‘As time went by the military government became increasingly obsessed with our reading lists,’ Gabi Baramki writes in Peaceful Resistance (2010), his account of the founding of Birzeit University in the early 1970s. ‘Books we ordered from abroad were often permanently confiscated without us even setting our eyes on them.’ Texts on archaeology, history and Arabic literature were all banned.
Restrictions on what, and who, is allowed into the West Bank aren’t new. But it’s getting harder for foreign academics to teach at universities in Palestine, according to the legal rights groups Adalah and Al-Haq. Haneen Adi is a US citizen and English literature teacher at Birzeit. In November 2017, the Israeli authorities wouldn’t renew her visa. She has not left the West Bank since. She has missed her sister’s wedding and the death of a relative. Her father was denied entry when he tried to visit her.
The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music reports that in the 2017-18 academic year, four of twenty international faculty were denied visa extensions or entry. In 2018-19, it was eight of nineteen. Many of those affected are of Palestinian descent, but are citizens of the US or of a European Union country.
The restrictions on entry to the Palestinian territories are particular and have a long history, but Israel isn’t the only country to deny entry to visiting academics. In June, the UK Home Office was accused of instituting arbitrary and ‘deeply insulting’ visa refusals, especially for applicants from Africa. They are twice as likely to be refused a visa to enter the UK as academics from other parts of the world. After Brexit, the proposed ‘skills-based’ immigration plan means academics from the EU will face the same restrictions as those from further afield, including significant charges, an English-language test and a minimum salary of £30,000 per year.
There are deeper challenges for Palestinian educators, across all sectors. According to a recent report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, more than a thousand educational facilities in the West Bank and Gaza were attacked or used for military purposes between 2013 and 2017, and two thousand Palestinian students and schoolchildren were injured, killed, detained, arrested or harmed.
The occupation also operates in more mundane ways. When I taught English literature at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis in 2013, one of my colleagues, Ahmed (not his real name), took me to visit his family in Ni’lin. The town has lost a third of its land to the Wall. Ahmed, who lives in Ramallah, would like to move back to Ni’lin but Palestinians are not allowed to use the roads that run directly from there to Abu Dis, which are for Israeli settlers only.
The literature programme at Al-Quds is chronically short-staffed, because of a lack of opportunities for postgraduate study in the West Bank or to travel abroad for further study. Ahmed and his students have to navigate frequent road blocks and checkpoints on the way to class. In the semester I was there, Israeli military incursions and tear gas on campus often disrupted seminars and exams.
The occupation is not a single event. But to say it is ‘structural’ might imply that it’s possible to navigate its architecture. When I was teaching at Al-Quds, the advice I was given on how to obtain a visa was vague. There is no clear system by which academics are permitted or denied entry. The uncertainty is designed to be discouraging.
There are calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The European Network for Mental Health Evaluation (ENMESH) recently withdrew plans to hold its 2021 conference in Jerusalem, citing ‘concerns about the chosen venue’. Not all Palestinian academics agree with the approach: Sari Nusseibeh, the former president of Al-Quds, has long been opposed to an academic boycott.
There is agreement on the scale of the problems, however. Nelson Mandela dismissed the idea that a boycott is a matter of principle. He called it a ‘tactical weapon whose application should be related to the concrete conditions prevailing at the given time’. Palestinian civil society overwhelmingly supports the wider boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement; a survey in 2015 suggested public support is as high as 86 per cent. It’s evidence of how much further the prevailing conditions have deteriorated in the West Bank and, especially, in Gaza, since the events Baramki describes in his memoir.
I used to have lively debates with my students at Al-Quds, a few of whom regularly came to class without having done the required reading. We discussed Daniel Pennac’s ‘reader’s bill of rights’, with its emphasis on the right not to read, and on readers’ privacy. I gradually realised that my non-reading students were not apathetic, but were unable to pursue their education freely, even when books were to hand. One of the most vocal students – a reluctant reader – said: ‘The first thing I need is the right not to be arrested for what I read, or for what I do with what I read.’