Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Birzeit University in the West Bank. (Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

At Birzeit University (BZU) in the Israeli occupied West Bank, just north of Ramallah, a growing cohort of young Palestinian students are studying for their M.A. in Israel Studies. The program’s first cohort was admitted in 2015. By the summer of 2019, nearly thirty Palestinian students will have received their degree.

In the Birzeit classroom, students and faculty are, in their words, “trying to produce Palestinian knowledge of Israeli society” through deep, critical engagement with Israeli culture, politics and society, often working with primary texts in their original Hebrew. In the process, they are fundamentally remaking the dominant paradigm of Israel Studies as it has been configured in the United States and increasingly in Great Britain, with its proud “advocacy” mandate on behalf of the Israeli state. Birzeit’s program turns this paradigm inside out, providing students with a radical alternative.

The idea for the program began informally in 2010 with conversations between Birzeit faculty members, at the behest of the University president, and the Ramallah-based Institute for Palestine Studies. There was some minor disagreement among faculty about the program’s founding principles, evident in disputes over its naming: “settler-colonial studies,” favored by some, was rejected in favor of “Israel Studies.” After approval from the Palestinian Ministry of Education, funding was eventually secured through a partnership with the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, an institute headed by former Palestinian member of Israel’s Knesset (Parliament) and Birzeit faculty member, Azmi Bishara. The first Birzeit students in Israel Studies matriculated in the fall of 2015.

Like the broader Birzeit student population, the majority of M.A. students come from the Ramallah area, with smaller numbers from other West Bank locales, including Jerusalem, and the occasional student from the Gaza Strip who receives the requisite permits from Israel. The financial incentives are considerable: thanks to support from The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, the program has the means to provide students with full scholarships and living stipends and thus it can attract some of Birzeit’s best students. Most of the program’s faculty are Birzeit professors, but it also employs part-time faculty from other institutions, including Palestinian scholars from inside Israel.

The program’s mandate is clear: to establish a Palestinian base of critical knowledge about Israel and its settler-colonial history through deep engagement with Israeli political systems, religious thought, society and culture. The program’s current director, Dr. Munir Fakher Eldin, a historian of modern Palestine, characterized its rationale this way:

The idea for this program came out of the certain realization that it’s absurd to be under occupation for 50 years, with over a century of conflict with Zionism, and not have any Palestinian production of academic knowledge on Israel. So the basic idea is that we need this expertise… But this idea raised lots of questions. Can you study Israel and break with Israeli mainstream knowledge production? And the answer was: yes, of course.

The program’s curriculum is robustly interdisciplinary. All students receive intensive training in Hebrew and have the opportunity to pick from a roster of courses in such subjects as Zionist ideology and history; Judaism, Jewish history and thought; society and political systems within ‘48 Palestine; Israeli demography; Israeli political economy; Israeli culture and literature, and the list goes on. A settler-colonial framework is central within the curriculum, as is a comparative analytic framework, as Dr. Fakher Eldin suggests:

My basic strategy is to show them that all of the atrocities of Zionism and the occupation are basically comparable atrocities. They exist in a wider context. In my special class entitled “The Land Question,” for example, we don’t only speak about settler colonialism and the Zionist land grab. I also talk about capitalism, because settler-colonialism benefited from the history of private property… In other words, I [dismantle] the sense of extreme uniqueness. This is something new in the students’ minds and it’s a very important lesson.

Complicating the Story

When I met Izz Al-Deen Araj at Birzeit in November, 2018, he was in the final months of his M.A. work. A resident of Ramallah, he had also completed his B.A. at Birzeit, as had the vast majority of his colleagues in the program, with a major in sociology. He had opted for the program’s three-year thesis-track (some students elect only coursework, completed in two years) and when I met him, was finishing a thesis about the politics of demography within the Israel—that is, the ways that the Israeli and Palestinian demographic balance figures within internal political debates. His next step, he hoped, was a PhD program in the U.K., provided that the requisite visas from Israel could be obtained.

Echoing the accounts of others, he described his learning experience as a process of continual surprise particularly so during his thesis research. The diversity and complexity of Israeli positions on the question of demography exceeded all prior expectations:

One side argues that we should keep the Jewish majority and we don’t want more land. The other argues that land is more crucial and we shouldn’t be as concerned with the demographic problem. I was amazed at how this discussion became the main factor [in determining] the left wing and the right wing in Israel.

So much of what he had learned about Israel was entirely new to him, he said, noting the influence of the ultra-orthodox Jewish population on the Israeli political and social landscape, the numerous inequalities inside the state’s Jewish populations, the tremendous variance in political discourses and the list went on. Such complexity, he said, had forced a rethinking of both the political paradigms and theoretical models on which he had previously relied.

When I finished the first semester, I was totally shocked because we all know about Israel [when we enter the program]. But I understood that most of what I knew was… not exactly wrong but…well, I started to think more deeply about Israeli society.

On the one hand, he said, he “started to think about Israel as a settler-colonial society, not [merely] as soldiers.” But this, too, he felt was inadequate to the variability of the Israeli social and political landscape. “We understand the conflict through one model: settler-colonialism or apartheid. But I think we can use more complex models…. Can we understand the administration of the West Bank in the same frame as we understand the [administration] of Gaza?”

The work of complexifying students’ prior knowledge about Israel is perhaps the program’s chief mandate. In the process, prevailing Israeli and Palestinian discourses and political models come under critical scrutiny. Again, Fakher Eldin:

I believe in thinking critically and thoroughly, and having the courage to ask difficult questions. In our case, it’s very easy to over-simplify the occupation of Israel, to create certain conventions about what Zionism is. And these are very critical positions because we are the victims of Israel. But in most cases, this is the only thing we know about Israel: the violence that it inflicts on Palestinians. We also need to move beyond this and study the Israeli system that produces this violence…You can problematize power in very important ways if you know the power system.

In my conversations with faculty and students, I learned of numerous student experiences along these lines—that is, of classroom and research experiences that challenged their prior conceptions of Israeli history, politics, and society. Professor Nabih Bashir, a scholar of Jewish intellectual thought in the medieval period, told a similar story about his students’ first encounter with Judaeo-Arabic literature in his course on Jewish history and thought:

After some introductory classes, after they became familiar with the Hebrew Alphabet, I give the students pages of an old manuscript to read… My most delightful moments are seeing their excitement after they have the tools to read it.

 The Master’s Tools

Marah Khalifeh was a student in the Israel Studies program’s first MA cohort; she entered in 2015 and completed her degree in 2017. When she began the program, she said, “Israel was something abstract: the enemy, the colonizer. I didn’t know more than that.” She left, she said, with an “in-depth knowledge about Israeli society…It’s part of knowing your enemy, part of the knowledge of resistance.”

When Marah started, she had just completed her B.A. at Birzeit in English literature; within the program’s thesis track, she focused on the writings of Israeli Mizrahi author Sami Michael. It was the polyvalence of Michael’s personal history that most intrigued her, his refusal to fall neatly into state-authorized categories: “He’s a communist, he’s Iraqi, a non-Zionist as he calls himself. And he’s Israeli. I tried to explore how he deals with these multiple and contradictory identities in this colonial context.”

On the one hand, she said, her prior conception of Israel as a colonial, perpetrator state was inadequate as a way to understand to Michael’s identity as (in her view) both “the victim and the assailant.” Yet when she considered the possibility of interviewing Sami Michael for her research, a proposition she would eventually reject, she found returning to core anti-colonial principles:

“At first I thought to myself, he’s Iraqi [so that’s ok]. But at the end of the day, he’s Israeli and he was in the army, and he’s part of this colonial society… He’s using the tools that Israel gives him. He’s not creating new tools.”

Her discussion of the Birzeit program frequently returned to Audre Lorde’s trope of the “master’s tools.” It was in these terms that she described the Palestinian relationship to the Israeli legal system, the subject of one of her Israel Studies seminars. The material fascinated her, even as it underscored the need for alternative Palestinian political instruments:

How you can you legally colonize a people?…[The Israeli state] tries to be legitimate and follow the law. Yet, at the same time, it’s the Israeli law that is legitimizing the occupation of the West Bank, and legitimizing the Nakba itself… So are we, as Palestinians, using the Israeli legal system or is it the system using us?… It’s like trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

“Two Colonial Geographies”

At BZU, students have the opportunity to learn from Palestinian professors and researchers from ’48—the Palestinian terminology of choice to refer to Palestinian communities residing inside Israel as citizens. While they comprise the decided minority of the BZU faculty, their imprint on student learning is particularly striking within the Israel Studies program. Professor Magid Shihade was one such professor. A resident of the Galilee and expert in postcolonial theory, he taught in the program from 2015-2018, including a course on ‘48 Palestinian society and politics. He found that most of his students were encountering this material for the first time: namely, the history of Israeli state-sponsored discrimination, de-development and de-education within its Palestinian communities. For his students, the course material was novel and important; but their personal encounter with him, and other professors from ’48, was equally eye-opening. Marah Khalife:

In the day to day, we [Palestinians from the West Bank] do not deal with Palestinians from ‘48. The idea of being able, for instance, to live in Nazareth and be in Ramallah in the afternoon was new to me. For us from ‘67 [West Bank] it’s hard to be in two places, in two colonial geographies, during the same day. You either wake very early in the morning or arrive very late at night. But for the professors [it was different]: you call him in the morning and he’s in Nazareth and by 2 o’clock he’s in the class with us. So it’s reimagining Palestine.

The place of ‘48 Palestinian students within both Israeli and Palestinian universities has shifted considerably over the last decade. On the one hand, there has been an influx of these students into the West Bank, particularly to the Arab American University (AUJ) in Jenin (a private college, founded in 2000), attracted by its paramedical training and proximity to the Galilee. For the institution, they are a much-needed source of revenue, and actively courted. Today, they represent 55 percent of AUJ students. Other universities in the West Bank such as Al Najah University in Nablus are now courting Palestinian students from inside Israel, eager for the revenue.

The same period has seen a concurrent rise in the number of ‘48 Palestinian students enrolled in Israeli universities. In prior decades, Israeli universities were effectively off-limits to Palestinian citizens, given stringent admission requirements that tended to favor Jewish Israeli students. Today, numerous Israeli institutions trumpet their growing Palestinian student populations as evidence of democratic inclusion. Such is the case at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, now actively courting Palestinians from East Jerusalem. Critics of this policy charge Hebrew University with cementing the annexation of Palestinian Jerusalem.

At BZU, Palestinian faculty from ‘48 function within something of a legal gray zone. According to Israeli law, Israeli citizens are not permitted to enter Area A (the sector of the West Bank administered by the Palestinian Authority, where the university is located). As Professor Bashir notes: “The fact is that every time we, as Palestinians from Israel, go through the Israeli checkpoints, we are actually breaking the Israeli law.” For the time being, the Israeli authorities have elected to turn a blind eye.

Normalization?

BZU’s Israel Studies program is not without Palestinian precedents. Al Quds University in Jerusalem began its Israel Studies program in 2005, housed within its International Studies M.A. program. The BZU program also work closely with the handful of other Palestinian research centers that study Israeli politics and society, including Mada al-Carmel (The Arab Center for Applied Social Research, Haifa-based) and Madar (The Palestinian Center for Israeli Studies, Ramallah-based). Like the BZU and Al Quds program, both are post-Oslo institutions.

The Israel Studies program also has regional precedents. For decades, in institutions of higher education across the Middle East, Arab students have had the opportunity to study Hebrew and Zionist ideology as part of a “know your enemy” educational paradigm. Educational projects of this kind also existed beyond the university context. In the 1970s, for example, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s research center in Beirut engaged in its own educational program along these lines, including Arabic translations of foundational Zionist writings. But today, no regional equivalent of the Birzeit program exists outside of Palestine due to the taint of normalization—projects that normalize relations with Israel, therein legitimizing its policies and regime on both sides of the Green Line. BZU and Al Quds University offer the only degree-granting M.A. programs in Israel Studies in the Arab World.

BZU’s Israel Studies program, for its part, has not faced such critiques from within the institution despite the university’s strong anti-normalization stance and support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [BDS] movement. “It’s never been an issue on campus,” says BZU Professor of Anthropology Rema Hammami. “Even the student groups who have raised normalization as an issue around specific events and professors, have never raised them towards the Israel Studies program.”

Normalization aside, some students and faculty still voice unease with the program’s central tenets. Professor Shihade was among those program founders who raised early concerns about the program’s name—preferring “settler-colonial studies” as a means of differentiating the program from the hegemonic scholarly paradigm in the United States and Great Britain. He reported a similar unease among some of the students he taught—less so within the classroom than beyond, when they returned home to their families. “When the students say, ‘we are doing Israel Studies,’ they are looked at in a slightly suspicious way from the society in general.”

The Birzeit program is raising more eyebrows within Israeli university settings, particularly amidst growing international support for BDS. For most Israelis, the very mention of BZU harkens back to a threatening history of radical political organizing during the first Palestinian uprising (1987-1991), when students and faculty were on the political frontlines Professor Nabih, who also holds a faculty position at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, spoke of the suspicion he faces from his Jewish Israeli colleagues:

The moment they know that I am teaching in a Palestinian university, they start with their interrogation, as if there are Jewish secrets that I am going to expose to the enemy …They can’t imagine that some guy from Ramallah would want to study Judaism without having evil impulses.

Thus far, there has been little Israeli media or state scrutiny of the BZU program; but one imagines that, within the current political climate, such scrutiny is only a matter of time.

“Our Own Tools”

The growth of the Israel Studies program coincides with new challenges for Palestinian universities in the West Bank. During the last year and half, Israel has denied visa extensions to many international professors and scholars teaching at these institutions, particularly those actively supporting BDS. According to some recent reports, nearly half of the foreign faculty working in West Bank universities have been denied in the last year and a half. BZU’s faculty has been heavily impacted. The University, represented by the Palestinian legal advocacy organization Adalah, is currently bringing a legal case to the Israeli high court.

At BZU, as across the West Bank, student education continues under conditions of duress. Students and faculty are under perpetual surveillance, questioned and arrested on a regular basis. “We already have an education in Israel Studies,” many students noted wryly, thanks to the experience of living under military rule.

And while all of Palestine’s institutions of higher education suffer under military occupation, the Israel Studies program is subject to a unique set of constraints that confront students and professor alike in the most benign details of their daily educational work. Fakher Eldin:

The power relations are against you as a Palestinian researcher [in this field]: you can’t interview your enemy, you can’t do ethnography, you can’t easily teach and study Israeli sources…There are many constraints, but there are also many ways to overcome these disadvantages. I think we we’re seeing the fruits from the students who are writing theses. They’re coming up with very interesting ideas about Israeli politics.

Within Palestine’s constrained financial and political present, the professional futures for students in the Israel Studies program are admittedly uncertain. Some graduates hope to pursue to Ph.D.s in related fields in Europe or the United States. Others have moved on to governmental or media work within Palestine, or have joined the neoliberal NGO workforce. For her part, Marah Khalife is just beginning a job at the newly opened Palestine Museum, housed on campus, where she believes that her critical analytic skills will be put to good use.

When one studies the BZU Israel Studies program from the vantage of the United States, amidst the growth of donor-driven Israel Studies programs with their unapologetic advocacy commitments, it appears as a radical act of intellectual and political refiguration. In the hands of its faculty and students—in their close work with the details of Israeli politics and society, in their openness to the surprises and complexities that emerge from taking archives and histories seriously—the very notion of “Israel Studies” is being wholly remade. Here, again, Marah Khalifeh:

The general framework we’re studying under is clear to us. It’s all about the type of knowledge we are trying to produce. We are trying to produce a Palestinian knowledge of Israeli society…to create our own tools.

 

Note: Thanks to Joel Beinin, Munir Fakher Eldin, Rema Hammami, Shira Robinson, and BZU faculty and students.

 

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