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Toward an Intellectual History of Genocide in Gaza

Destruction begins with ideas

1. The Colonial University

The professor’s place is the classroom, we are told; and to this there is only one exception—when the professor is advocating more loot for the exploiters who pay him his salary.

—Upton Sinclair, The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education (1923)

Genocide begins with the idea of genocide. So narrating genocide demands some attention to the history of ideas. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at Haifa’s Technion, at Tel Aviv University, life goes on, flourishes. Not because Israeli society hasn’t been affected by current events, but because it is a society predicated on the elimination of the native. Its institutions are embedded in the practices of genocide. “Our society is militaristic, for us militarism is great, it’s part of who we are,” one Hebrew University professor admitted plainly last month. Another professor at the Hebrew University, the great Palestinian feminist intellectual Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, was recently suspended by the university indefinitely. Meanwhile, fifty miles southwest of Jerusalem in the Gaza Strip, every university was made in response to, and in defiance of, its colonial situation. Every university in Gaza has now been destroyed. Alongside them, archives, libraries, cultural centers and auditoriums, publishing houses and bookstores, museums, churches, mosques, and countless artworks. The material loss—a city and its environs turned into dust—is paled only by the loss of human life. Flesh mixed with concrete. Air poisoned by armaments. “Books used to ignite our thoughts,” Asma Mustafa, an award-winning teacher in Gaza, wrote last December, “now they feed our children.” That is genocide.

The universities we inhabit were bequeathed to us by men like Philip Hartog, a British chemist and imperial functionary born in 1864. These institutions were made not in defiance of colonialism but in its service. On November 23, 1933, Hartog arrived in Jerusalem. Over the course of two months, he and other members of the survey committee of which he was chair produced a report on the academic programs, social life, built environment, and administrative structure of the fledgling Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led then by the charismatic American Zionist Judah Magnes. Hartog’s report is infamous in the annals of the Hebrew University for its sharp criticisms of Magnes’s management style and the subsequent curtailment of Magnes’s administrative powers when the committee’s findings were accepted by the university’s Board of Governors. But in many of its moves, it is a fairly standard work of Zionist propaganda, extolling in the usual way the importance of agriculture and the incredible fashion in which the agronomists and pioneers had made the desert bloom.

Postcard of Hebrew University, ca. 1935. | The Photograph Collection, National Library of Israel

The “Arabs,” as it were, figure most prominently in chapter six, section b, focused on the University’s School of Oriental Studies. “Jewish Palestine,” the report reads, “is surrounded on all sides by the Moslem world, a thorough knowledge of which is of the greatest importance for the economic and political development of the country.” Modern Arabic, and the contemporary geography and politics of the Arabs—including, fundamentally, the Palestinians—was seen as more essential to the activities of the Yishuv than the philological study of classical Arabic. “In short,” the committee concluded, “the School of Oriental studies should be modeled on similar schools in Paris, Berlin and London, in which the student is made to know the living and not only the dead Orient.”

The Hartog Committee suggested that Hebrew University adopt the state of the art in colonial knowledge. In a statement included in Magnes’s long response to the Hartog Committee, the Orientalist L.A. Mayer defended his school’s approach to colonialism, contesting the committee’s characterization of “modern” Arabic and its importance to “our neighbors.” Mayer wrote: “No student who masters, for example, the Palestinian dialect, but is not well versed in the Arabic classics will be considered by our neighbours as a man who knows the language.” Mayer also mentioned the initiatives of Josef Horovitz, who founded the School of Oriental Studies in 1926 while visiting from Frankfurt (and died in 1931, before Hartog’s committee was struck). Horovitz, Mayer wrote, “suggested the appointment of a Moslem lecturer for spoken and written Arabic . . . It was exceedingly difficult to find any Moslem scholar of repute and integrity of character willing and capable of filling such a post.”

Obscured in Mayer’s account is the imperial politics animating Horovitz’s own efforts. Having spent almost a decade teaching at the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (later known as Aligarh Muslim University), Horovitz was intimately familiar with colonial forms of rule (and even published a book-length critique of British rule in India). His enlistment into another colonial project in Asia a decade later left him scrambling, as Mayer alludes, for native informants. “Prof. Horowitz,” the English Pan-Islamist Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall wrote to Maulana Shaukat Ali in 1929, “once of Aligarh, and now of Frankfurt, who is, as you know, a Jew, has just written to ask me whether the Khilafat Committee of India is in a position to help in the pacification of Palestine.”

Hartog, too, did not arrive in colonial Jerusalem a stranger to colonial education. He was one of the founders of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, that institution which Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India at the fin de siècle, referred to as “part of the necessary furniture of Empire.” Hartog was one of the school’s most ardent proponents, which he saw as essential to Britain’s imperial mission, military and commercial. For all his efforts, Lords “Cromer and Curzon were his staunchest admirers,” his obituary read. Hartog’s Indian career began in 1917, when he served on the Sadler Commission, a survey of the problems faced by the University of Calcutta and higher education in India as a whole. With this experience behind him, Hartog was appointed the first vice chancellor of the newly established University of Dacca. He saw colonial education, at home and abroad, as both an epistemological and a social project. Through the science of examination, the very best, regardless of birth, could all serve the noble cause of the British Empire.

As a new colonial outpost in an anti-colonial era, the Hebrew University clung awkwardly to the past as the world it inhabited was hurtling toward the future.

But Hartog’s late Victorian modernization theory put him in direct confrontation with the realities of the new world being made by the British Empire’s unruly subjects in Afro-Asia. When the well-known Indian intellectual Mohandas Gandhi addressed London’s Chatham House in 1931, Hartog was there. Most of Gandhi’s speech was devoted to the inequality the British had enshrined in India, and he articulated his own principles of non-cooperation. He moved through the categories of rule, including government, medicine, and irrigation. “I say without fear of my figures being challenged successfully,” Gandhi asserted when he arrived at the subject of education, “that today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago.”

Whatever we may think of Gandhi’s historical reconstruction, Hartog’s response—which extended for years—was clearly motivated by Gandhi’s public undermining of the virtues of British education in its colony. He harangued Gandhi with letters demanding he prove that precolonial Indians were as literate as he claimed or publicly retract his comments, if not. Characteristically, Gandhi would always respond in earnest, sometimes from the prisons Hartog’s government had locked him within. At the University of London’s Institute of Education in March 1935, Hartog devoted three long lectures—later published as a book—elaborating his response to Gandhi. Citing British statistical descriptions, British quinquennial reviews, British yearbooks, reports, and commissions, Hartog sought to demonstrate how British imperial schooling improved the minds of Indians. But his desperate rehearsal of the facts was futile. As Gandhi told him directly shortly after his Chatham House address, the pertinent question was always whose literacy, when, where, and to what end:

There is one thing that the English sincerely believe, but which I cannot understand. They think us incapable of managing our own affairs even with the help of experts. . . . I knew the Prime Minister of another Indian State (Junagadh), who could hardly sign his own name but who was a very remarkable man and managed the State wonderfully. He knew just who were the right people to advise him and took their advice. . . . We have had experience in governing in the past and we could do equally well.

Just as Hartog’s professional itinerary—London, Dacca, Jerusalem—reveal colonialism’s circulations of ideas and institutions, Gandhi’s own speaks to anti-colonialism’s voyage. On that same 1931 trip to London when he visited Chatham House, Gandhi gave a candid interview to the Jewish Chronicle. “Zionism meaning reoccupation of Palestine has no attraction for me,” he said, “I can understand the longing of a Jew to return to Palestine, and he can do so if he can without the help of bayonets, whether his own or those of Britain.”

Gandhi had experienced both colonial violence and anti-colonial internationalism firsthand. En route to London, he passed through the Suez Canal. Despite his brief, uneventful stop at Port Said in the early morning of September 7, the Arab press exploded with enthusiasm for a great anti-British agitator gracing their shores. Warned not to agitate on his return journey, Gandhi didn’t disembark in British occupied Egypt, but he was visited—as the historian Noor-Aiman Khan narrates—by “carloads” of Egyptian anti-colonial nationalists.

As a new colonial outpost in an anti-colonial era, the Hebrew University clung awkwardly to the past as the world it inhabited was hurtling toward the future. “At the dawn of decolonization, Palestine was colonized,” Eqbal Ahmad said in Gaza in 1994. “I recall my utter confusion at this irony of history.”

2. The University in Palestine

According to the Israeli occupation, everything in Gaza—our history books, our atlases, even the very word “Palestine”—is anti-Semitic.

 —Muin Bseiso, Gaza Diaries (1971)

While the Hebrew University was encouraged and supported by the British in the period of the Mandate, all efforts to develop an Arab university in Palestine were blocked by the British administration and Zionist settlers. Indeed, this was paradigmatic of British policy before 1948, when Jewish settlers were given carte blanche to build or destroy as they wished, while Palestinians faced the full force of colonial law and were regularly exposed to practices of detention, torture, exile, and premature death. When Arthur James Balfour, of the declaration fame, visited Jerusalem in 1925 to inaugurate the Hebrew University, he was met with a general strike organized by the colonized population. The old city of Jerusalem was made a ghost town, and Palestinian newspapers published English editions, with black borders on their covers, condemning Balfour and British colonialism. At Mount Scopus, Chaim Weizmann introduced him to applause. To the settlers assembled, Balfour announced that a new epoch had begun.

Copy of the front page of an Arab newspaper on Lord Balfour’s arrival, 1925. | Library of Congress

Most recent work on the history of Oriental studies at the Hebrew University inevitably cites the article of one Menahem Milson, “The beginnings of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,” published in 1996 on the occasion of the university’s seventieth anniversary. Milson was himself a graduate of the program, where he earned his BA before doing a PhD in Arabic at Harvard. A specialist in medieval and modern Arabic intellectual history, his dissertation was on the twelfth century Sufi Abu al-Najib Suhrawardi. In 1970, he wrote one of the earliest studies of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Professor Milson also epitomized what Edward Said once called “scholar combatants.”

In the 1970s he was a key figure in the administration of Arab Affairs in the West Bank, and between November 1981 and September 1982, he was the head of the Civilian Administration of Judea and Samaria—the proconsul of the West Bank. His aims, ordered by his boss, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, were clear: the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the debilitation of the Palestinian anti-colonial movement from Beirut to Gaza and beyond. On this score, Milson played a key role in the elaboration of the Village League system in the West Bank, wherein willing collaborators without popular support worked to facilitate Israel’s growing permit regime and undermine the efforts of Palestinian political parties and groups—an approach being floated today, as Israel reoccupies Gaza on the ground. Milson, in the classic colonial mode, was busy claiming that the Israelis “brought the blessing of freedom of expression to the West Bank” in Commentary magazine while banning books, sacking mayors, arresting students, and closing universities.

The sustained colonial knowledge project that accompanied the Israeli campaign of bombing, murder, and detention had profound political implications. Writing in 1983, the Palestinian political scientist Naseer Aruri perceptively described the implications of Israel’s educational policies in the West Bank. “Since 1980,” he wrote “no Arabic books or periodicals have been allowed to enter the area, and the universities have been forced to rely upon Western literature. The occupation regime hopes to effect a cultural reorientation which might ultimately lead to the creation of benign intelligentsia detached from Arab nationalism. The history of French and Portuguese colonialism in Africa may offer valuable lessons to the occupant and the occupied in that regard.”

Despite a highly active intellectual scene, before and after 1948, there was no Palestinian university proper until Bethlehem University was incorporated in 1973. Birzeit University, which had been developing its educational infrastructure for decades, was incorporated in 1975. Local universities with four-year degree programs became a necessity in the 1970s as increasing restrictions were placed on Palestinian movement under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after 1967. There are many sources, then, for the relative weakness of higher education in Palestine compared to the robust, internationally recognized strength of Israeli universities, but the principal reason is quite easily deduced. One set of universities serves a colonized, brutalized people, and the other, the colonizer, as Maya Wind has documented at length in her indispensable book Towers of Ivory and Steel: How Israeli Universities Deny Palestinian Freedom (2024). Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian succinctly illustrated this relationship in her contribution to Yara Sa’di-Ibraheem and Khaled Furani’s recent collection of essays and interviews, Inside the Leviathan: Palestinian Experiences in Israeli Universities (2022). In the 1990s, when Shalhoub-Kevorkian taught at both Bethlehem University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of her students at Bethlehem was killed: “I lost the psychological energy sufficient to come and teach Israeli students in the Department of Criminology at the Hebrew University and then see them killing my students in Bethlehem.”

One set of universities serves a colonized, brutalized people, and the other, the colonizer.

In Gaza, the Islamic University was founded in 1978, after the Camp David Accords were signed, severing Palestinians in the Strip from the Egyptian universities they regularly attended. One document attesting to the university’s challenges is the 2004 Arabic novel ​​al-Shawk wa al-Qurunful, or Thorns and Carnations, by Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of Hamas in Gaza. Essentially a memoir disguised as a bildungsroman, al-Shawk’s narrator, one “Ahmed” follows much the same path as Sinwar himself. Universities in general, and the Islamic University of Gaza in particular, play a fundamental part in the story’s plot as sites of intense contestation in a pivotal moment in the Palestinian struggle.

Ahmed describes his brother Mahmud’s challenges moving from the Shati refugee camp to the comparatively libertine environment of Ramallah and Birzeit. When Mahmud first arrives, none of his roommates are pious Muslims. One declares “openly and without hesitation” that he is a Marxist; another is less devoted to studying than he was to chasing women, “writing three or four love letters at a time, to three or four different women.” When it comes time for Ahmad to go to university, he chooses to study at the nascent Islamic University of Gaza instead, where his cousin Ibrahim is a prominent student activist in the Islamic bloc.

Israeli policies restricted the growth of the Islamic University. The students in the novel set up tents and huts with palm frond roofs for instruction. Ahmad recalls, “the university was given the sobriquet University of Tents (jam’at al-khiyam), which was a source of pride for us.” One day, trucks arrived on the grounds of the university filled with construction material, and Ibrahim “turned from a student activist into a contractor.” Hundreds of students came out to build the university themselves, directed by Ibrahim.

“From reading Thorns and Carnations,” Tarif Khalidi and Mayssoun Sukarieh conclude in a recent article, “one gets the distinct sense that the events of last October 7 were indeed long in gestation.” On his first trip to Jerusalem, the novel’s narrator wonders, “Is there a Saladin for this moment?” Outside the diegetic space of the novel, in Gaza in 1982, Sinwar was arrested for the first time while he was studying at the Islamic University for his role in student politics and the construction of the university. He served six months in the Al-Faraa prison in the West Bank before returning to Gaza to finish his degree in Arabic. In 1989, he was sentenced to four life sentences for plotting to kill two Israeli soldiers and killing four Palestinian collaborators. The twenty-two years Sinwar served in Israeli prison were his Hebrew university, as he learned to master his captors’ language.

3. The Palestinian in the University

As we don’t know the difference between a mosque and a university, because they are both from the same root in Arabic, why do we need the state, since states pass just as surely as time.

—Mahmoud Darwish, “From now on you are somebody else” (2008)

More than half of the world’s Palestinians reside outside the historical boundaries of Palestine. So most Palestinians—due to the state of higher education in colonized Palestine, the restrictions and discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel in Israeli universities, and the bare facts of their expulsion and dispersion—study abroad. “The loss of Palestine in 1948 rendered the educational option very attractive and imperative,” the Palestinian anthropologist Khalil Nakhleh wrote it in his 1980 essay “Palestinian Intellectuals and Revolutionary Transformation.” “Education for the politically deprived Palestinian became an indispensable mobile asset,” he continued. Attuned to these conditions, an initiative led by Ibrahim Abu-Lughod to establish a Palestine Open University in Beirut was launched in 1979, an attempt that was halted by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when the PLO’s highly productive Research Center was also looted by the invading army.

Without a university of their own, Palestinians fought for space in the knowledge factories of others. The General Union of Palestinian Students—which Yasser Arafat presided over from Cairo in the 1950s—has long been a wellspring of Palestinian political activity. The Arab Nationalist Movement, led by George Habash (later the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), was initiated as a student group at the American University of Beirut where Habash was a medical student. Even before the Nakba, universities were sites of Palestinian social and political life. During his graduation ceremony at the American University of Cairo in 1931, the prominent Palestinian fighter Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini—who was killed defending Jerusalem in 1948—tore up his diploma and proclaimed, in the name of Palestine: “I am not in need of this degree from your colonial and missionary institution.”

Salim al-Nafar was what we call today a “nontraditional student.” Before he enrolled in Tishreen University in Syria’s coastal city of Latakia, Nafar had poured his efforts in the anti-colonial activities of the PLO. He recounts in his memoir traveling from Latakia to Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, where he went straight to the offices of the PFLP, who didn’t immediately accept his request for membership. So he simply went down the street the offices of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine to ask if they’d accept him. “It didn’t matter which faction we joined or whether their ideology matched ours,” he wrote, “we simply wanted the honor of serving the Palestinian revolution.”

The First Intifada in the Gaza Strip, 1987. | Dan Hadani Collection, The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

Last December 7, Nafar was assassinated in Gaza alongside his family; they became several among the tens of thousands of martyrs Israel has made in the course of its campaign of genocide. Nafar’s memoir then is all the more precious, not only because of that outsized social role Palestinian life must necessarily take in the face of catastrophe, but also because it is one of the final books he published. Turning to it a few months ago, I was eager to inhale Nafar’s Gaza, but as I read the book, I realized that Gaza plays only a bit part. Born in Gaza to a family from Jaffa, Nafar moved to Syria when his father was expelled from the Strip for helping Egyptian soldiers escape by sea in 1967. Nafar’s memoir then accounts for this life outside the strip, a life in exile. In Yarmouk, where Palestinians navigated their place in Hafiz al-Asad’s Damascus. Or in Latakia, where Nafar sharpened his poetry alongside a sea shared between Gaza, Jaffa, and Beirut. Nafar captures powerfully the travails of exile and the labors of a poet and his coterie of fellow poets.

When Nafar finally enrolled in university to fulfill the wishes of his mother, his attachments to Palestinian organizing only increased. “I learned a lot about the arts of labor in the context of politics and culture through the General Union of Palestinian Students,” Nafar writes of his time at Tishreen. He organized the “Abu Salma Festival for Young Poets,” named after the doyen of Palestinian poetry Abd al-Karim al-Karmi, aka Abu Salma, who died in 1980. In events like that, Nafar and his peers developed their poetry and their attachments to each other in a time—the late 1980s—when Palestinians were increasingly at war, not just with Israel, but each other. 

By the time he was murdered in Gaza, he was one of the Strip’s most senior and prominent writers. As a poet and editor, he worked in the realm of the imagination to put the Gaza he knew on paper. In his memoir, he asked, from the confines of the strip: “Is freedom of speech separated from freedom of movement in space?” Perhaps a standard inquiry in the records of the imprisoned, but Nafar had generations of Gazan writers to convene with. He describes the scene at the Karawan cafe, “where the late Muin Bseiso used to sit with his peers in the fifties to think about politics and cultural affairs.” Nafar recounts sitting there decades later with Atef Abu Saif, Ghareeb Asqalani, and Zaid Abu Al-Ela, “trying to breathe new life into the scene.”

Without a university of their own, Palestinians fought for space in the knowledge factories of others.

Asqalani (who died in 2022) and Abu Al-Ela (who died in 2015) were both members of Nafar’s father’s generation. Born in the 1940s, they were veterans of the PLO’s high internationalism and survivors of the nakba who helped shape the Palestinian collectivity. Atef Abu Saif, a prominent Palestinian writer in English and Arabic, is a decade younger than Nafar, and currently the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Culture. He has just published a volume, Don’t Look Left: A Diary of Genocide (2024) describing his experiences since October, when he happened to be back in Gaza from Ramallah, where he now lives.

In the diary, Abu Saif helps dig Palestinian corpses out of the rubble of their homes, their bodies turned to minced meat, in between visits to check in on friends and colleagues. By November 30, his friend the novelist Hani al-Salmi has burned two hundred books from his library for warmth. He recounts that the home of his friend, the poet Othman Hussien, was destroyed by the Israelis, just as they had destroyed his previous home in 2014. Mourning Nafar, Abu Seif asks friends to resend him videos he’d sent to them of Nafar reciting poetry the last time they met. As any account of genocide must be, Abu Seif’s diary is consumed with death. In the final published entry, from December 30, nearly halfway between now and October 7, Abu Seif seeks to register his losses: “There will be no Salim al-Nafar to talk poetry to. There will be no old city. No Saftawi. No Jabalia as I know it. Gaza, the one I knew will not be there anymore. If there is to be anything, it will need to be rebuilt from scratch. It will need to be reborn from the flames—like the city’s emblem, the phoenix—it will need to rise up against all odds, against all possibilities.”

Perhaps the next university in Gaza will be built from that cream-colored Jerusalem limestone that covers the Hebrew University campus. For the future of Gaza, of Palestine as a whole, will remain impossible without the dismantling of those genocidal foundations—physical and ideological—upon which Israel now sits. In the face of genocide, we must imagine, in the stead of those Palestinians who have struggled for years, the opposite of genocide.