A History of Excellence despite Adversity
After nearly a century, what began as a small girls’ school in Birzeit town has become the most prestigious Palestinian university, transforming Palestinian higher education through its impact on community awareness, culture and resistance. Birzeit University has been a thorn in the side of the occupation, insisting on playing its role of enlightenment and creating a multicultural Palestinian society on the campus grounds. There, students and staff are able to dialogue and communicate, rejecting the occupation’s attempts to chaperone thought and culture.
Foundation and Beginnings
The small girls’ school developed into a college under the Nasir family, particularly the late Musa Nasir, who managed and administered the school. Through the Nakba of 1948 and its deep impact on the history of the Palestinian people and Birzeit University, the school continued its educational mission, confronting the Israeli occupation. Not long after, college head Musa Nasir asked Gabi Baramki, a graduate who had just returned to Palestine after earning a master's degree in chemistry from the American University of Beirut, to help transitioning the school from a primary education institution to an intermediate college.
Diverse Talent Shapes the Institution
The prevailing atmosphere among the college’s faculty members was liberalism and nationalism. Many of the teachers were motivated nationalists and this influenced the students. The teachers planted in their students’ minds the values of caring for the public good over ones’ own personal interests and needs, and of striving to serve country and society.
The college offered a rich cultural life including extra-curricular activities, music, and song. One music professor, Salvador Arnitah, led a music group at the YMCA in Jerusalem from 1935 until 1948, and studied piano and trained the Birzeit choir between 1939 and 1946. In fact, the group performed in the graduation ceremonies.
Music composer Joseph Petroni also worked at the Palestinian radio station, joining the staff of Birzeit College in 1954 and remaining there until his death in 1957. He left behind him a large number of songs and national anthems, laying the ground for a national music culture. At a later stage, this band was supervised by the well-known musicians, Ameen Nasir and Rima Tarazi.
In 1953, the college offered its first preparatory class and Musa Nasir’s daughter, Samia, joined the staff. She had just returned with a degree in business administration from Southwestern University in Texas. Samia assumed responsibility for teaching students accounting and business administration, worked in the registrar’s office, and supervised sports activities for girls. Mousa’s second daughter, Rima, graduated from the American University of Beirut in 1954 and joined the Birzeit faculty, teaching music, educational psychology and languages, and supervising cultural activities. Two years later, Musa’s son, Hanna, also an American University of Beirut graduate, joined the faculty as a teacher of physics, and helped in the management and development of the intermediate college program.
In 1961, the two-year university program was initiated and the administration decided that all faculty must hold a minimum of a bachelor's degree, and that half of the faculty should be holders of a master's degree. Eventually those teachers who did not have a university degree received intensive training courses so that they could take over administrative functions in the intermediate college.
The process of transforming the school into an intermediate college required expanding the existing facilities, including the classrooms, laboratories, housing, recreational and sports facilities, and the library. This necessitated the gradual cancelation of primary and secondary grade classes, but this was still not enough. Efforts were undertaken to purchase land in the vicinity of the town, west of the old campus, while taking into consideration possible future expansion and development. This land is where the current facilities and new campus are located.
During the years that followed Israel’s occupation of the rest of Palestine in 1967, the institution’s administration had specific management objectives for expanding and developing to meet Palestinian educational needs and support the national cause.
Becoming a University
In the 1970s, and despite the occupation, Birzeit became a university, blending Palestinian values and Arab culture with an openness to world cultures.
Birzeit University offered a great opportunity for all segments of Palestinian society to access higher education, in particular rural Palestinians and girls. The university campus has become a unique microcosm of Palestine, representing all layers of society: rural and urban, rich and poor, male and female, conservative and liberal. These different groups have been able to gather together in and atmosphere of freedom and respect for the opinion of the other. This marks Birzeit University’s uniqueness and originality.
”Birzeit manifests a Palestinian treasure that demands discovering. In the seventies, it was a small college, but it inspired the whole world. Its strength and values were derived from its relations with society, and from the spirit of rebellion that motivated it against all attempts to break peoples’ will. The period between 1971 and 1978 was a harsh reality, as the teachers carried out their duties in harmony with their values and convictions, and were not motivated by personal gains or professional interest. Thus, we discovered the underlying strength in us.”
--Ramzi Rihan, in “The Story of a National Institution”
On November 21, 1974, during the efforts to transform Birzeit College into a university, Israeli authorities deported its president Hanna Nasir and four other Palestinians to Lebanon, claiming that they posed a threat to Israel’s security. This claim was routinely used to deport Palestinians in those years. It was an easy way to remove professional Palestinians who faced no charges against them in the Israeli courts.
"Overnight, I found myself a victim of this policy. The Board of Trustees kept me in my post as president of the university, and I decided to open an office in Amman, which is the closest geographically to the West Bank and to Birzeit itself, allowing me to meet my colleagues and follow up on official matters. At that time, I was obsessed with two issues: the first was to obtain accreditation for Birzeit, and the second was to get financial support, both of which are quite involved and require a lot of effort.”
--Hanna Nasir in “The Story of a National Institution”
During the 1970s and the first Intifada, creativity was collective. The leadership was secret, fearing Israeli persecution, and the prominent leading figures were in exile. The university’s leadership passed from person to person or from one group to another, depending on the circumstances and timing.
At the same time, communication with those abroad expanded through visitors to the university. Birzeit University was a destination for academics, writers, artists, activists and students from all over the world. Borders between the administration, teachers, and students disappeared, as did those between the university and the surrounding community.
In June 1980, Israeli occupation authorities issued military order number 854 putting all higher education institutions under the command of the Israeli military governor and giving him control over student enrollment and staff appointments. All Palestinian universities resisted the order as a violation of international law through an effort spearheaded by Birzeit University. Ultimately, international pressure led the Israeli occupation to cancel it, but the appointment of foreign faculty members was hindered by Israel’s refusal to issue entry visas.
Education Made Illegal
Birzeit saw the longest closure in its history on January 10, 1988, nearly a month after the outbreak of the first intifada. The university was closed for 51 months. It was also the longest closure imposed on any of the Palestinian universities. The graduation ceremony in 1992 was highly touching, because it was the first to be held after this very long period, as 700 students have graduated.
During this period, Birzeit University continued teaching in locations outside the closed campus, in order to maintain its academic standards. The Alhambra Palace, the YMCA in Ramallah, and other locations replaced the classrooms.
“I spent eight years earning my bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering because of the repeated Israeli closure of the university, most recently during the first Intifada, which continued for more than four years. We used to attend classes in apartments in Ramallah and Birzeit town. Students around the world are proud to show their student ID cards, but we were always afraid to present ours to the Israeli soldiers when crossing checkpoints.” --Student Jihad Massoud, a 1992 graduate of Mechanical Engineering in 1992 in “The Story of a National Institution.”
During the years of the first Intifada, the university’s academic role was circumvented by its closure, as struggle took place in many community spaces and academic theory merged with the realities on the ground.
“During the eighties, we worked on integrating research, capacity building, planning and building models on one hand, and implementing emergency work, such as providing first aid for injured students or who have been subjected to attacks from the Israeli army on the other hand. Moreover, during the first Intifada, we launched initiatives such as checking the level of water contamination and adding chlorine to water tanks in Ramallah and al-Bireh, in anticipation of the possibility that the Israeli military government would retaliate against the people by cutting off the water supply in the area. When the Israeli army shut down our schools, we taught inside houses, in defiance of the closure orders, and turned our kitchens into laboratories containing equipment that was moved from the university laboratories.”—Professor Rita Giacaman in “The Story of a National Institution”
Birzeit University innovated other teaching methods as a solution to the logistics dilemma, while benefiting from the freedom of movement available, as some courses were taught in different villages and towns by having students meet with political leaders, who offered them lectures and explained the required academic curriculum.
“The students met with well-known educational and political figures in different towns and cities, such as the late Haidar Abdel Shafi, a founding member of the Palestinian National Council and head of the negotiating team in the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, as well as the mayor of Nazareth, the late Tawfiq Ziad, who was a poet and politician too. The students acquired academic knowledge and patriotism, and they also benefited socially, as the field trips helped them establish close relationships with each other, which led to lasting friendships.”—Geography Professor Kamal Abdel Fattah in “The Story of a National Institution.”
Among Arabs, Birzeit University was considered a renowned seat of learning, founding a number of community centers and institutes, initiating more disciplines, and opening new faculties. Locally, these centers and institutes were pioneering in a number of fields, such as public health and literacy, and this became an integral part of the university’s image. Today, Birzeit plays a key role in Palestinian cultural, social and political life, a role that is expanding through the university’s central location in the heart of the West Bank and its spacious campus.
Now Birzeit University’s strength lies in its vast network of international relations, expressed in joint research projects and exchange programs. Visiting professors from abroad (Palestinians and internationals) come to teach many various disciplines. Immense effort is needed to maintain and expand these relationships under the present circumstances.
Birzeit University has always been keen about improving its academic programs in an effort to meet community needs, and to keep pace with global developments. This has pushed the university to develop and introduce a doctoral program in social sciences, the first of its kind in Palestine and neighboring countries, merge fields of knowledge, and offer other specialized bachelor's and master's level programs.
“Birzeit University’s academic departments continue to review their curricula and academic programs to keep pace with global developments and quality standards. In this regard, I would like to refer to the long-standing academic programs that have been offered for more than 40 years, accumulating experience and knowledge. This what makes it outstanding locally and internationally. I think that we all need to work in this direction, in order to be able to compete globally.
Moreover, the university is very committed to focusing its teaching methods on the learner, making them more effective, efficient and fun, because learning is a real pleasure. As an educational institution, we should involve our students in an interactive learning process, taking into account their character and respecting their abilities, and thus opening up students’ horizons to knowledge and developing their skills.
In fact, technology plays a vital role in this transformation, as access to information is available in portable devices that are constantly carried by students and teachers, allowing our students and graduates to practice analysis, criticism and research in the midst of this vast amount of information, turning it into valuable knowledge.
The university operates through its projects and partnerships, aiming to develop its capabilities in this regard, and we are very committed to the development of this technology through faculty members and students in support of the educational process. I would also like to emphasize the importance of the initiative taken by the academic staff to take advantage of available training opportunities in order to enhance their capacities in using technology and investing in e-learning, in order to improve the quality of university education and achieve the desired outcomes.”--A speech by Abdul Latif Abu Hijleh on the occasion of his inauguration as president of the university on September 8, 2015.