I’ve just got back from spending a week working with Al Quds Bard Honors College in the occupied Palestinian territories, as part of the Open Society Institute’s Academic Fellowship Program. Al Quds Bard is a partnership between Al Quds University and Bard College in New York, and is a US-style liberal arts college, with instruction in English (Al Quds University itself teaches in Arabic). The College has a building on the main Abu Dis campus of the university, very close to the Wall, which divides the town of Abu Dis in two, and getting to and from the campus from Jerusalem involves a long and circuitous route. The drive took us past several settlements on the road towards Ma’ale Adumin, past Area E1 on the hilltop, and then doubling back to end up not very far from where we started. For Palestinians who have Jerusalem ID papers they can use the roads and the generally much faster checkpoints; but if they have a West Bank ID with a Jerusalem residence permit then they need to use a checkpoint on foot. For students coming from different parts of the West Bank this can often be a complicated journey. This trip, more than any of my other visits, showed me how the Wall is part of, and disruptive to, the everyday life of people.
Al Quds Bard has two returning scholars in the Academic Fellowship Program, Nadim Khoury and Maha Samman. Both did their PhDs outside of Palestine, at University of Virginia and University of Exeter, and are called ‘returning scholars’ as, like the rest of the people in the program, have gone back to their home country to teach, rather than work abroad. As part of the fellowship they are able to nominate an international scholar to work with them on their teaching, administration, research and overall career development. Nadim runs the political studies part of the Social Sciences division, and Maha the urban studies part, so they were looking for someone who had knowledge of both areas, and given that Nadim is a political theorist and Maha uses Lefebvre in her own research (she is the author of Trans-Colonial Urban Space in Palestine), I was the person they nominated.
I’d met Nadim when I was in Istanbul last month, as part of the discipline meeting of the Academic Fellowship Program (returning and international scholars meet for a conference and workshop twice a year), but this was the first time meeting Maha. I also got to meet Maha’s husband, Awad Mansour, who teaches in the Political Science department of Al Quds University; their children; and many other colleagues, including Mehrene Larudee who is the division head of Social Science.
While I was here I attended classes from Nadim and Maha, saw two students present their senior projects, ran a small workshop on journal publishing, and gave a lecture on my work on territory. (I recorded the talk and hope to post the audio here soon. [Now available here.]) I was really impressed by the teaching and the students, and there were some lively discussions in the classes. There were lots of meetings with Nadim, Maha and Mehrene on various aspects of their teaching, the programme, planning and so on, and I met the President of the University, Vice President and Dean. There were also some very nice meals out in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Beit Jala. The views from the restaurant in Beit Jala were stunning.
I was also able to attend talks by the Slovakian ambassador to Israel, Radovan Javorčík, at Al Quds University, and by Ilan Pappé for PASSIA (Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs) at the Legacy Hotel in East Jerusalem. Slovakia abstained from the recent UN General Assembly resolution on recognising Palestinian statehood, and part of the talk attempted to justify this. The argument was along the lines of being supportive of Palestinian claims, but suggesting that steps needed to be taken in the right order. Democratic reform, economic reform and regional stability were suggested as the three key elements that needed to be achieved. This was especially strange to hear from the Slovakian ambassador, given that when Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovak Republics it only took 18 days – 1st January 1993 to 19th January 1993 – from declaration of statehood to UN membership. Had those three criteria been demanded then it would have taken much longer. The Ambassador seemed to be confusing the kinds of requirements that, in time, allowed Slovakia to join the EU, the Euro, and NATO, with statehood, when they are not at all the same thing. Leaving aside the question of regional stability, one of the key characteristics of sovereignty has to be the right to determine what kind of economy a state has, and what kind of political system. I was not alone in finding the talk extremely patronizing.
Ilan Pappé‘s talk was very different. Having read his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine I expected a rather more pessimistic view. His topic was on what he called Neo-Zionism, or Zionism today, rather than historically, and he suggested that there were signs of really important shifts in how Israel was being perceived in the world and that things were not likely to remain the same indefinitely. He has long been an advocate of a one-state solution, but seemed to think that some kind of move in that direction was inevitable, perhaps not quickly, but due to demographic and other pressures something that would have to happen at some point.