Sarah Graham-Brown, Education, Repression and Liberation: Palestinians (London: World University Service, 1984).
“Whenever I hear the word culture,” said an occupying officer during the Spanish conquest of South America, “I pull out my gun.” Foreign invaders are often quick on the trigger, and quick to assert their “superior” culture. Indigenous culture, after all, is a rallying point for popular resistance. What the invaders cannot suppress outright, they try to ignore, belittle, distort and dehumanize.
The Israeli struggle against Palestinian resistance has been particularly fierce on the cultural front. Take the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The IDF looted the Palestine Research Center in Beirut, destroyed the embryonic Palestine Open University and wiped out most of the Palestinian educational and cultural institutions they could get their hands on. Similarly, in schools under their rule, the Israelis forbid the study of Palestinian culture. The Israeli government looks on any genuine manifestation of “cultural energy” among Palestinians as a threat, and it takes every measure to suppress or contain it.
Education can be a major instrument of cultural struggle. Israeli educational policy, like that of the British before them, has been to mold Palestinian individuals who lack any sense of cultural identity and who are convinced of the inferiority of their native culture. But as Paulo Freire reminds us, education can be a tool of liberation as well as oppression. Sometimes, paradoxically, it can be both at the same time, for even an invader’s education can have unintended and contradictory results: the leadership of the popular movements often comes from among those who have had the most exposure to the colonial education system, for example. Within this context of cultural struggle and education’s contradictory possibilities, Sarah Graham-Brown’s new book has much to offer.
The book starts with a brief but fascinating description of the history of Palestinian education before the disaster of 1948. There are striking similarities between the situation described during the British mandate and the situation today. In Khalil Totah’s report of 1937, for example, we learn that the “major grievance of the Arabs as regards education is that they have no control. It…is either designed to reconcile the Arabs to this policy of establishing a Jewish National Home in Palestine or to make [it] so colorless as to make it harmless.”
Other details from that period recall events of the present: students strike and school children are killed by the police; schools are shut down by the authorities; teachers are not allowed to form unions or join clubs and associations; and some Palestinians are convinced that education is “a universal solution, a means of individual advancement and cultural modernization.” There is even the demand by Palestinian villagers (meeting in Jaffa in 1929) “that training in the schools should be based on agriculture,” a concern now recently raised again.
Graham-Brown goes on to discuss the state of education among the Palestinians as refugees. Dispersion, loss of land, UNRWA, other Arab school systems, and new opportunities to study and work — all had their impact. Palestinian education during the two decades after 1948 was characterized by individualism and self-advancement, disregarding national or communal needs. This tendency, in fact, is still strong today.
In the main section of the book, there is a detailed description of the educational situation in the four main areas where Palestinians now live: Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and Lebanon. In the West Bank and Gaza, “politics is never far from the school yard.” Graham-Brown observes that “[c]hildren are forced to grow up politically by the pressure of their environment, but it also places on them a considerable burden of anxiety.” Closures of schools; high turnover of teachers (due to low pay and difficult conditions); harassment and/or deportation of teachers; torture, beating and jailing of students; and lack of proper training and facilities — these are some of the more visible effects of the Israeli occupation.
Another chapter covers universities in the Occupied Territories. The symbolic importance of universities (especially in the absence of “national” governmental institutions), and the relative “autonomy” of the universities, lend weight to this discussion. Graham-Brown looks at internal problems within and between universities as well as external problems concerning design of an educational system and development of a long-term educational strategy. Non-formal types of education, such as health education, literacy, and pre-school programs and the role of women’s groups in such programs, are also discussed, along with technical and vocational training. The author calls attention to the weakness of such educational arrangements geared to the needs of the majority of working Palestinians.
One chapter looks at Palestinian education in Lebanon, where in the 1970s Palestinians had relatively more control over their children’s education and many universities were open to Palestinians. These many promising aspects were hopelessly disrupted after 1982. Another chapter discusses Palestinian education in other Arab states, where restrictions and backward educational practices block Palestinian advancement.
A concluding chapter takes up a number of broad issues and as such it is the most provocative and most interesting in the book, yet the least developed. Here Graham-Brown goes back to what she sees as the central question: “Palestinian education is strongly affected by [the] tension…[resulting from] two conflicting tendencies: toward dispersion and towards the struggle to keep alive a national identity, with the hope of return to their homeland.” She is particularly interested in the project of a Palestine Open University, an open-access, non-traditional university system for Palestinians inside as well as outside the occupied areas. The challenge for such a project is to create a relevant education, that would be ready to “tackle wider issues such as inequality…social change…and elitism.”
The author also discusses the relative underdevelopment of educational strategies within the Palestinian resistance movement. Unlike social welfare and health, where appropriate structures have been created, education has been neglected. No Palestinian group, institution or organization has seriously addressed this. The need for a program directed at a more appropriate, relevant and authentic education is, I believe, one of the most urgent issues facing Palestinians today.
Perhaps the most problematical aspect of the book is its treatment of “authoritarian attitudes” in Palestinian families. Graham-Brown approvingly cites Palestinian sociologist Elia Zureik’s view that combating this authoritarianism is “the most important priority,” without sufficiently acknowledging how the structure and internal relations in the family are themselves the product of larger social and historical forces. Her approach at times seems part of the fabric of Western expertise and domination, and it overlooks the positive function of the Palestinian family in providing a center of love and support. This has been a vital ingredient enabling Palestinian students in the West Bank and Gaza to confront the occupation so courageously. Indeed, critical thinking must be encouraged and authoritarianism combated. This should include not only traditional familial authoritarianism, but also the sort of “scientific” and “objective” authoritarianism that abounds in the Western cultural phenomenon of “expertise.”
I would also take issue with Graham-Brown’s discussion of education for girls. It seems to me that the issue is not primarily the small number of girls in schools, but rather the failure of Palestinian educational institutions to stress values associated with women: generosity, endurance, acceptance of responsibility, emotional nurturing. These should be part of the spirit and curricula of our schools for students of both sexes.
Without question, this book is a most valuable addition to the growing literature on Palestinians. One additional remark seems in order. The “boxes” throughout the book definitely add a lively and vivid dimension, especially in a work of this sort, replete with figures, hard facts and tables. The images conveyed through these personal stories are quite moving.