Ethan Bronner
International Herald Tribune
February 16, 2009 - 1:00am

It would be hard to find two institutions of higher learning that seem more different than Bard College, an upscale, bucolic college in Dutchess County, New York, and Al Quds University, a struggling, sprawling Palestinian institution in and near this disputed capital.

Yet the two schools have decided to join forces in an unusual venture aimed at injecting American educational values and expertise into Palestinian society, in hopes of contributing to a future democratic State of Palestine. Although the effort has been many months in the planning, those involved say the recent war in Gaza and a political turn rightward in Israel make it more important and urgent.

The plan, relying largely on outside financing, includes a liberal arts honors college and a master's degree program in teaching, both located at Al Quds and granting joint degrees, as well as a model high school to serve as an educational laboratory. The starting date for the first two is September; the high school is to open in 2010.

Nothing like this has ever been tried in Palestinian education, and controversy is expected.

Bard anticipates complaints from some American Jews unhappy because Al Quds is a Palestinian institution partly in Jerusalem ? which many Jews consider the indivisible capital of Israel ? and because Al Quds is no stranger to radical Palestinian politics. Meanwhile, Al Quds expects some Palestinians to resent the endeavor as vaguely colonialist. And the collaboration by two such disparate institutions is bound to be complicated.

"In Palestinian schools, students are taught the so-called right answer to every question," Mukhles Sowwan, who runs the Nanotechnology Research Laboratory at Al Quds University, said. "But real education is more about questions than answers. We need to teach our students how to think creatively and critically, and I hope Bard will help us with that."

That is very much the hope of Bard officials as well. Jonathan Becker, Bard's dean of international studies, who was here recently with several others, said they were planning on small classes using faculty members from both schools.

"The subtle issues are often the most challenging," he said after two days of meetings at Al Quds. "We can identify bright young people and create rigorous programs. But the faculty here will need to be willing to give up their position of authority. Students will need to develop the skill of challenging professors intellectually and analyzing things from their own perspectives."

Both groups view this as a cultural adventure that owes much to its two biggest proponents: Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds and a philosopher trained at Harvard and Oxford, who has been pushing to open his institution to outside influences; and Leon Botstein, president of Bard, a polymath whose college has set up special high schools in New York City, humanities classes for the homeless around the United States, and joint programs in Russia and South Africa.

"For us, this is what the internationalization of American higher education should be about," Botstein said by telephone, adding that he was glad not to be following the example of larger universities building campuses in rich Gulf emirates, a development that he said was "like investing in Monte Carlo or Liechtenstein to develop Europe."

"It's not relevant and it is institutionally cynical," said Botstein, who since 2003 has also been music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. "Working in Palestine is the right place to be."

Nusseibeh, who has run Al Quds for 14 years, has created academic exchange programs with Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, as well as with George Washington University in Washington and universities in Israel, Sweden and Canada. The Bard program will offer the first joint degree.

"The radius of movement of most of our students does not exceed 40 miles," Nusseibeh said as he sat in his East Jerusalem office one recent morning. "We need to help them see the world through different eyes.

"We do a lot of projects with Israel," he continued. "I get criticism for it because many Palestinians want to boycott Israeli educational institutions. But the West Bank economy is 70 to 90 percent dependent on Israel. At least we should profit from their education. It is the one thing in my view we absolutely should not boycott."

Nusseibeh is the scion of one of the most distinguished Palestinian families, one filled with judges, scholars and politicians, and whose history in Jerusalem goes back 1,300 years. His relationship with the Israeli authorities is complex. He has been arrested more than once and spent several months in an Israeli prison. A Palestinian nationalist, he speaks Hebrew and enjoys the company of Israelis, and he called Jewish roots in Jerusalem "existential and umbilical." His has been a delicate balancing act, which has only gotten harder since the Gaza war this winter.

His university is also in a tight spot. Its main campus is in Abu Dis, a village just to the east of the Jerusalem municipal boundaries and therefore in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority. The 10,000-student campus, with olive groves, courtyards and a fountain, stares directly at a large stretch of the separation wall Israel began erecting at the height of the second Palestinian intifada, to keep out suicide bombers.

The campus also contains a reverential monument and museum devoted to Palestinian prisoners of Israel, along with their writings and crafts. It is hard to walk the campus without being reminded of the conflict and the occupation.

But the issue is even more complicated because other parts of the university are within the boundaries of Jerusalem. As a result, Israeli educational authorities and Al Quds have been arguing in and out of court for years over whether it is an Israeli institution with a Palestinian branch, a Palestinian institution with an Israeli branch, or two separate institutions, one Israeli and the other Palestinian.

The outcome of that dispute will determine accreditation proceedings, which have been stalled for two decades. At the moment, a degree from Al Quds, which is widely seen as among the best Palestinian universities and has medical, law and engineering schools, is not recognized in Israel, meaning that teachers, for example, cannot get jobs with adequate pay in Israeli schools.

One side benefit of the Bard program would be to change that for its participants, since the joint degree would carry accreditation in New York State and thereby receive recognition in Israel.

But the plan will have modest enrollment in the first year: 40 students in the master's program in teaching, and 100 in the honors college.

The initial financing is coming from the liberal financier George Soros, but Botstein is looking for more, and the Palestinian Education Ministry is being asked to provide help, since the joint degree program has what its proponents consider to be an important civic side.

"The liberal arts tradition does have a real connection to democratic politics," Botstein said. "Adams and Jefferson believed that education is crucial to the development of a functioning democracy. It is also clear that being a Zionist and favoring the security and healthy future for the State of Israel is absolutely compatible with creating a Palestinian state. That's why we're very proud of what we're doing."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017