MESA - Middle East Studies Association

Letters on Palestine

July 2, 2012

Prof. Khalil Hindi
President, Birzeit University
Office of the President
P.O. Box 14, Birzeit
West Bank, Palestine

Dear President Hindi,

On behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), we write to voice our dismay at the way the administration of Birzeit University has addressed the controversy surrounding the caricatures Professor Musa Budeiri placed on his office door. Indeed, the actions of the university administration to date risk establishing a dangerous precedent that privileges those who resort to intimidation and violence to contest the freedom of expression.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa – the preeminent organization in the field. The Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 3000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

As a committee of MESA charged with monitoring infringements on academic freedom, we are very concerned about the recent developments at Birzeit University. In spite of the insurmountable challenges BZU has confronted in recent decades, it has heretofore served as an exemplary model of free academic exchange, not only for Palestine, but for the region as a whole. The vibrant political and social debates that have taken place at Birzeit University have shaped several generations.

We are disappointed that the BZU administration has not been unequivocal in its support of Professor Budeiri. For example, the administration has insisted that Professor Budeiri should issue a personal apology as a way to diffuse tension, and to date, the students responsible for the incitement against Musa Budeiri, including making threats to his life and demanding that he be fired, have not been disciplined. The university’s statement condemning the incitement does nothing to fulfill its obligation as an academic institution to guarantee the security of all its members. More important, the actions of the university administration to date have done nothing to protect the members of the university – students, faculty, and staff alike – from the excessive demands of an extremist group. Such threats, regardless of the political affiliation of the perpetrators, need to be guarded against if the academic principle of free inquiry and expression is to be upheld.

We are also concerned about the request by the university administration that Professor Budeiri take an unpaid leave of absence so as to protect himself. Such a course of action establishes a dangerous precedent, one that is sure to embolden extremist elements who believe they can influence university policy (and force people out) by threats and intimidation.

We realize that as a retired faculty member who continues to teach, Professor Budeiri’s contract is renewed on an annual basis. Even though his contract for the coming year has not been formally renewed, his classes are already listed in the course schedule. To refuse to renew his contract now would therefore be a clear capitulation to the students contesting Professor Budeiri’s freedom of expression.
To change the courses that he is listed to teach in the future to elective courses, in order to be able to say that students objecting to his opinions need not enroll in his courses, is yet another capitulation to unreasonable demands – even if the latter are buttressed by threats of boycotts by the students now expressing their own opinions in such a violent manner. The university administration needs to reconsider the reasoning behind these possible decisions with a careful view to the consequences they will have for the future of academic freedom at BZU.

Professor Budeiri has served Palestinian academe for over 27 years, 19 of them at Birzeit University. His expressions of political and social criticism have never been limited to religion. Those opposed to his freedom of expression should be reminded of this and his important contributions. Although the members of CAFMENA understand that some people might object to the cartoons Professor Budeiri posted on his door, we are convinced that it is the duty of an academic institution to help its members learn how to disagree with opinions they dislike in reasonable, constructive ways. We hope that in this instance, as in so many others BZU has faced in the past, it and its administrators will live up to this higher principle.

Looking forward to your reply, on behalf of the CAF, I am
Yours sincerely,

Fred M. Donner
MESA President
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago

cc:  V.P. for Academic Affairs, Dr. Adnan Yahya
      V.P. for Financial & Administration Affairs, Dr. Adel Zagha
      V.P. for Community Outreach, Dr. Munir Qazzaz
      Minister of Education and Higher Education, H.E. Lamis Al-Alami 
      Birzeit University Board of Trustees, c/o Secretary Joyce Ajlouny

RESPONSE

July 4, 2012

Committee on Academic Freedom 
Middle East Studies Association (MESA)
1219 N Santa Rita Ave, University of Arizona Tucson AZ 85721 (USA)
520-621-5850 direct   520-626-9095 fax
SBS-MESA@email.arizona.edu


Dear Professor Donner,

Notwithstanding the great regard I have for MESA, I deplore the haughtiness of your letter. Sir, one is left with the impression that you think of the Middle East as your ‘subject’ in more senses than one.

Had you deigned to check with Birzeit administration, rather than setting yourselves up as judge and jury and, moreover, being quick to condemn, you would have learned the following. 

The steps taken by Birzeit administration have been:
1) The administration (in fact, I took the decision myself) asked for the ‘offending’ poster to be taken down. This was done to calm tempers and avert the real risk of violent clashes on campus between opposing factions.
2) The administration asked Dr. Budeiri to issue a statement clarifying his position. He issued a statement that ‘he meant no offence’. The administration issued a statement accepting his clarification.
3) The administration allowed peaceful protest (demonstrations) by groups of students who wished to do so. For the most part, these were respectful (though, I am told, there were occasionally improper slogans calling for dismissal and punishment of Dr. Budeiri).
4) The students accused of improper conduct in the initial incident and in the demonstrations have been referred to the University Disciplinary Committee, which has since been investigating the accusations diligently. Composed of rank-and-file faculty members, this committee is independent of the administration. ‘Drastic’ sanctions, such as dismissal for a term or more, have to be approved by the University Council (i.e., the administration). However, the Council has only the power to commute but not raise sanctions.
5) I asked for Dr. Budeiri’s teaching schedule for next year to be checked to ensure that no student would be obliged to take a course with him. This was done in order to give freedom of choice, but also to avert the possibility of problems arising out of class boycotts. As it turns out, his schedule, which had been set a long time before, meets this criterion.

I do not know the source and purpose of the campaign of misinformation and disinformation being waged, if that is what we are up against. Assuming goodwill, the charges against the administration could be attributed to misunderstandings:
1) The charge of failure to defend Budeiri may have arisen out of the resolute refusal by the administration to dismiss summarily, without due process, students accused of improper conduct, as has been noisily demanded by some enraged faculty. Instead, the accused have been referred to the disciplinary committee. I am convinced that this right and proper. We believe, perhaps naively, that summary justice is no justice.
2) The charge of pressure on Dr Budeiri may have arisen out of officially requesting him to confirm that he is ready to assume his teaching duties next academic year, which he has done (he had declared repeatedly that he ‘cannot see himself returning to Birzeit’). I am convinced that this also right and proper.

The case raises serious and difficult general issues:
1) Where and how to draw the balance between academic freedom and general freedom of expression (including protest by students)?
2) What are the limits of academic freedom (every freedom has limits)? Do they extend beyond teaching, research and publications (do they, for example, extend to ostentatious display of provocative posters in public space?)?
3) How to manage the evident rift in Palestinian society without curtailing freedoms?

For us, grappling with these issues is not just a question of intellectual debate, but also of every day practice in difficult, sometimes explosive, situations.

Let me be quite clear. Birzeit University has been built on solid foundations by the toil and sacrifices of many of people over many years; past and present students, faculty, staff and administrations (I am new here; I claim no credit). The foremost duty of the university community is to preserve this institution of which we Palestinians can justly be proud. The current administration, as well as, I trust, future administrations, will not allow infantile leftism, senile liberalism, or extremist Islamism to undermine this great institution, let alone causing it to be torn asunder by internecine strife. 

At the risk of being accused of implicitly levelling a charge of hypocrisy, may I respectfully suggest that MESA turn its attention, more usefully, to the defence of the collective academic freedoms of the Palestinian people, which are being trampled upon daily by the Israeli occupation. In particular, would you care to mount a campaign to:
1) Put pressure on Israeli authorities to grant work visa to academics holding international passports (including those of Palestinian origin) who wish to work at Palestinian universities.  I am certain that you are well aware that such visas are nearly always denied.
2) Put pressure on Israeli authorities to allow students from the Gaza strip to join universities in the West Bank. Again, I am certain that you are well aware of this gross violation of the right to education.

Finally, please rest assured that we will do our level best to defend academic freedom. We so cherish it that we are willing, albeit grudgingly, to be lectured on it by colleagues living under more fortunate circumstances.

Yours sincerely,

Khalil Hindi
President

cc:   V.P. for Academic Affairs, Dr. Adnan Yahya
V.P. for Financial & Administration Affairs, Dr. Adel Zagha
V.P. for Community Outreach, Dr. Munir Qazzaz
Minister of Education, H.E. Lamis Al-Alami  
Minister of Higher Education, H.E. Ali Jarbawi  
Chair of Birzeit University Board of Trustees, Dr Hanna Nasser,
Secretary of Birzeit University Board of Trustees, Ms. Joyce Ajlouny

December 18, 2008

Mr. Isma’il Haniyeh, Caretaker Prime Minister, Gaza
Dr. Nabil Abuznaid, Representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization

Gentlemen,

I write on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) regarding violence directed against students of al-Azhar University in Gaza this year. We note with dismay persistent reports of violence among political blocs on campus in which security forces either fail to protect students or actively participate in the violent actions.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 3000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

Reports that the right of students to express political opinions on the al-Azhar campus is systematically threatened and that security services are aggravating rather than alleviating that threat are of special concern to us. We note in particular reports in both January and October this year of violence directed against students supporting the Fatah movement.

We have objected on several previous occasions to ways in which violence and actions by various political actors have disrupted the academic enterprise in Palestine and interfered with academic freedom. We have written, for instance, on behalf of students in Gaza who have been barred from travel for educational purposes as well as on attacks on educational institutions in the West Bank and Gaza. We are also writing at present to the authorities in the West Bank about their continued detention without charges of a number of students at campuses under their control, apparently for reasons related to peaceful political activity on campus.

We urge you as strongly as possible to work incessantly to prevent such attacks in the future and to protect the right of all students to exercise full rights to express political opinions. Peaceful and free exchange of ideas is at the heart of the academic enterprise, and attempts to silence or intimidate those who engage in such exchanges amounts to a serious violation of academic freedom. As a committee of MESA charged with monitoring infringements on academic freedom, the Committee on Academic Freedom is deeply concerned by the frequency and consistency of these accounts and will therefore continue to follow the issue by monitoring the situation at al-Azhar.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Virginia H. Aksan
MESA President
Professor, McMaster University

cc: President Mahmoud Abbas


December 18, 2008

Mahmoud Abbas, President, Palestinian National Authority
Dr. Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister, Ramallah
Dr. Nabil Abuznaid, Representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization

Gentlemen,

I write on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) regarding violence directed against students of al-Azhar University in Gaza this year. We note with dismay a continuing pattern of arrests at West Bank universities in which students are held without charges, apparently for political activities occurring on campus.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 3000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

We have objected on several previous occasions to ways in which violence and actions by various political actors have disrupted the academic enterprise in Palestine and interfered with academic freedom. We have written, for instance, on behalf of students in Gaza who have been barred from travel for educational purposes as well as on attacks on educational institutions in the West Bank and Gaza. We are also writing at present to the authorities in Gaza about violence and intimidation directed against Fatah supporters at al-Azhar University.

Over the past few months, Palestinian security forces have arrested dozens of students on various campuses on the West Bank. Since they have been held without charges, we can only speculate about the reason for their detention. But many seem to have been arrested primarily for their peaceful political activities on campus. Many of these students have been eventually released, but some continue to be held. Colleagues at Bir Zeit University, for instance, identify the following students as still being held without charges:

Mustafa Jamal Mustafa Abu-Saleemeh
Firas Tayseer Qawasma
Rushdi Husni Jayyousi
Foad Nazem Khafash
Hasan Ahmad Hasan Obaid
Zaki Mohammed Hussein Amriyeh

We call on you to release these students or explain their continued detention. If there is evidence that these students have committed any crime, they should be charged and tried in accordance with established legal procedures.

Peaceful and free exchange of ideas is at the heart of the academic enterprise, and attempts to silence or intimidate those who engage in such exchanges amounts to a serious violation of academic freedom. As a committee of MESA charged with monitoring infringements on academic freedom, the Committee on Academic Freedom is deeply concerned by the frequency and consistency of these arrests and will therefore continue to follow the issue by monitoring the situation.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Virginia H. Aksan
MESA President
Professor, McMaster University

cc: Ismail Haniyya, Caretaker Prime Minister, Gaza


March 10, 2008

Ismail Haniya, Prime Minister 
Caretaker Government of the Palestinian Authority
Fax:  202-974-6278

Dear Prime Minister:
 
We are writing to urge you to use your authority to halt the activities of armed groups that have been engaged in indiscriminate rocket fire against Israeli towns bordering Gaza.  We are particularly distressed at the 27 February 2008 bombardment of Sderot, during which around 50 rockets hit the western Negev, with one of them slamming into Sapir College near Sderot and killing Roni Yechiah, a 47-year-old student. According to press reports, your own organization Hamas claimed responsibility for that attack.  What we are asking is that you hold this group accountable for its actions and that you make clear to all that such behavior is criminal and will be prosecuted.
 
The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 2700 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

Rockets fired from Gaza have been falling on Israel for some seven years. According to Human Rights Watch, Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and Israeli artillery attacks on populated areas in northern Gaza have been responsible for "hundreds of civilian casualties since September 2005 and constitute serious violations of the laws of war."  To endanger the lives of civilians, including students, is not an acceptable response no matter how severe the provocation. 

In the past we have on numerous occasions conveyed to the Israeli government our concerns regarding Israeli attacks on Palestinian students, teachers and educational facilities as well as regarding the deleterious effects of the continuing occupation. Most recently, on 6 June 2007 we wrote to express our grave concern about the impact on Palestinian educational institutions of Israel’s military bombing campaigns and incursions in the Palestinian territories, the abduction of Minister of Education Dr.Nasser Eddin Shaer (who was subsequently released), as well as the crippling impact of international sanctions against the Hamas-led government. 

As the leader of the Palestinian government in effective control of the Gaza strip, we ask that you exercise your authority and that of the government of Gaza to halt attacks that put civilians and civilian institutions, including students and universities, at risk. 

Sincerely,
Mervat Hatem
MESA President


27 February 2008

Mr. Isma’il Haniyeh, Caretaker Prime Minister, Gaza
Dr. Ahmed Youssef, Advisor to the Caretaker Government for Foreign Policy
Ambassador Afif Safieh, Representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization
                
Fax:  202-974-6278

Gentlemen,

I write on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) regarding the deplorable burning of the YMCA library in Gaza City and the attack on the Al-Nur Baptist School in Gaza City, both incidents having occurred in the last two weeks.  Last Spring – 22 May, 2007, to be exact – we also wrote to express our concern about similar kinds of brutal attacks on schools, libraries, and other educational facilities in Gaza.  As then, so now, we would like to remind you that our organization has frequently protested to the government of Israel about its policies that restrict access to education in Palestine and that we are aware of the dreadful economic and security situation in Gaza fostered by Israeli actions and US compliance.  We also wish to emphasize that we are equally aware of the responsibility all of you have to protect such educational institutions from these kinds of attacks.  We therefore urge you as strongly as possible to work incessantly to prevent such attacks in the future.

The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 2700 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

We are concerned that greater precautions were not taken to protect either the YMCA building and its contents or the Baptist school.  Those of us familiar with Gaza and the YMCA Library are acutely aware of the important role it plays in providing a place where people, young and old, can come together to study and talk.  This is precisely the kind of neutral meeting ground that needs the protection only your organizations can provide.  We wish to encourage you to restore the YMCA library to its former state, and we fervently hope that there will be no future incidents of this kind in Gaza.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,
Mervat Hatem
MESA President


May 22, 2007

President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian National Authority
Fax: +972-08-282-5856
+972-2-296-3170

Prime Minister and Acting Interior Minister Ismail Haniya
Palestinian National Authority
Fax: 202-483-4430

Colonel Muhammad Dahlan
Head of Preventive Security Service 
Fax: +11 972-7-825-425

Ambassador Afif Safieh
Representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization
Fax : 202-974-6278

Dear President Abbas, Colonel Dahlan, Minister Haniya, and Ambassador Safieh:

I write to you on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to express our grave concern about what appears to be a series of systematic and brutal attacks on schools, libraries, and other educational facilities in Gaza. MESA has on numerous occasions protested to the government of Israel its policies of restricting access to education in Palestine. Our organization also is aware of the deteriorating economic and security situation in the Gaza strip to which Israeli actions and the US boycott policy are significant contributors. Even so, the Palestinian Authority and its security forces bear the primary responsibility for the protection of persons and educational institutions from attack by local assailants. We urge you to do everything you can to prevent such attacks in the future.

The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 2700 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

According to press reports, the first of these attacks occurred on Saturday April 14, 2007, when the Al-Ataa, a cultural center in Beit Hanoun, was broken into and set on fire by unknown assailants. The attackers completely destroyed the computer room of the center, damaged $80,000 worth of equipment, and inflicted another $40,000 in damages to the building itself. The attackers also destroyed one of the center's libraries, containing about 5,000 books. Al-Ataa was originally sponsored by the Welfare Association in coordination with the World Bank. This center aims especially to serve local women and children. Among its many activities, it runs workshops on non-violence.

The second attack happened in the early hours of Sunday, April 15, 2007, when an explosive device was detonated at the entrance to the Christian Bible Society's store in the heart of Gaza City. Among the many activities of this organization, it provides language and computer training courses to Muslims as well as Christians.

The third attack on April 21, 2007, was carried out by masked gunmen. They bombed the American International School in the northern Gaza area, causing damage estimated at more than $200,000. This fee-charging school, which teaches in English and in Arabic, has 250 pupils, 50 of them on scholarships provided for students from poor families. The explosions destroyed administrative offices and the student cafeteria, and a classroom corridor was deliberately sprinkled with petrol and set afire. Also during the attack, the assailants handcuffed eight unarmed security guards and drove them half a kilometer from the school. Last year, unidentified gunmen kidnapped an Australian and a Dutch teacher who were later released unharmed. Since then all the foreign teachers have departed.

The most recent attack took place on May 6, 2007, when a large organized group ransacked the UNRWA-run Omariya Elementary School in Rafah. One person was killed and six others were wounded. The estimated 70 attackers mounted their assault during a celebration attended by the school's children and UNRWA and PA officials, including John Ging, the director of UNRWA operations in the Gaza strip. The attackers threw a number of hand grenades and opened fire with automatic rifles as participants prepared to leave the school premises. An UNRWA vehicle was hit as it left the scene, and five Palestinian journalists covering the event were beaten.

Attacks on educational facilities constitute a profound injury to the people and to the future of education in Gaza. We call on the PA’s national unity government to take all measures necessary to ensure law and order, and to provide security to all schools and humanitarian organizations that deliver vital educational services to the people of Gaza. We also urge that you investigate and prosecute where appropriate the groups and individuals responsible for these violent assaults.

Sincerely,
Zachary Lockman
MESA President

cc: General Karen Koning AbuZayd
UNRWA Commissioner
Fax: 202-483-9523


August 9, 2002

Shaikh Ahmad Yassin
Spiritual Leader
Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)
Gaza 

Dear Shaikh Yassin,

The Committee on Academic Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa (CAFMENA) of the Middle East Studies Association of North America is writing to condemn in the strongest terms the bomb attack of July 31 in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, claimed by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), which killed seven students and injured more than seventy. This attack, by targeting civilians, violated the most elemental principle of international humanitarian law. Furthermore, by targeting a university, the Islamic Resistance Movement grievously assaulted the academic freedom of Hebrew University students and their ability to exercise their right to exchange and receive information without putting themselves at risk of death or serious injury.

[MESA is... ]

CAFMENA has frequently criticized Israeli violations of the academic freedom of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip during and prior to the current uprising against the military occupation, most recently in a letter of July 22, 2002, to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Hamas spokespersons have attempted to justify this and other recent suicide bombings as retaliation and reprisal for Israeli attacks that have killed Palestinian civilians. However, under international humanitarian law, the absolute prohibition against targeting civilians includes acts of reprisal. This prohibition is categorical, and applies to attacks committed by armed opposition groups as well as government security forces.

We urge you to call publicly and unequivocally on the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades, the military wing of your organization, to desist immediately and unconditionally from any attacks or acts of reprisal that deliberately target civilians.

Sincerely,

Amy W. Newhall
Executive Director



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