The Scholasticide in Gaza Is an Affront on the Internationalist Spirit of Academia, It Is an Attack on All of Us

By Nick Rodrigo

The Gaza Strip is at the foot of the fertile crescent, where West Asia meets Africa. It is often cited as a spot of huge strategic importance to empires from time immemorial. Great conquerors from Alexander the Great to Richard the Lionheart to Napoleon Bonaparte to T.E. Lawrence have coveted the area for its strategic position between intersecting trade routes and contending imperial powers. This unique geographical position has also made it an incubating space to produce new ideas, a bricolage of ideals and theories from multiple areas of the known world.  Over 3,000 years before the Graduate Center moved into the B. Altman and Company Building on 34th Street, Gaza was renowned as a center for Hellenistic learning and philosophy. By late antiquity, Gaza was characterized by openness to diverse cultural groups and intellectual traditions through its position between centers of education in Alexandria, Caesarea, and Athens. Gaza has always been a veritable hub of thought and research which has also come to be emblematic of the Palestinian people who inhabit it from ancient times to today.

The thirst for knowledge of the Palestinian people is represented by the fact that in a 140 square mile space, under one of the most brutal military occupations and blockades on the planet, there are over 10 universities and centers of higher learning. Gaining access to these universities is a difficult task, as making it through school is fraught with mortal difficulties. Amir Qudaih is an engineer currently based in Boston, he studied civil engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza and grew up in the village of Khuzaa. “Growing up my village didn’t have a middle school, we had to bike to a neighboring town, every day for three years four miles. In 2010 they finally built a high school in my village.” Khuzaa is located around 500 meters away from the so-called “green line” with Israel and often suffers the first wave of artillery attacks during any Israeli invasion or incursion. “In the morning Israel shoots at our village to scare the farmers tending their livestock and farms, a lot of these bullets hit students, and in my time at school, three years, I witnessed four students get killed––some of them get killed walking to school in the morning. But we never cancel, even when bullets come through the classroom and hit the board.” Amir’s school and the rest of Khuzaa were wiped out in the first weeks of the genocide, he has lost dozens of cousins since October 7th.

Making it through high school alive does not guarantee a spot in university, unemployment has tipped hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families into abject poverty. Amir notes that community and familial connections are indispensable in addressing this structural violence. “My tribe, the Qudaih tribe, funds the students of our family. We have a budget and those living outside like me, we put money into the family box and we use this for an emergency or for a scholarship.” Amir notes that this is one of many ways in which Palestinian families and their extensions come together to support each other in mutual aid “We all know that education is the only way to make it out, and to resist, we can use it against the occupier.”

The Jewel in the crown of Gaza’s tertiary education system is the Islamic University of Gaza. It was founded in 1978 for Palestinian students who had to go to Egypt to seek higher education because there were no universities in the Gaza Strip. Its main campus is in the center of Gaza City, in the Southern Remal neighborhood. During the first year of the university’s existence, it suffered from harsh restrictions emanating from the Israeli occupation. Military Order 254 requested universities apply for operating permits, and mandatory statements to be signed by “foreign” staff which curtailed academic freedom. Before October 7th, the Islamic University had suffered incessant damage from Israeli bombing campaigns. Notably in 2008, Israel bombed the University, destroying dozens of science and engineering labs as well as a biology exhibition and again in 2014, bombing an administrative building. Despite the destruction and the harsh effects of the siege on the University, the institution has excelled on the international stage. In 2006 and 2014 the College of Engineering was awarded by the Islamic Development Bank of Science and Technology for its accomplishments in scientific research. In 2020, alumna Asma Mustafa won the Global Teacher Award for her utilization of creative teaching methods under occupation and siege. In 1998 the university’s faculty of arts launched the Oral History Center and to date have collected over 1500 interviews from survivors of the 1948 Nakbah, when 750,000 of historic Palestine’s population were displaced. This oral history project is vital to the maintenance of Palestine’s national identity.

Located a short walk south of the Islamic University is Al Azhar University. Established in 1991 by Yasser Arafat, AUF was established to facilitate Palestinian national unity. Asad, a former student of the economics department stated from his displacement camp in Rafah that the university system “is one of the most prominent levers of national, cultural and intellectual work in Gaza.” Like the Islamic University, Al Azhar has received numerous awards. In March of 2021, hematology and molecular genetics professor Mahmoud Sirdah was awarded the prestigious global faculty award. Around the corner from Al-Azhar University is Al-Aqsa University. Originally a teaching university, the college has grown exponentially since 2003, in 2004 it joined the Union of Arab Universities and the Palestinian Higher Education Council. Like the Islamic University, Al-Aqsa has been subjected to multiple attacks. In 2004, numerous buildings were razed to the ground. During “Operation Cast Lead” in the winter of 2008-2009, the university’s Tel al Hawa library was damaged and a community education facility was destroyed. Like all of Gaza’s universities, Al Aqsa has produced numerous talented students. Nidaa Badwan completed her degree in fine arts at Al Aqsa University and became internationally renowned for her work 100 Days of Solitude, for which she spent an extended period of time creating a beautiful space in her room where she could isolate herself and escape from the reality of Gaza. All of Gaza’s universities have produced numerous journalists, writers, scientists, doctors, artists, and more––under such strenuous conditions they have persevered, and allowed the wealth of talent in the Gaza Strip to flourish. Universities in Gaza are not only sites for learning, but also communal spaces for community development. Graduations are rambunctious affairs, rites of passage where students perform debke, a traditional Palestinian dance, and recite songs and poetry to usher in a young person’s transition to adulthood, which has a bittersweet taint to it, as Amir reminisces: “It is a big deal, it is one of the things people look forward to, it is a feeling of achievement, even though a lot of them are not going to find a job. But they celebrate it from their heart.” Since October 7th, these vital institutions and the cultural purposes they provide have been changed forever.

Over the last 150 days Israel has ramped up its 75-year-long project of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people to new levels of horror. The current bombing and land invasion campaign is tantamount, according to a case brought to the ICJ by South Africa, to genocide. Over 30,000 Palestinian men women and children have been murdered, the sharpest descent into famine in history has been recorded by UN experts, and a generation of orphans has been created, many with over one limb amputated. Hospitals have been invaded and destroyed, but not before neonatal babies have suffocated in their oxygen-deprived incubators. Starvation stalks the strip as does the sniper’s scope, the tank team’s turret, and the drone operator’s joystick. They are all primed to snatch multiple lives, with blood-curdling accuracy and total impunity. The apocalyptic reality Palestinians are facing under the wheels of this US and EU-backed war machine is the most pressing and immediate concern of all sane, conscionable individuals around the world, and form the basis of any charge of genocide. A cornerstone of this genocide is its attendant act of scholasticide – the wholesale destruction of Palestinian academic and educational centers and the human beings who comprise them.

The term “scholasticide” was coined by esteemed Palestinian scholar Karma Nabulsi in 2009 concerning the destruction of educational services across Palestine, and the specific destructive effects of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza:

“The role and power of education in an occupied society is enormous. Education posits possibilities, opens horizons. Freedom of thought contrasts sharply with the apartheid wall, the shackling checkpoints, the choking prisons. The systematic destruction of Palestinian education by Israel has countered that tradition since the occupation of 1967 […] Now in Gaza, we see the policy more clearly than ever––this ‘scholasticide.’”

Since October 7th Israel has bombed all of Gaza’s 11 universities, whilst around 370 schools have been damaged or bombed. In some instances, they have been detonated after the careful laying of mines, fulfilling no military objectives, but have stocked the TikTok accounts of Israeli soldiers with macabre war crime confessions. Over 90,000 Palestinian students are unable to carry on with their university college, along over 620,000 school students are denied access to education. Eight dedicated libraries and four university libraries have been damaged or destroyed, whilst priceless cultural centers and heritage sites like the St Prophyrious church and Omari Mosque have been destroyed. Over 4,237 students have been killed, and over 7,800 have been wounded. Alongside these tragedies are over 231 educators and academics killed by the Israeli military.

The list of these academics killed is a rundown of irreplaceable talent, unforgettable family members, friends, and pillars of the community. It includes Dr Khalil Abu Yahia, a lecturer at the Islamic University of Gaza. Dr Abu Yahia used his theoretical acuity and moral compass to build solidarity ties with Jewish people advocating against occupation, war, and dispossession, and distill the oppression his students were facing through the liberating promise of critical thinking and radical praxis––he was killed in an airstrike with his young family on October 30th, 2023. Dr Mohammad Dabour, the Chief of Pathology at the Islamic University of Gaza and Al Shifa Hospital produced research on the impact the Israeli siege had on cancer treatment in Gaza, which was both groundbreaking and indispensable for global public health. He was murdered on October 15th. The much-respected librarian Do’aa Al Masri of the Edward Said Library, Gaza’s first English Language Library, was killed in an airstrike along with the rest of her family on December 7th, 2023. Her last message to her colleague was “you are strong, don’t give up.” On December 4th, 2023, Israel killed the President of the Islamic University, Professor Sofian Tayah, along with his entire family. Professor Tayah was a prominent researcher in physics and applied mathematics, the UNESCO chair in physics and space science in Palestine, and a recipient of the Abdelhamid Shoman Award for research in the Arab world. The list goes on––the world-renowned poet Refaat al-Areer, whose words have become synonymous with the struggle against the genocide, reproduced in languages across the world, was murdered on December 7th in an apparent targeted assassination. This is the basis of any society, the plasma of its blood, carrying oxygen and energy to its vital organs, to keep it going, to keep it striving, to keep it alive.

Where do we go from here?

I am of the opinion that there is a secret society that runs the world, but it is not comprised of the people you may think, nor does it function in the way many think it does. When we operate at our best, academics and teachers are a familial order whose work pushes humanity forward, often kicking and screaming. Our shared experiences create links between us that transverse borders and boundaries––no matter how belligerent and militarized. Our thirst for seeking knowledge and passion for disseminating it means we see ourselves in each other, in ways that seek to transcend the material realities of our work. Our brothers and sisters in the sacred task of educating their people in Palestine are being slaughtered, their lives’ work is being erased. This is an assault on all of us, this is an assault on everything that CUNY, a public institution built on the precepts of liberation through learning, stands for. The CUNY Graduate Center has, for too long, kept a “business as usual” relationship with a state which would, without hesitation, kill its staff members and obliterate its building if it were Palestinian. The GC administration must now come to terms with the rapidly crystalizing fact that GC students and staff will now approach the GC as if it were an institution in Palestine because we see education as an internationalist practice that encompasses radical empathetic solidarity. This means the question of Palestine, the ongoing genocide it is experiencing, and our complicity in it will become a constant theme of any public event that involves the direction of this institution. We pledge to fight for Palestine and terminate any relationship the GC has with Israel, until the genocide ends, and international law is respected.

This position is based on a deep, internationalist, and revolutionary love for our fallen comrades and those still fighting. If there is anything worth saving in US academia, it is this spirit of solidarity.

We hope, dear reader, that you will join us in our struggle.

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