During the latest Palestinian crisis, a team of Palestinian academics, most of whom work at universities outside their country, was busy contacting European parliaments, Western governments and academic institutions to denounce and call for an end to the Israeli attacks on the Palestinian territories.
These academics’ activities began more than two years ago, in September 2019 in particular when they established the Palestine Academic Group (Pal-Ac) with the aim of joining together academic and political work to meet the challenges facing the Palestinians, away from affiliation with any of the Palestinian political parties on ground.
“We are trying to employ the moral and cognitive authority of the academic to affect the Palestinian situation,” Ibrahim Fraihat, the group’s founder and an associate professor of international conflict resolution at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, said in a phone call. He noted that explaining the issue to the West from an academic perspective is more influential than politicians’ explanations because professors are not motivated by personal interests and hold positions of respect in Western societies.
Firsthand Experience of the Occupation
Born in the Palestinian city of Jenin, Fraihat grew up in the West Bank and experienced the hardships of life inside Palestine, from passing the Israeli military checkpoints while going to school, to being arrested more than once, and to having to complete his first year at Birzeit University with a “resistance education system” in cafes and professors’ homes, after Israel shut down all Palestinian universities during the first intifada.
These difficulties left a mark on Fraihat, who taught international conflict resolution at Georgetown University and George Washington University in the United States. This made him aware that higher education’s real role is to resist tyranny and racial discrimination policies, especially when there is an occupier, and the moral necessity of avoiding neutrality in such a case.
“The Palestinian academic does not have the option to distance himself and be satisfied by the ‘educator’ role, who publishes specialized research papers and obtains promotions on them, just like professors in stable societies,” he said. The Palestinian academic “has a moral responsibility towards his homeland and not to retreat and specialize only in specific academic knowledge that has nothing to do with the struggle.”
“The Palestinian academic does not have the option to distance himself and be satisfied by the ‘educator’ role, who publishes specialized research papers and obtains promotions on them, just like professors in stable societies.”Ibrahim Fraihat
A scholar of international conflict resolution and founder of the Palestine Academic Group
With Palestine’s higher education institutions, academics, and students being targeted, supporting the education sector is a priority for the Palestine Academic Group. Given its limited financial resources, it works to build bridges of cooperation between academic institutions abroad and Palestinian ones, creating joint programs and projects, in addition to supervising postgraduate students at Palestinian universities.
Pal-Ac does not receive funding from any government, non-governmental organization, or individual donors. The group’s activities are self-financed by its members only.
Dialogue As a Tool for Change
Sari Hanafi, a professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut and a member of the group, believes that the importance of the group comes from the diversity of its members’ ideologies and backgrounds, and their ability to conduct dialogue on Palestine and refugee issues in a “liberal” manner away from “monocultural” groups and research centers dominated by one ideology, that are usually part of the state’s propaganda machine.
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Hanafi, who is the first Arab president of the International Sociological Association, said that Pal-Ac includes voices close to the Palestinian Authority, others that align with Hamas’s point of view, and other “completely independent voices.” However, this disagreement is richly reflected in the conduct of debating issues.
The academic group also includes three female Palestinian academics working in universities inside and outside Palestine, including Abeer al-Najjar, who was born in Jordan to a Palestinian family displaced from the village of Emmaus in 1967, by armed Zionist groups.
Despite her inability to visit Palestine over the past decades, her country’s cause has always been present, thanks to the stories of her mother, who helped her to weave her relationship with Palestine and Palestinian rights, till she chose to conduct her Ph.D. research on the subject of British media coverage of the conflict over Jerusalem. She is now a researcher in political communication and media studies.
“The group constitutes a nucleus of work to expand research, academic and outreach work on the just Palestinian rights,” said Al-Najjar, “and to focus on spreading knowledge about the just Palestine cause within and outside the framework of academic circles, universities and research centers.”
“The group constitutes a nucleus of work to expand research, academic and outreach work on the just Palestinian rights.”Abeer al-Najjar
A researcher in political communication and media studies
Over the past two years, the academic group organized many activities, most notably the launch of a campaign calling on the Canadian government to change its “double-standard policy” toward Palestinian refugees. It collected signatures from more than 120 professors in Canada and the United States, most notably among them Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis and Juan Cole, to support their demands.
The group also addressed the German Bundestag to clarify the government’s position on Palestine in a case before the International Criminal Court, and to deliver the message to a group of German representatives. It also carried out media campaigns to explain from an academic perspective the negative implications of the decisions by a number of Arab countries to normalize ties with Israel. (See a related article, “Despite Controversy, Emirati-Israeli Research Cooperation Has Kicked Off.”)
According to Fraihat, the group seeks to build good relations with European politicians who support the Palestinian cause, especially in major situations, as it did when it thanked European politicians who protested former U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
Mohammed Hashem al-Saftawi, a professor of political science at Ghent University, in Belgium, said what he is looking for through his work in Pal-Ac “is how to translate theories and language into practical application to advance the problems of the Palestinian cause in presenting a method for a solution.”
In addition to communicating with Western governments and academic institutions, the group has organized public events to explain the difficulties of life inside Palestine, such as “the reality of academies and higher education institutions in the Gaza Strip,” and a dialogue with the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury about his “experience with Palestine and the Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center.”
During the recent crisis that resulted in the bombardment of a number of Palestinian areas, the group was actively working in Europe to explain the repercussions of the Israeli airstrikes on the rights of Palestinians, and to urge European governments to condemn and stop this war. (See two related articles, “Palestine’s Education Institutions Are Victims of Conflict Again” and “Gaza Conflict Drives Support to Academic Boycott of Israel.”)
Fraihat, the group’s founder, hopes Pal-Ac will expand to include more academics of different nationalities from across the globe, and to become an influential pressure group supporting the Palestinian cause in decision-making circles and in public opinion, away from polarization.