Thursday, 5 February 2009

Palestinian University Pulls Back on Longtime Partnerships With Israeli Academics

Thursday, February 5, 2009



The only Palestinian university to maintain ties with Israeli colleges and oppose international calls for a boycott of Israeli academics voted Sunday to freeze new joint projects with Israeli universities in the wake of the war in Gaza.

But faculty members at Al-Quds University took pains this week to emphasize that existing joint projects would continue and that the university was not joining calls in Europe and North America for an academic boycott of Israel.

Al-Quds has traditionally opposed a boycott, arguing in a joint statement issued with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2005 that "it is through cooperation based on mutual respect, rather than boycotts or discrimination, that our common goals can be achieved."

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds, has repeatedly rebuffed pressure to end joint projects with Israeli institutions (The Chronicle, March 24, 2006). Faculty members who were present at Sunday's council meeting told The Chronicle that Mr. Nusseibeh had steered his colleagues toward a compromise that sent a strong signal disapproving of Israel's actions but stopped short of severing ties altogether.

In a speech he gave while accepting an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium, on Monday, Mr. Nusseibeh called on "all civil society institutions, in Palestine or abroad, to place a six-month moratorium on all new 'routine' or normal cooperative activities with Israeli institutions or individuals — not, I must add, as a punitive measure, but as a rallying cry for all concerned to pressure the Israeli government into committing itself to a timetable for ending the occupation in return for a full peace treaty with its Palestinian neighbor."

In an interview with The Chronicle on Wednesday, Mr. Nusseibeh said that the move was intended "only in order to raise the alarm to take the matter seriously of the continued occupation and the need to reach a solution."

He said that existing projects with Israeli universities would continue and that individual faculty members at Al-Quds were free to ignore the new policy and seek ties with Israeli institutions. He emphasized that Al-Quds was not joining the international boycott campaign.

"It wasn't really clear what the purpose of the other boycotts were," he said. "Some people are engaging in a boycott just for its own sake, maybe some people because it's done as a form of antagonism, as a form of provocation. Maybe some individuals and institutions want to achieve different results. Different people engage in this kind of thing for different reasons."
Seeking Action, Not Isolation

Mr. Nusseibeh said the university, which has 10,000 students at its campuses in the West Bank towns of Al Bireh, Abu Dis, and East Jerusalem, has about 40 joint projects with Israeli institutions with a combined budget of less than $5-million. They include joint political and educational seminars and "very important research" in medicine, dentistry, and nanotechnology.

The university council, comprising the deans of the university's 12 academic schools and other senior department heads, voted unanimously on Sunday to begin a six-month review period during which no new ventures would be established.

The decision was taken following an earlier council meeting during Israel's military offensive in Gaza where some senior faculty demanded an immediate break with their Israeli partners, and following two lengthy consultations with all Al-Quds faculty members involved in joint projects with Israel.

Faculty members said the council hoped to use its unique position to increase pressure on both sides to move more quickly toward a peaceful solution of the conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state at peace with its Israeli neighbors.

"Ending academic cooperation is aimed at, first of all, pressuring Israel to abide by a solution that ends the occupation, a solution that has been needed for far too long and that the international community has stopped demanding," the council said in a written statement.

Mohammed Dajani, a professor of American studies, said the six-month moratorium was a reaction to the Israeli assault on Gaza and the current impasse in the peace process.

"We felt it was time to protest the fact that the Israeli universities and faculty did not even take a stand regarding the destruction of the universities in Gaza or show any sympathy at the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinians, many of them women and children," said Mr. Dajani.

"We felt that the university has not been rewarded by Israel for taking this courageous stand opposing the boycott and working for dialogue, joint ventures, and promoting understanding," he added.

Mohammad Shaheen, dean of the School of Public Health at Al-Quds, said he supported the change in policy even though he has been working with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba, for more than five years on joint psychological and social research dealing with children's trauma.

"Through this dialogue, we experience mutual learning and academic growth," Mr. Shaheen said. "Israel has a more established infrastructure, experience, and institutions dealing with trauma, especially with children. We wanted to learn from them and also share with them how we do our own programs, especially because we don't have such resources."

"As academics we are not politicians, but we have a political and ethical responsibility toward our own Palestinian people who are part of this and live this reality every day," he said. "This new position is not against any specific Israeli organization or colleague. This position is a cry for waking us on both sides and saying that we cannot continue. We have to take a position because we are not working in a vacuum."
Frustration and Sympathy

Musa Bajali, dean of the School of Dentistry, said he also supported the new policy but would continue a two-year-old research partnership with the Hebrew University's Hadassah School of Dental Medicine.

"The Al-Quds policy is based on a democratic approach that allows people who need to continue at a personal level with collaboration, just as it allowed people who were against cooperation the freedom not to be involved until now. I will continue, and I don't think our collaboration will be affected," said Mr. Bajali.

Israeli faculty members expressed sadness at the decision and hope that it would be reversed. Moshe Ma'oz, emeritus professor of Islamic and Middle East studies and a former director of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he was proud to have initiated many of the earliest joint projects with Sari Nusseibeh more than 20 years ago.

"It's very unfortunate that it's been done. If the universities and academics will not work together, then who will?" asked Mr. Ma'oz. "Many among the academics in Israel support the Palestinian cause, and there should be more cooperation, not less."

Although he disagreed with Al-Quds's decision, he said he sympathized with the university's frustration over the failure of more Israeli professors to speak out against the attack on Gaza.

"I expect academics to do something, to protest. I tried myself," he said. "The week before the war, I was on the radio saying that Israel should not attack Gaza and should try to reach a political settlement with Hamas, but no one listened. It's one of the frustrations of academics that governments don't listen to us. They ask our advice, and then they take it as ammunition if it suits them."

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