Twenty-five years ago when I was a schoolteacher in an Afghan mountain valley I came across a book by an English pedagogue called Teaching English Under Difficult Circumstances. I was reminded of that title as I read this informative monograph by Middle East commentator Antony Sullivan. His short book might have been subtitled, “Teaching the Liberal Arts Under Next to Impossible Circumstances.” Can you imagine higher education conducted in less hospitable conditions than in Gaza and the West Bank during the past ten years? Students and professors are under unendurable strain to perform such mundane tasks as attending class, writing term papers, and sitting for exams in the face of political provocation from the PLO and its kin, while trying simultaneously to keep Israeli occupation authorities at bay. The fact that higher education has survived at all is a cause for wonderment. Another surprise is that three of the four Palestinian colleges are patterned on American models. They provide a four-year program of study based on the grade point system. The classroom, rather than the tutorial session, is the focus of teaching. Independent study and use of the library, as well as concentrated exposure to the classics of Western and Arabic literature, are central to the curriculum.

However much Arabs and Palestinians in particular view the United States as Israel’s sugar daddy, it is still true that the American way of undergraduate education commands admiration. The historical record is a distinguished one, including the American University of Beirut, the American University in Cairo, and the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, to name only three. In today’s Palestinian lands this American tradition finds its most successful exemplar in Birzeit University, located not far from Jerusalem. The first graduating class left the school in 1976. By the academic year 1987-88, the college, with 190 faculty members in the humanities and physical sciences, offered the best education available to Palestinians living in the occupied territories. In the cultural studies program students are expected to read Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Vergil, Aquinas, Averroes, Avicenna, Hegel, Marx and Freud. Contemporary Mideastern authors include nationalist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and the Egyptian reformer Muhammed Abduh. Politics intrudes on this idyll in the form of student factions demanding that the university adopt a more overtly nationalist character. Sullivan, who confesses to a traditionalist view of liberal education, cautions that Birzeit, as well as the other Palestinian colleges, “must remain on the alert to safeguard its integrity against . . . internal challenges.”

But Sullivan admits that politics cannot be banished from campus. Palestinians can consider themselves fortunate that they have four private universities among which to choose. I can think of no other Arab country where freedom on this scale is available to students. With due respect to some notable exceptions, the state-run universities of the Arab countries provide mass education of the least-common-denominator variety. But the four universities in Palestine—Birzeit, Bethlehem, al-Najah in Nablus, and Gaza Islamic University—are viewed by Israeli administrators as laboratories for political agitation. In a study published earlier this year, Abraham Ashkenasi observed that campus elections show overwhelming student sympathy for the PLO and, at Bethlehem University, for far more radical groups. Benjamin Netanyahu has gone so far as to conclude of the universities that the PLO has attempted to “turn them into centers of incitement, extremism and terror.” The authorities can always find justification for banning books from libraries and classrooms or for sending students home for weeks at a time. Palestinian intellectuals in the territories and abroad dispute this assessment; they focus on the high quality of instruction and academic freedom, as well as the need to educate young Palestinians, who since 1967 have not been eligible to come and go as they please across international borders.

Sullivan says that it is natural that Palestinians look to university students as leaders in resisting Jewish encroachments on Arab land and in opposing abusive treatment of Arabs in Israeli jails. As the uprising passes its first anniversary, it is impossible to be optimistic about the chances of survival of the academic enterprise in Palestine. At the very least it will continue to lurch between the Scylla of nationalist agitation and the Charybdis of Israeli repression. Why shouldn’t the Israelis take this occasion to close the schools, which they claim have little academic purpose? My prediction is that they will, and that Palestinian students will be obliged once more to go into exile for higher education.


[Palestinian Universities Under Occupation, by Antony T. Sullivan (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press) 133 pp.]