education is a program that documents violations of palestinian students and faculty members rights to education. on the campus level it works with student groups to give students the tools to speak about these issues locally and internationally. it gives students support with respect to giving them a context in which to explain their situation to an international audience. but right to education is not about telling students what to say nor is it about doing public relations work for a particular university. but most palestinians students as well as faculty members–even at normalizing institutions like al quds university–know that the solution to the massive violation of palestinians’ right to education (among so many other massive violations) is boycott, divestment, and sanctions (bds), which is why the right to education campaign around the country is tied to bds.

therefore, i found it very disturbing when a student at an najah university was invited to speak via video conference at a canadian university was told that s/he could not speak about bds by the right to education campaign on my campus. (the people in canada, by the way, were perfectly fine with the student speaking about bds and support it themselves.) here is what the student was told:

BDS is campaign for boycott and disinvestment in Israel and BDS uses a political frame work. R2E is a campaign for the right to education in Palestine. R2E uses a rights based frame work. It does not make sense for two separate campaigns to affiliate to each other.

when i first learned about this i was furious because the person who authored the above-quoted words is a foreigner. i advised the student that foreigners have no right to tell palestinians what they can and cannot say. ever. but the way this email note was phrased was curious to me. it was framed as if r2e (right to education) is a separate from bds. for me they are inextricable. how does one obtain human rights? one fights for them. one resists for them. one method of resistance is the boycott campaign. why else would students at birzeit and at an najah universities be fighting for the removal of israeli terrorist products from campus? birzeit students already achieved this. an najah is on the road to achieving this.

but historically, it is important to note, that birzeit university–a flagship university for bds and the right to education campaign–has never separated these two issues. even now under a new university president these two issues are connected as students help to guide and shape the campaign. because they know that the way to achieve all their rights–including the larger right of liberating their land from the river to the sea–is related to bds as well as armed resistance, cultural and educational resistance. here are a few statements from birzeit’s right to education campaign that shows how the students there see the interconnectedness between bds and the right to education:

In light of the ongoing massive Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in which over 1,200 people have been killed – over 1,000 (86%) of whom were civilian men, women and children – and where over 4,000 have been maimed and injured, the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University calls upon the international academic community, unions and students to show support and solidarity with the people of Gaza by calling upon their respective governments to impose immediate boycott, divestment and sanctions against the state of Israel until it abides by international human rights and humanitarian laws, dismantles its apartheid regime spanning both the occupied territories and Israel proper, and commits to pursuing a long-lasting, just peace.

here is a recent statement about the economic boycott:

IAW events for the past several days in the West Bank focused on strengthening the internal BDS movement and promoting Palestinian products. Considerable progress was made from March 4– 5 in moving the boycott forward in Palestinian universities. Students are not only working to institutionalize a boycott of Israeli goods inside the university, but also bringing the BDS call into their local shops and communities.

and here is a letter written by birzeit right to education students to students abroad supporting bds thanking them:

As students, you are best able to understand the struggle that we as Palestinian students living under occupation go through daily in our basic pursuit of education. Through the stance you have taken against the attacks on Gaza, you have showed us that we are not alone in our struggle for freedom and justice. You have broken the sense of isolation we feel when governments have remained silent as we are harassed and delayed at a checkpoint on the way to university, arrested for exercising our right to freedom of expression or mourn fellow students who were taken from us by the bullets of the Occupation.

We greatly appreciate your efforts and request that students worldwide take action in this way or in whichever way they can, to put pressure on their universities to take a stand for the universal values of education and to push towards the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel until it stops depriving us of our rights. Such non-violent campaigns on campus are the only way forward and they say to us and to the world that Israel’s policies of apartheid are not welcome in the world we want to live – a world which we, as students, will inherit, and also have the power to shape.

Birzeit University students would like to express particular solidarity with students of SOAS, who began this movement, Edinburgh University, and Leeds University, all of whom are twinned with our Student Council. We deeply appreciate your ongoing efforts in refusing to be silent in face of the ongoing barbarities and crimes carried out by the Israeli occupation against Palestinian students and teachers.

close up of posters around nablus of the leader of palestinian collaborationist authority
close up of posters around nablus of the leader of palestinian collaborationist authority

clearly, the students do an excellent job in framing the relationship between fighting for their rights–education as well as every other right–and bds. human rights are also political rights. and it is political to fight for such rights. to pretend that these things can be separated is at best naive and at worst ignorant. while part of my anger over attempting to silence student at my university for essentially saying the same thing as her peers down the road in birzeit is that it came from a foreigner. but i suspect that it is not entirely that foreigner’s doing (though i still hold that person responsible for not speaking up for students as i believe people working in universities should always do no matter where they are). part of is the fact that my university, from what i am told and from my own experiences with the administration, is controlled by fatah. and not just fatah, but the palestinian collaborationist authority. there is a history, here, too, however. an najah university has historically been seen as a site of resistance. for instance, the zionist anti-defamation league in the united states describes my university like this:

An-Najah University, in the West Bank city of Nablus, has been a flashpoint in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians since at least 1980, when violent anti-Israel protests led the Israeli military to close the school intermittently. Today the student council of An-Najah is known for its advocacy of anti-Israel violence and its recruitment of Palestinian college students into terrorist groups. The council, almost completely controlled by factions loyal to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah, glorifies suicide bombings and propagandizes for jihad against Israel. Hamas has described An-Najah as a “greenhouse for martyrs.”

in a 2004 interview with alaa hmedan, a representative of the islamic block of the student council at an najah university, alaa responded to these claims made by zionists and israeli terrorists about resistance at my university:

Q. Israeli websites and propagandists have made much of the Hamas/Jihad dominance of the Students’ Council, and have pointed to re-enactments of the militant attacks in Tel Aviv as evidence that An-Najah is a greenhouse for “terrorism”. How do you respond to this?

A. The University has the biggest number of students in Palestine. The first three guys killed in this Intifada were killed during a peaceful demonstration–Jehad al-Aloul, Zakaria Kilani, Fahed Aoudi. Students at An-Najah. This was before any “suicide” bombers went out from An-Najah. Who is the terrorist anyway? The defending peoples–defending lands and rights – or the occupation army, killing people.

Students acting. Similar to throwing stones. It’s a call to the world, a message, it helps. Demonstrates defense, these things happen throughout Palestine too.

Crucially, the Palestinians dislike bloodshed. We feel forced to live lives of bloodshed. The West neglects the fact that the battle is a defense against attack. And neglect.

while i understand why this context may make my university’s administration want to protect itself and its students from attacks by israeli terrorists i do not think that silencing students on bds is the way to do it. i don’t think that any logical palestinian can make the claim that there is a separation between human rights and politics. nor can i see how one could separate the right to education from bds in any reasonable or logical fashion. nor do i think that this will keep palestinians at my university protected. i’m not entirely sure how long this sort of pressure or rhetoric that silences students has been going on. but i do know that it has been this way all year here. and yet at least a dozen students have been killed and/or kidnapped by israeli terrorists this year in/from university dorms. i’m not sure what would make anyone think that separating politics from rights would change this scenario.

moreover, anyone looking at the recent united nations world conference against racism (durban 2), which is of course about human rights, can see quite clearly how political the fight for human rights can be. one fights for rights. part of that fight is political. it is necessarily this way. in all places. in all contexts. and students have a right to fight for their rights without university officials further squashing their rights by silencing them and compounding the problem. palestinian students have enough borders, barriers, prisons they must break out of on a daily basis. they shouldn’t have to deal with this in a space that should be dedicated to educating them for liberation on all levels.


5 thoughts on “on the right to education

  1. im not surprised that the folks in canada would say that. ive been struggling with this myself. after gaza, some students at my university claimed to sign on to BDS, but chose not to ‘touch’ the academic boycott issue- or right2edu, for that matter- even though it is of course part and parcel of the global bds movement. its really frustrating.

  2. oh, never mind then! who is this foreigner person? are they somehow connected to the folks i know i wonder. in any case, this foreign dude’s argument makes no sense whatsoever.

  3. This narration produced by Dr. Newman can only come from a Zionist voice that is devoted to dehumanize and demoralize the Palestinian people and their just cause. People who are dedicated to values of justice and peace never restore to such defamatory language which has a nihilistic context. People of good conscience can not tolerate such language with racist thinking.

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