Speaking of Palestine

Two books about Palestinian academia take different paths.

By Tom SperlingerNovember 10, 2021

Speaking of Palestine

Not in Kansas Anymore: Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities by Cary Nelson. Academic Engagement Network. 184 pages.

Teaching Palestine on an Israeli University Campus: Unsettling Denial by Daphna Golan-Agnon. Anthem Press. 150 pages.

THE DILEMMAS INVOLVED in writing about other people’s lives are central to much nonfiction writing, particularly where there is a power differential between writer and subject. There’s an ongoing need to make space for communities to narrate stories on their own terms. Yet the question of who writes a story is not the only axis on which such ethical questions turn. Another issue is the quality of attention given by reader or writer. One can write well or badly about others, just as one can listen well or badly when others narrate their own stories.

These questions have been integral to Israeli and Palestinian literature for more than half a century. The novelist Elias Khoury has noted that one of the losses that Palestinians experienced after 1948, along with the central loss of land, was “their story or the ability to tell their story,” a theme that is weaved through the work of writers such as Ghassan Kanafani. The lack of space given to Palestinian voices is evident in other contexts, too. Maha Nassar has documented that of 2,490 opinion pieces about Palestinians published in The New York Times since 1970, less than two percent were written by Palestinians themselves.

Israeli writers have also wrestled with the question of how to represent Palestinian voices. Khoury highlights the Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua’s 1962 story “Facing the Forests,” in which there is a mute Arab character whose tongue has been wounded. The story this character wishes to tell goes unheard, but he finds other ways to draw attention to his village, which was buried beneath a forest.

Both Daphna Golan-Agnon and Cary Nelson face the challenge of writing about particular Palestinians, as outsiders and from positions of relative power. Golan-Agnon is an Israeli sociologist and human rights activist. Her short book, Teaching Palestine on an Israeli University Campus, recounts her experiences as an academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where the student body includes Jewish Israelis, as well as both Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and those from Occupied East Jerusalem. Golan-Agnon describes the Mount Scopus campus where she works: in the heart of Occupied East Jerusalem, it physically “turns its back on the surrounding world” and is known as “The Fortress.” The campus was built on land appropriated in 1968 and which “the university regarded […] as ‘terra nullius’ — a colonialist term for territory not subject to any sovereignty.” The Palestinian residents of Lifta and Issawiyye “from whom lands were seized” are not acknowledged in the university’s official story.

In Golan-Agnon’s account, there is a tendency in Israeli society to deny the recent history of the land beneath its feet. This has consequences for the attitudes of “self-silencing and censorship” that prevail within the classroom and particularly for how Palestinian students speak in a classroom where the author herself is challenged by students for using the word occupation: “[I]t’s a political term […] and that’s against university policy.”

The book takes the reader on a tour of the Palestinian communities surrounding the campus, including Sheikh Jarrah, where Israel has renewed its attempts to evict Palestinian residents since Golan-Agnon’s book was published. In one chapter, Golan-Agnon focuses on how her students “learned about the discrepancy between law and justice.” Meanwhile, she acknowledges what she learns from Ido, a transgender student and activist, who prompts her to utilize queer theory to understand how Palestinians living in Jerusalem must navigate two fixed categories that do not apply to them: they are neither fully Palestinian nor Israeli. It is not the only instance in the book in which Golan-Agnon shows how her own understanding has shifted because of dialogue with her students. She writes carefully about the abandoned village of Lifta, whose 3,000 residents fled during the 1948 war and became refugees. “What distinguishes Lifta,” Golan-Agnon writes, “is that, unlike hundreds of other Palestinian villages that were destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s, it was not razed entirely. Fifty-five of Lifta’s 450 houses are still standing.”

Plans for a luxury neighborhood in Lifta were announced in 2004 but have faced significant opposition since. Golan-Agnon utilizes a student visit to the site to illuminate much larger issues about Israeli denial of the Palestinian Nakba (“the catastrophe”) of 1948: “Lifta, a short and easy walk from the central bus station in Jerusalem, tells a story that has been expunged from Israeli textbooks, campuses, consciousness, maps, and public discourse.” Golan-Agnon was one of the co-founders of B’Tselem, a leading Israeli human rights organization, which recently issued a report calling Israel an apartheid state. She provides a detailed and nuanced account of how Israel both differs from and resembles South Africa in the apartheid era.

The book is all the more persuasive because it remains tentative in its conclusions and acknowledges what the author cannot know. Golan-Agnon quotes her students frequently, but she also states that many of her Palestinian students guard their privacy and that, for them, the classroom is a public space to be navigated with care. “Most of the female Palestinians expressed their desire to remain silent,” she reports during one discussion. “They had learned not to share their stories beyond the safety of their own homes.” The book leaves space for what Golan-Agnon’s students know but cannot speak about and suggests other stories that are yet to be heard by a wider audience.

Issues of academic freedom also surface in Cary Nelson’s study of Palestinian universities, Not in Kansas Anymore. Nelson, an American literary scholar, frames the book as the “first thoroughly researched and documented study of the status of academic freedom in Gaza and the West Bank.” His central argument is that Israel’s responsibility for academic freedom violations at Palestinian universities in the Occupied Territories has been overstated and that the major threats “come from Palestinians themselves.” Nelson is thus, in one sense, concerned with recentering Palestinians, rather than narrating them as “pure victims,” which he says is the tendency of anti-Zionist activists involved with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

But Nelson overstates the scope of his study, which is essentially a polemical intervention. He declares that his book draws on “a review of relevant news reports and scholarly essays, as well as on numerous interviews […] from 2014 to 2019.” He does not clarify whether he relied solely on English-language publications or worked with Arabic or Hebrew sources (in the original or in translation). But the impression is of a study conducted at a distance, linguistically and culturally, from the individuals whose lives are described.

There are significant problems with how Nelson presents the evidence. For example, the book opens with a dramatic section from the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh’s autobiography, Once Upon a Country, in which he describes being attacked by students at Birzeit University in the 1980s, after giving a lecture. “The crime for which he was punished that day,” Nelson reports, “was having held several meetings with Israelis to discuss possible peace proposals.” Nusseibeh’s account of this incident lays the groundwork for Nelson’s claim that “the violent actions detailed” in his book are “not typically isolated or impulsive copycat acts by individuals” but part of a pattern. He goes on to argue that “[t]he absence of productive, nonviolent student and faculty activism make [sic] Palestinian campuses highly unlikely sites for the promotion of reconciliation.”

These conclusions are not borne out by Nusseibeh’s own account of what happened:

My friend Fahed Abu al-Haj tracked down the perpetrators, even naming them individually. All were students at Birzeit, and a couple I knew quite well. One, the biggest and most brutal of the five, a C student, was suspected of working for Jordanian intelligence. The others later realized their mistake and came to my office months later to apologize. Two even came over to my side politically.

Nusseibeh is clear about the internal schisms within Palestinian society and the potential for brutal reprisals between factions at particular moments. In this instance, factions within Fatah (the Palestinian nationalist party) were operating along different tracks, as were the competing political parties in Israel, not all of whom supported the negotiations in which Nusseibeh was involved. Nusseibeh suggests that the instruction to attack him came from a militant faction but also that both the Israeli and Jordanian governments tacitly supported reprisals against him and another leading Palestinian negotiator. The students were navigating an environment thick with external influences. Nelson elides the wider politics of the story, presenting it as evidence of an intrinsically violent set of attitudes among Palestinian students, as if they occurred spontaneously.

Nelson consistently underplays the impact of the Occupation on the day-to-day experience within Palestinian academia. When I taught at Al-Quds University in 2013, my students often faced intrusive searches at military checkpoints on the way to class, and our lessons were on several occasions interrupted by the Israeli Defense Forces’ military incursions on campus. Larger incidents of violence also go unmentioned. In the wake of the 2014 war in Gaza, 3,932 students at one university, Al Azhar, lost their homes.

The denunciation of Palestinian students for a lack of nonviolent activism also suggests a stereotyped view of recent Palestinian history. As Nathan Thrall has shown, the “four most notable acts of Palestinian rebellion” in the last century — the Arab Revolt of 1936–’39, the general strike of 1976, and both the first and second intifadas — all began peacefully. The BDS movement, so maligned by Nelson, explicitly aims to bring “nonviolent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law.”

Nelson tends, throughout, to generalize from or misinterpret single incidents. It is striking that he appears to have little interest in the diverse experiences of Palestinian students. The “faculty portraits” with which he opens the book are all of men in their 70s. The book lacks any sustained dialogue with a younger Palestinian generation, more than a quarter of whom are university educated and whose worldview has been affected by (among other things) the failure of the Oslo process, the Arab Spring, and how the digital world has affected the Occupation in particular ways (providing more contact with the outside world yet creating complex new modes of surveillance).

One of the other faculty portraits Nelson offers is of Mohammed Dajani, who in 2014 arranged for a group of students from Al-Quds to visit Auschwitz, which in Nelson’s account prompted such a furious backlash that Dajani resigned from the university and left the West Bank after his car was set on fire. (As Nelson notes, Nusseibeh, who was then president of Al-Quds, disputes some of Dajani’s account.) At the time, I was still in touch with many of my students from Al-Quds. Some of the students whom I knew well were aware that I am of Jewish descent and that a number of my relatives died in the Holocaust. These young people were knowledgable about the Holocaust and respectful when they discussed it with me. They were also often pained that they had few or no opportunities to travel outside the West Bank. They were nonetheless skeptical about the visit Dajani had organized for reasons Nelson does not discuss.

My students felt that the way the visit was framed perpetuated the stereotype that they knew nothing about the Holocaust. Thus the trip felt like a trap: whether they opposed or supported it, they feared the underlying narrative would be that they were ignorant (or even antisemitic). This was painful in a context in which the Holocaust was, in fact, a dominant fact in their lives, since it is intrinsically linked to the establishment of Israel, and the consequent displacement of Palestinians. Many Palestinians have long acknowledged that they have been, in the words of Edward Said, the “victims of the victims.” Their concerns about the visit (usually expressed privately to me and not in public) stemmed from their fear of being falsely portrayed as ignorant about, or complicit with, the crimes that the Nazis perpetrated. The media narrative by which Nelson is guided confirmed their worst fears.

Raymond Williams coined the phrase “structures of feeling” to refer to the different ideas and debates struggling to emerge in a particular place at a moment in history. He was searching for a way to describe informal histories, including the gaps between official discourse and how the world is experienced. It is a strength of Golan-Agnon’s work that she tries to capture this unfinished sense of life, from her classes, rather than to reach for grand conclusions, comforting or otherwise. In contrast, Nelson is unable to engage with the structures of feeling within Palestinian society or to acknowledge the limits of what he has read and heard.

Nelson reports gamely that some readers considered his first version of this essay “racist.” His main imagined adversary, in fact, seems to be those within American academia who support the BDS movement, rather than Palestinian academia per se. Once the accusation of racism has been declared, it is hard to unsee it. The strangest aspect of the book, in this regard, is its title, with its echo of The Wizard of Oz. Nelson writes: “Allying with a Hamas cell is not the same as joining the College Republicans in Lawrence, Kansas … in the West Bank, we are not in Kansas anymore.” His point is that his critics try to understand Palestinian academia using the frame of American higher education. The implication seems to be that Palestinians are irredeemably Other from an American perspective.

Many of the issues Nelson projects into his discussion are, in fact, pertinent to the United States at present, including increasingly bitter factionalism, generational divides, and a rise in violent incidents on school and college campuses. Sometimes our attempts to narrate others reveal more about our own stories. Maybe we were in Kansas all along.


Tom Sperlinger is a professor at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He is author of Romeo and Juliet in Palestine (2015) and co-author of Who are Universities for? (2018).

LARB Contributor

Tom Sperlinger is a professor at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He is the author of Romeo and Juliet in Palestine (2015) and co-author of Who Are Universities For? (2018).


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