A Political Education

Poster from a student rally

(Roughly translated, the board reads, "We walk together until we have Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine.")

I'm writing at 10:00 in the morning on Tuesday, November 13, and the campus is strangely quiet. On any other Tuesday morning, Bethlehem University would be bustling with activity: students would be chatting and laughing while passing to and from classes, and people would be congregating in the halls and the courtyards, talking animatedly.

Today, however, classes have been suspended and the students have been sent home. The reasons? An outbreak of violence in Gaza, and a series of strikes called by the Student Senate.

Three days of mourning have been declared throughout Palestine in response to an incident in Gaza City that left at least six dead and dozens more wounded. To commemorate the third anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death on November 11, 2004, tens of thousands of Gazans who support Fatah rallied on Sunday and Monday. Apparently (accounts of the incident vary), the injuries and casualties occurred after members of Hamas fired gunshots from the roof of Al-Azhar University. For stories on the rally and the accompanying violence, see the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera English, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Hundreds of thousands attended the rally in Gaza City (Hatem Moussa/AP)

Yellow flags denote support for Fatah (AP)

Gazans gather amid flags and posters (AP)

The vice-chancellor's decision to dismiss students as a result of the clash in Gaza might seem unusual to some Americans. To understand his choice, it's necessary to recognize how passionately many Palestinians--including many Bethlehem University students--feel about politics, and how closely some of them are aligned with parties such as Fatah and Hamas. It's also important to realize that here the "real world" (especially the political world) and the "academic world" are so strongly linked as to be often inseparable.

Certainly American students appreciate that events off campus (most notably, the attacks of September 11 and the Virginia Tech shootings) can affect life on campus; but in the United States teaching and learning continued, more or less as usual, in the wake of each tragedy. What distinguishes Bethlehem University from, say, Lewis University is the very different way in which the students here--and, in particular, the student government--respond to such events. To adapt a well-known slogan from the American feminist movement, here the personal is the political and the political is the personal--and both the personal and the political are entwined with the academic.

A couple of weeks after fall-semester classes began, and well before the current situation in Gaza and on campus developed, I received my first lesson in the political aspects of Palestinian higher education--and the (potentially) educational aspects of campus politics. Students in "English Writing Skills" were sitting in small groups discussing their essays, while I was walking around the room listening to their observations and keeping them on task. Suddenly we were interrupted by--of all unlikely sounds to hear through the open windows of a classroom at 9:30 in the morning--the bellow of a bullhorn. A young man was broadcasting something in Arabic that greatly excited the students--one of whom immediately bolted out of the room.

Since I know only a few dozen words in Arabic, I turned to my students for interpretation. "Classes are canceled!" they informed me, trying (and mostly failing) to mask their delight. I frowned at them skeptically. "No, really!" they assured me. Their attempt at deception was met with sarcasm. "So that was the Vice President for Academic Affairs on the bullhorn? His Arabic has certainly improved!" (Brother Robert's Arabic is even more limited than mine. What's more, it's colored by a distinctive Minnesotan accent.)

Restless, and frustrated by my obtuseness, they explained. "No, it was someone from the Student Senate. They've canceled the morning classes." I became even more confused. "You're saying the Student Senate has canceled our class?" They nodded, and I decided to play along with them to see how far they were prepared to take their prank. "Why?" "Because," they responded quickly, their eyes sliding from me to the door and back again, "some people were killed in Gaza." This didn't sound like a game, but it still didn't make sense to me. "They will be here soon," the students added ominously, and for an uncanny moment I thought they meant the deceased Gazans.

"Who will be here soon?"

"People from the Student Senate."


"To make sure we've canceled class."

This was simply too much to process, and I decided to seek guidance from another member of the department. "Wait here," I told them, taking a few steps toward the door before turning around. "And keep working on your essays!" I knew this direction would be ignored; but I felt obliged to make some attempt, however feeble, to restore order.

When I arrived in the English Department office, I found the administrative assistant and a couple of colleagues clustered around a computer screen. "My students claim that--" I began. "Morning classes are canceled!" they cried. "A message just came from Brother Robert's office!" I stared at them. "What's going on here?" They told me that the Student Senate couldn't officially cancel classes unless the VPAA endorsed their action. Because he had done so, starting at 10:00 there were no classes. I glanced at my watch: 9:40. "I see," I told them.

Of course I didn't see at all, but it was well past time to return to my classroom. When I arrived, the students were talking enthusiastically, their essays forgotten. "Can we go now?" they asked in unison. I decided to take a legalistic approach. "Well, classes aren't canceled until 10:00, and since our class ends at 10:15 let's just finish at the usual time." Everyone fidgeted unhappily. "But they're coming. They'll ask why you haven't canceled the class." A moment after these words were spoken, we heard a knock at the classroom door. "See?" several students asked, apparently quite satisfied that my obstinacy would at last be dealt with. "Here they are." "Fine," I snapped, feeling a little cranky. (Certainly the one cup of coffee I'd drunk earlier that morning hadn't fortified me sufficiently for the rigors of a student insurrection.)

I opened the door to face four young men, each wearing the black-and-white hatta (keffiyeh) that signified his membership in Fatah. Much to the frustration of my students, who were curious to see how their foreign professor would cope with this domestic disturbance, I quickly shut the door behind me and blocked the window in it with my back for good measure. The student senators addressed me first in Arabic and then, after I shook my head, in English. ("At least they're practicing their English," I thought. "That's something.") "Why haven't you canceled the class?" they demanded. "You must cancel the class!" I responded as reasonably as possible, given the surreal situation. "Well, the 10:00 class is canceled, and since our class ends at 10:15 I've decided to go on until then." They consulted with one another, decided the class could continue for a little while longer, and left.

As I re-entered the classroom and explained the homework assignment to my disappointed students, I wondered what on earth had just happened.

A student singer wearing a keffiyeh with photos of Yasser Arafat

A keffiyeh featuring a map of Palestine and the colors of the Palestinian flag

A member of the Student Senate arranges his keffiyeh

Firas Bader, the President of the Student Senate

In the next few weeks, after having talked with students, professors, administrators, and members of the Student Senate (including the president, pictured above in his office together with photos of Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat), I began to understand, albeit very imperfectly, how politics and education influence each other at Bethlehem University. The most eye-opening lessons: (1) the Student Senate comprises representatives of actual political parties (for instance, Fatah and Hamas); (2) members of the Student Senate at times negotiate (or fail to negotiate) with the administration and call official (or unofficial) student strikes in response to events occurring on and off campus; (3) weekly rallies organized by the Student Senate blend politics, entertainment, and traditional Palestinian culture in quite powerful ways.

The building housing the Student Senate

(Roughly translated, the poster reads, "The Student Senate of Bethlehem University welcomes the new students and wishes them a successful academic future.")

The Student Senate

This body is in effect a parliament made up of the Conference (the entire senate) and the Secretariate (the governing committee). The party in the majority elects the president and controls the senate. The majority party this academic year, as in years past, is Fatah--the most popular group not only among students at Bethlehem University but also among residents of the West Bank in general. There are thirty-one seats in the Conference: this year Fatah holds sixteen; The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, eight; Hamas, five; the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, two. It seems that the Conference rarely convenes, and that the work of the senate is done mostly by the Secretariate, whose eleven members include the president and the vice-president, the secretary general, and eight secretaries who are responsible for a wide range of areas: academics, art, culture, environment and health, folklore, public and external relations, socializing, and sport.

As of this past June, the Palestinians are geographically and politically divided: Fatah governs the West Bank while Hamas oversees the Gaza Strip. To varying degrees, this division and the conflicts that accompany it are anticipated and echoed on university campuses. At The Islamic University of Gaza the Fatah-Hamas rift became violent in May of this year, compelling its president to protest that "[u]niversities must be outside the circle of violence" and to implore "wise people on both sides to spare the university the agony of this fight" (1, 2). Likewise, in July at An-Najah University "students turned the campus into a real battlefield" between Fatah and Hamas (1, 2). In welcome contrast, at Bethlehem University the two factions co-exist peacefully if unequally. (As the majority party, Fatah keeps public attention focused on itself, occupying center stage at the large and boisterous weekly rallies but permitting Hamas to distribute pamphlets and stickers on campus.)

Initially, Bethlehem University's parliament-style Student Senate struck me as quite odd, especially when I imagined it operating at an American university: Republicans and Democrats would struggle for seats, votes, and control, while Independents and other minority factions would maneuver for whatever power remained. I also wondered about the extent to which the rough-and-tumble tactics of off-campus realpolitik might influence--and perhaps corrupt--student politicians. On the one hand, students become involved in governance partly to learn how things are done in the "real world" and to investigate post-college careers in politics and government. On the other hand, given that off-campus politicians are often not the best role models for their on-campus counterparts, it might be better to keep the "real" and academic worlds apart. Perhaps some lessons in politics are better learned later, if at all.

After being schooled in the history of Palestinian politics, however, I came to understand that while the link here between on- and off-campus politics is arguably problematic and detrimental to education, it is also natural and longstanding. Yasser Arafat was a politically active student at the University of King Fuad I (now Cairo University), where he served as president of the General Union of Palestinian Students. Long after Arafat's matriculation, Palestinian students continued to be politically active and aware, in part because under the Israeli occupation university campuses were among the few places where politics might be discussed in public. Indeed, according to the sociologist Lisa Taraki, "Palestinian universities during the latter part of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s were the prime site for the formation of a cadre of political activists who at important junctures were in the vanguard of the national resistance to occupation." Moreover, "[e]lected student councils succeeded in wresting a considerable degree of authority (and recognition of the legitimacy of that authority) from university administrations and became a powerful force in university life." At Bethlehem University the Student Senate is unquestionably "a powerful force in university life," and foremost among the ways this body demonstrates its power is the strike.

Students on Strike

Strikes at Bethlehem University have occurred for decades. Three times during the past week (and once earlier in the semester, as described above), the Student Senate has declared strikes. These may take place at any time during the school day, and they vary in length from one class period to several. Before calling a strike, members of the Student Senate consult the Dean of Students, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, and perhaps other administrators. If these parties fail to reach an agreement, a strike may result. Once it's under way, both students and professors await announcements--which I receive either through my office window, via bullhorn, or else from the campus grapevine--as to the reason for and the anticipated length of the strike. The VPAA's office also updates faculty and staff through the campus intranet.

Students are not the only ones who strike. In early October, unionized full-time faculty members throughout Palestine called a one-day strike to underscore their demands for better pay. (The salary scales for professors in Palestine, which are modest, don't vary across institutions.) Faculty members in Israel have also been on strike. The faculty and student strikes may be related: one member of the Student Senate observed to me that the striking professors served as role models for the striking students.

I've not yet heard of a strike called by university staff members or administrators.

Recent student strikes have been called in response to both external and internal exigencies. Students struck to show their solidarity with those who were killed in Gaza before and after the recent rally, and with a Palestinian man who died at the Negev Detention Facility. (See 1, 2, and 3.) They also struck to protest what the Student Senate perceives to be Bethlehem University's too-strict policies on academic probation, dismissal, and related issues. (As I write, this second matter is being discussed among the faculty, the administration, and the Student Senate.)

While considering the hows and whys of student strikes, it's worth keeping in mind the aims of the Student Senate.

  • To represent the general student body.

  • To serve as a recognized channel of communication between students and University authorities.

  • To foster loyalty and concern for the University among the student body.

  • To enhance the students' sense of responsibility and leadership.

  • To promote good relations among the students, as well as between students and staff, and between students and the administration.

  • To encourage interest in academic affairs and to strive constantly to improve the image and reputation of the University as a center of scholastic excellence.

How well are these aims served by strikes? As a newcomer to Bethlehem University who's here for only one semester, I feel more comfortable asking this question than answering it. That said, I've been here long enough to recognize that, in their current form at least, these strikes may well contravene some of the above objectives. For example, while the current strike--which is staged in part to compel the administration to relax academic standards--certainly does "encourage interest in academic affairs," it appears to work against the desire "to improve the image and reputation of the University as a center of scholastic excellence." Moreover, given the number of students who have told me and other professors that they would prefer remaining in class to going on strike, does the Student Senate truly "represent the general student body"? Most importantly, what lessons about "responsibility and leadership" are being taught by these strikes?

Whether or not the strikes accord with the aims of the Student Senate, there's no denying the fact that when viewed within the context of the Israeli occupation they are at once entirely understandable and sadly, even tragically, ironic. Over the years, Bethlehem University students have been harrassed and humiliated by soldiers, curfews, checkpoints, book bans, tanks, missles, and the Separation Wall. During the first Intifada (1987-1990), when the Israeli Defense Forces closed the school, classes met in homes, hotels, churches, and mosques. Small wonder that these beleaguered students have turned to strikes as a means of both protest and self-empowerment. Yet the strikes have achieved the same result as the Israeli military's tactics: shutting down the University, and disrupting the teaching and learning that are crucial to the future of the Palestinian people.

I am not contending that the students here ought to remain quiescent and passive. Quite the opposite: they ought to become more vocal and active, for their independence of mind and spirit are jeopardized not only by the occupation, but also by the emphasis that Palestinian primary and secondary schools place on rote memorization as opposed to analysis and critical thinking. Surely, however, there's a better way for them to explore their power and find their voices than walking out of the classroom. What's more, when strikes are called it seems that only a minority of students assemble in solidarity or protest; most either socialize on campus or go home. The goals of the faculty, the administration, and especially the students might be better served if, instead of strikes, the Student Senate organized campus forums within which the entire Bethlehem University community could come together to discuss the issues that concern everyone here.


Whether Bethlehem University students are striking or rallying, they mix politics with music, dance, and even poetry. When I attended my first student rally in the campus auditorium, I was pleasantly surprised to witness not a series of speeches but a few relatively brief remarks interspersed among several energetic performances--by far the most striking of which was the Dabke, a traditional dance.

Students in traditional dress dance the Dabke in the Auditorium

Keffiyeh-wearing students dance the Dabke in the courtyard outside Millennium Hall

Having now observed two official rallies, together with some strike-related gatherings, I'm led to wonder how closely the hybrid and performative aspects of these events reflect those of Palestinian politics in general. In Palestine, can politics, culture, and performance be separated?

The songs and poems included in the rallies feature nationalistic themes, and the Dabke is rich with political significance: the word "Dabke" means "stomping of the feet," which act indicates the dancers'--and the people's--connection to the land. Performed by a stateless people as an exuberant reaffirmation of their folk traditions, the dance can't help but function as a powerful political statement. That the Student Senate's Secretariate includes a Secretary for Folklore also argues for a strong bond between Palestinian culture and politics.

Politics-as-performance is of course not unique to the Palestinians, as the clichés "world stage" and "political theater" demonstrate. Yet some political actors are more virtuosic than others, and Yasser Arafat was among the most accomplished. His carefully maintained costume--a keffiyeh arranged in a triangle to suggest the outlines of Palestine, a safari suit rather than a suit and tie to remind audiences of his military bona fides--certainly helped him to maintain his leading role in the Palestinian political drama. Like the founder of their party, the Fatah members who run the Student Senate and who organize the rallies appreciate the theatrical aspects of politics. Among the more striking features of their first rally of the academic year was the large and well-lit banner of Arafat that hung on the auditorium stage, serving as a backdrop for the performances there.

For more photos and videos from rallies staged by the Student Senate, see the photo album here, or use the photos tab at the top of the page.


Copyright 2007 Jamil Mustafa | Blogger Templates by GeckoandFly modified and converted to Blogger Beta by Blogcrowds.