Terror U: Who is Suppressing Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities?

Terrorism against Israel is not only promoted within the university walls; it is celebrated publicly.

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.

In January of 2019, the Academic Freedom Committee of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) wrote a letter to Benyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, and several other ministers and officials. In that condemnatory letter, MESA, an organization that has been obsessively and chronically anti-Israel, chastened Israel, with the purpose of the complaint “. . . to urge a halt to the Israeli army and security forces conducting arbitrary arrests at and incursions into Palestinian universities, assaulting students, faculty, and staff and obstructing the education of thousands of students.” 

Of specific concern to MESA was the 2018 arrest of Yehya Rabie, the President of Birzeit University’s Student Council by the IDF and a similar arrest of Omar al-Kiswani, the previous President of Birzeit University’s Student Council. “While the Israeli army accused Rabie and al-Kiswani of ‘suspected involvement in terror activity,’” the letter flippantly stated, “both men remain in detention without trial. These arbitrary arrests and detentions without trial are not the exception but the rule” and such arrests, it was claimed, “follow a pattern of Israeli forces’ aggression on Palestinian campuses.” 

For an organization of coddled, safely-ensconced professors in American universities it is easy, of course, to castigate Israel for its behavior in insuring the safety of its citizenry, particularly since in discussing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, MESA has reliably expected no rational or reasonable behavior from the perennially-oppressed Palestinians and has singularly blamed Israel for its alleged brute treatment of the Palestinians, including these specific arrests which, it contended, “follow a pattern of Israeli forces’ aggression on Palestinian campuses,” and the “attacks, assaults, and detentions described above are grave violations of basic rights to education and academic freedom.”

As Israel-haters in the West and elsewhere are prone to do, MESA exonerates the Palestinians for any complicity in creating campus climates far from the idyllic picture one normally has when thinking about institutions of higher education. In fact, as Cary Nelson fastidiously examines in his new book, Not in Kansas Anymore: Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities, despite the jaundiced view of MESA and other of Israel’s critics, Palestinian higher education is defined by radical politics, rival political factions who use harassment, violence, and intimidation to promote their views, alignment with terror groups such as Hamas, repression of opposing views, the use of terror cells within university facilities for weapon production, and violence against and even the murder of dissenting faculty who do not conform to the prevailing hatred of the Jewish state or the tenets of Islam.

Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) between 2006 and 2012 and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is not a right-wing, strident defender of Israel, but something of an academic freedom purist; even so, his examination of the state of Palestinian universities reveals that, despite MESA’s contention, it is the Palestinians themselves who shoulder much of the responsibility for the fragile state of academic freedom and free speech at their universities.

“The pervasive politicization and militarization of education that took place in Palestinian Universities in the 1980s has left a legacy that is still relevant today,” Nelson wrote. “. . . MESA knows better,” he suggested, referring to the letter denouncing the student arrests, “when it assigns the responsibility to protect academic freedom to Israel alone and ignores the primary responsibility the PA and the universities themselves must take. . . . Allying with a Hamas cell is not the same as joining a chapter of College Democrats or College Republicans on an American campus. In the West Bank and Gaza, we are not in Kansas anymore,” Nelson wrote, alluding to Dorothy’s iconic line in The Wizard of Oz.

Nor, apparently, have MESA and other anti-Israel groups bothered to look at the values and teaching traditions that actually define Palestinian institutions of higher education. In fact, Gaza’s Islamic University, which in the past had to be destroyed by the IDF for its troublesome habit of being a weapons facility, is hardly a bucolic college campus, free of the perverse indoctrination and teaching of terror. When Hamas formed its cabinet after being voted into office, for example, 13 of its ministers had been teachers at either the Islamic University in Gaza or at the An-Najah National University in Nablus, and virtually every leading figure of Hamas has taught or studied at Islamic University. The research labs of the university were also being used to refine the lethality and range of the Qassam rockets that have been terrorizing southern Israeli towns since Israel’s disengagement. A professor there, Jameela El Shanty, was quoted in 2006 as admitting that “Hamas built this institution. The university presents the philosophy of Hamas. If you want to know what Hamas is, you can know it from the university.”

“A widespread trend in the West has been to treat Palestinian universities— including An-Najah, Birzeit, and Islamic University of Gaza—as institutions comparable to our own, beleaguered but still noble in intent, dedicated to an educational mission we can identify with and support,” Nelson observed. But despite the naivete of groups such as MESA and their fellow travelers in the West, systemic radical ideology, the politicization of scholarship, ingrained Jew-hatred and enmity toward the Jewish state, and a willingness to suppress opposing views—with violence, if necessary—more accurately define Palestinian universities. “IUG is not simply politicized; it is militarized; its mission is indoctrination,” Nelson noted. “An-Najah and Birzeit, on the other hand, are deeply fraught and compromised, politicized so thoroughly as to make their difference from Western standards one of character and kind, not degree. All three institutions are among those Palestinian universities that create socially, politically, and conceptually coercive environments in which academic freedom as we know it cannot thrive.”

What this means, according to Nelson, is that the inclination to blame the IDF and Israel’s government for suppressing Palestinians academic freedom by arrests and incursions into the schools themselves is wrong-headed, because these actions are based on the reality that Palestinian universities operate in a way in which politics, Islamism, and terrorism animate and inform the teaching and political activity of students and faculty alike. In fact, contended Nelson, “The unfortunate bottom line in the West Bank context is that there is no fixed line between valid political expression and terrorist recruitment.”

Those campus environments help incubate and promote lethal politics and terroristic activity, both on campus and in Palestinian society in general. “One way or another, the campus environment at An-Najah and at other institutions for decades has helped prepare some current students for extreme violent activity,” Nelson wrote. “Others leave school to join terrorist cells and some, in effect, make terrorism their career choice, albeit often for careers cut short by imprisonment or death. It is not just deeply troubling but also definitional that many Palestinian universities have substantial histories of student involvement in terrorism.”

The germination of Islamic University’s poisonous educational mission, for instance, is evidenced by the rantings of another of its professors and former board of trustee member, the late Sheikh Dr. Nizar Rayyan, Hamas leadership's liaison with the group's military wing, who found himself one of the unlucky jihadist targets of Israel’s initial counter strikes on Gaza. A lecturer in Islamic Sharia studies, Rayyan was clearly interested in students’ extracurricular activities, as well; he madly advocated unrelenting suicide attacks against Israel, and ardently sought new shahids, martyrs, in the peculiar Palestinian cult of death, not inconsequentially including his 14 year-old son, who was killed by the IDF when he attempted to self-detonate and murder Jews in an Israeli settlement in 2001.

Nor is Islamic University alone in its role in helping to germinate radical Islam and jihadism. Nelson quotes Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute's Stein Program on Terrorism, Intelligence, and Policy, who revealed that the 11,000-student An-Najah is the largest university in the territories, and “the terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and radicalization of students for which An-Najah is known typically take place via various student groups,” among them the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc. “Of the thirteen members of An-Najah's 2004 student council, eight,” Levitt wrote—“including the chairperson—belong to Hamas's Islamic Bloc.”

Nelson reveals that terrorism and political activism against Israel is not only promoted within the university walls, it is celebrated publicly. He recounts how students at An-Najah University, for example, fondly remembered the outbreak of the Second Intifada by constructing a macabre attraction called “The Sbarro Cafe Exhibition,” named for the location of a 2001 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem pizza parlor where 15 Jews were murdered and dozens more wounded. Created not as a memorial but as an inspiration for further terror-laden savagery, the diorama included scattered pizza slices amid Israeli body parts, splattered blood, calls to martyrdom with Koran and Kalashnikovs close by, and, beaming out of a loudspeaker behind a mannequin version of an Orthodox Jew, the inspiring take on an oft-repeated Islamic exhortation: “O believer, there is a Jewish man behind me. Come and kill him.” The mock apartheid walls constructed by anti-Israel students on American campuses during the annual Israeli Apartheid Week look tame and civilized in comparison.

Nelson is nothing if not balanced in assessing blame for the state of academic freedom in Gaza and the West Bank, but, unlike MESA, as one example, he can see the facts on the ground and exposes the defects in teaching and campus politics that spring from Palestinian society itself. “Both the IDF and Palestinian groups compromise academic freedom in various ways, but with far from equal severity,” Nelson wrote, shifting much of the blame away from Israel. “Yet the BDS movement [and its enablers and promoters, such as MESA] criticizes only Israeli actions, ignoring the far more serious and dangerous assaults on a secure learning environment carried out by Palestinian factions and students themselves. Ignoring or misrepresenting the severity of the threats at stake means that US debates about academic freedom for Palestinian students and faculty are conducted in fundamental and corrupting ignorance.”

Irrespective of blame, the suppression of academic freedom and the real, and potentially lethal, threats to free speech that both faculty and students face in Palestinian institutions of higher education are cause for alarm. It is not only Israel’s security that is threatened by the ongoing incubation of hatred and terrorism inside the universities’ walls. The integrity, value, and moral clarity of Palestinian education are also victim to the systemic culture of violence, extremism, and warring political factionalism—all with long-term, deleterious effects for Palestinian culture and society.   

“It is not just deeply troubling but also definitional that many Palestinian universities have substantial histories of student involvement in terrorism,” Nelson concluded, but that reality, often ignored by Western critics of Israel, means that academic freedom and free speech, enshrined on Western campuses and fundamental to higher education, have not and will not likely thrive in Palestinian universities for some time to come.

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