Jordanian Students in “Israel”: Academia as a Gateway to Normalisation

July 14, 2016

By Tala Al Issa
Translated by Hani Barghouthi

Jordan’s relations with “Israel” have not stopped inciting controversy since the Wadi Araba peace treaty was signed 22 years ago. In recent months, this controversy flared anew with parliament’s rejection of the proposal to exclude Israeli investments from the new Investment Fund Law, the Israeli’s Embassy’s celebration of 68 years of the Palestinian Catastrophe “Nakba”, and the Center for Israeli Studies sending a delegation of six Jordanian students specialized in Israeli affairs and Hebrew to Israel as part of a cultural visit, announced by the center itself and a subsidiary page of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Academia may not be considered the most influential field in normalising relations with “Israel”, but many believe that the targeting of students and youth has many ramifications on the intellectual level, and serves political agendas.

No escaping politics

When signing the Wadi Araba Accords in 1994, Jordan admitted to a “desire for cultural and scientific exchange in all fields [with Israel] and (..) the establishment of normal cultural relations between the two,” as stated in Article 10 of the Accords.

Since then, joint academic and cultural programs and centers have appeared, first in a strictly scientific framework which “Israel” joins as a participant, and may aim to enrich relationships between participants through conversation. Such is the case for the SESAME center, EcoPeace Middle East, and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.

The second kind of such programs and centers focuses on cultural exchange and “manufacturing peace” wherein their content and activities revolve around the concepts of “peace, fraternity, and dialogue between Arabs and Israelis under a humanitarian umbrella.” Such is the case for the Amman Center for Peace and Development and the Seeds of Peace program, the latter of which seeks to “inspire and encourage new generations in communities divided by conflict.”

Somewhere amidst the two kinds of joint programs lies the Center of Israeli Studies; it provides political and cultural content with an academic framework, and according to its director Abdullah Sawalha aims for a deeper understanding of “Israel” from a scientific approach that will contribute in creating political recommendations, through translation, categorisation, and analysis of reports published by Israeli media.

Most scientific and peacebuilding programs claim to challenge differences and stereotypes by way of presenting a singular human experience away from politics and racism. Ali Nasrallah, member of “Jordan Boycotts”, which calls for the boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Zionist entity, disagrees, saying that “Israeli academia is unequivocally a part of the occupation and a system that has always exhibited colonial greed for Jordanian land, and has already occupied parts of it and stole its resources…[this is why] it is difficult to differentiate between it and the Zionist entity.”

This involvement, or complicity, is by way of using scientific research and technological advancement to develop combat equipment used by the army. For example, a study released by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) revealed that Tel Aviv University cooperated with the Israeli army on more than 55 technological projects in 2009.

The complicity is also evidenced by the financial and moral support granted to students who have been enlisted in the army through scholarships, such as those given by Tel Aviv University after the 2014 war on Gaza, along with universities systematically suppressing political activity of Palestinian students in Israeli universities.

Sawalha, whose center collaborates with the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Moshe Dayan Center (supported by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs), is aware that educational institutions in “Israel” are politically oriented in ways that serve the state. Conversely, he does not believe that collaborating with these universities or centers implies support for their agendas. Sawalha refused to disclose information about financial sponsors of his center, only that they are private.

In this regard, Samia Al-Botmeh, member of the steering committee of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), believes that separating the human aspect from science and economic and industrial advancement has serious ramifications, similar to those experienced in the time of Nazism and Fascism. As for exceptions to an academic boycott, they can be made, according to Al-Botmeh, if the participating Israeli acknowledges and believes in full rights for Palestinians both within and outside “Israel”, and if the topic of the activity is resisting the occupation.

Sawalha looks to the Wadi Araba Peace Accords for justification of his center’s activity. It works within the framework of the state, he says, and so any objections should be directed at the state not academic institutions. “I belong to this country and this regime, so it is difficult to work outside of this context.”

Nasrallah agrees that the Peace Accords created an official façade for normalisation, but they are not compulsory and do not force citizens to normalise relations; this gives the population a right to oppose and resist them.

Academic cooperation as a gateway to “understanding the other”

What is considered normalization, Sawalha sees as “defining new rules of engagement with Israel.” “We engage with these [Israeli] centers to understand their point of view towards us. How they think. How they look at us. What they want. Why does a Palestinian state not exist, why do rights for Palestinians not exist?”

Ayman Hunaiti, the head of the Hebrew Department at Jordan’s national news agency, Petra, agrees with Sawalha that knowing and understanding “Israel” is an important weapon, but he thinks this should be done by observing “from afar” and learning Hebrew, and not through direct cooperation.

Sawalha does not believe it is possible to create an understanding without directly dealing with Israelis, and says that open resources that do not require direct cooperation are insufficient and unhelpful. “Knowledge is not related to normalisation and treason.”

Sawalha also believes that accusing “Israel” of imperialism and lack of democracy are just “clichés” that will not gain credence from Western societies. To this end, Sawalha aims to enrich dialogue with “Israel” as a means to “pressure [Israel] with the help of international forums or diplomacy or any other means to achieve the highest possible degree of Palestinian rights.” Al-Botmeh rejects this rhetoric completely, maintaining that conflicts end by way of resistance, and not by convincing the oppressor that he is in the wrong.

Raya Yousef is a Jordanian who participated in the Seeds of Peace program. “The one side of Israel I used to know was soldiers, weapons, tanks, explosions, and sniping,” she says in a video posted on the program’s Facebook page. “I needed to see that they aren’t just weapons, they are humans like us.” This discourse is rampant in many similar programs. Al-Botmeh considers this interpretation of peace shallow and unrealistic.

Omar*, a Palestinian beneficiary of a higher education scholarship jointly arranged by Tel Aviv University, the Royal Scientific Society in Jordan, and Jerusalem University – thinks this brand of peace dilutes the Palestinian cause and oversimplifies it to a simple misunderstanding between two sides of a conflict.

Along with getting his Master’s degree, Omar wanted to receive an education “without making concessions and compromises” and without dealing “with the enemy face to face.” He ended up realising that participating in the program carries with it “an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Israeli academic institutions and uses the beneficiaries as publicity tools in Israeli and international media.” This made him feel he was still living under occupation despite being outside of Palestine.

Nasrallah advocates for the boycott of programs that equate the occupier with the occupied, encourage normalised Palestinian and Arab relations with Israel, and claim that peace is achieved by understanding and dialogue, without seeking to achieve justice.

He says that justice is only realized by acknowledging the historical right Palestinian people have over the entirety of Palestinian land, their right of self-determination, of return, and of fair compensation for all refugees, as well as the demolition of the apartheid separation wall, and ending the occupation of all Arab lands. Any program that isn’t committed to these conditions is advocating for “single-sided peace which is biased towards to Israel, which uses its strength to impose its own reality on Palestine,” he says.

Al-Botmeh refers to this kind of occupation as “intellectual colonization”, complementary to spatial and personal colonization. She also agrees that these programs serve Israel’s interest in washing over its crimes before the international community by portraying itself as a peace-seeking party, open to dialogue with Arabs who acknowledge the legitimacy of its institutions.

As for Sawalha, he admits to Israel’s political interests in academic collaboration with Arabs, the first of which is solidifying to the world that it is indeed a part of the region. He does not, however, think scientific partnerships serve these interests. “We are the weaker side and the weaker side must employ diplomacy and politics and all possible tools to achieve its national dream.”

But what Sawalha sees as a necessity, Al-Botmeh thinks can be easily forgone. “We absolutely can forgo Israel [academically]. The world is largely open to us…Israel is one of the most unjust, racist, and fascist states, and it therefore not in our interest to work with them. It is in our interest to refuse work with them.”

As for Omar, part of the blame falls on Arab institutions who collaborate with “Israel” and attract students who have no other options; “Israel comes to us through our educational institutions with support from the international community to provide us with opportunities on a golden plate. They cater the opportunities to our specific needs. But, as with everything in the life of an Arab citizen as a third-world citizen who is forced to live off foreign funding and grants, it comes with a catch.”

*Omar is an alias
Photo credit: Facebook page of the Center of Israeli Studies.