On January 17, Palestinian scholars and global educators alike witnessed the destruction of the last standing university in Gaza as Al-Israa University was blown up by Israeli forces. Over the last couple of months, Israeli soldiers occupied the university campus and turned it into a military base camp. Alongside the buildings affected by the blast, over 3000 rare artifacts were destroyed in a national museum established by the university. The incident, captured on drone footage, joins the ongoing list of public buildings destroyed over the last three months of conflict in Gaza.
Birzeit University, located in the West Bank, has publicly replied to the bombing, saying the institution “reaffirms the fact that this crime is part of the Israeli occupation’s onslaught against the Palestinians. It’s all a part of the Israeli occupation’s goal to make Gaza uninhabitable; a continuation of the genocide being carried out in Gaza Strip.”
The toll of educational institutes in Gaza either destroyed or severely damaged by Israeli attacks has reached over 350 schools and numerous public libraries. This latest attack on the educational and cultural institutes of Gaza has reinvigorated discussions surrounding the term “scholasticide.”
The concept of scholasticide first appeared in 2009, in response to attacks by the Israeli military against the Ministry of Education and multiple schools in Gaza. The Guardian has defined scholasticide as “the systematic destruction by Israeli forces of centres of education dear to Palestinian society.” For decades, schools in Gaza have been targeted by Israeli attacks, in addition to cultural institutions elsewhere such as the 1982 looting of the Palestinian Research Centre in Beirut and the accompanying destruction of historical archives. Furthermore, centres of education replacing previously destroyed institutions have also been targeted, such as attacks in 2009 on the UN-established school in the Jabaliya refugee camp.
In light of Israel’s recent assault on Gaza, the idea of scholasticide has been supported by academics by three of Israel’s actions: the devastation of educational infrastructure, the continuous military assault on universities and schools, and the persecution of Palestinian scholars and dissenting scholars at Israeli universities. The first and second actions have spoken for themselves over the course of the war since October, with the sheer amount of destruction across Gaza and the future of education remaining bleak for Palestinian children. Furthermore, many prominent Palestinian scholars were recently killed by Israeli strikes or offensives. The scientist, researcher and president of the Islamic University of Gaza, Sufyan Tayeh, specializing in theoretical physics and applied mathematics, was murdered along with his family in December. Similarly, the renowned professor, writer, and poet Refaat Alareer was killed in air strikes in Gaza in the same month. Alareer was well known for writing about his Gazan experience, leaving behind the emotional poem “If I Die,” shortly before the airstrike that killed him and six members of his family. Their deaths, alongside the combined efforts to reduce educational infrastructure in Gaza to rubble, have outraged academics across the world and prompted the petition Scholars Against the War on Palestine (SAWP). Scholars from institutes across Israel, such as Anat Matar, an Israeli philosopher and activist, have joined the petition, along with a wide range of signatories from Stanford to the University of Amsterdam.
One such signatory of both the SAWP petition and the open letter “Support SSMU and the Palestine Solidarity Policy” published by the Daily in April 2022 is Michelle Hartman. A professor of Arabic literature at the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies, Professor Hartman, has been deeply involved in the Palestinian cause for over a decade.
“If the concept of scholasticide works to stop what is happening in Palestine, then I am all for it. We at universities around the world must respond to the systematic destruction of Palestinian education as loudly and forcefully as possible,” she stated in an email to the Daily. “This is a comprehensive project to completely decimate physical infrastructure — bombarding schools and universities in Gaza — while deliberately targeting Palestinian professors and students for harassment, detention, and murder.”
The final element supporting the idea of scholasticide is the importance of academia in Palestinian culture and society. In 2009, The Guardian wrote that “Palestinians are among the most thoroughly educated people in the world…[and have] put a singular emphasis on learning.” In the same article, Dr. Karma Nabulsi, a Professor of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University, stated that for many Palestinians, “education is the most important thing – it is part of the family life, part of your identity, and part of the rebellion.” The resilience of Palestinian culture and education is showcased by the country’s extremely high literacy rates. With a literacy rate of 97.7 per cent, Palestine ranks above countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Turkey. This achievement is a testament to the Palestinian commitment to education regardless of ongoing conflict and humanitarian crises. Prof. Hartman continues along this vein.
“As scholars and as students, we must remind the world that the lives, thoughts, and work of our Palestinian peers are as worthy as our own. This is not because academia is more important than other spheres or academics are more important than other people. But education is a central value in Palestinian society and the attack on education is meant to destroy not only buildings but the aspirations, hope, and spirit of a people,” she wrote. “In an iconic poem, Mahmoud Darwish asks the colonizer, “Why not memorize a little poetry to stop the slaughter?” We must listen to him, and other Palestinians, and defend their right to exist and thrive—the future poets, alongside everyone else.”