Just when I thought I’d brought some of the wackiest, most improbable stories from the soap opera that is latter-day Israel, a new one comes along. This one is a whopper.
Nazareth is the heartland of Israel’s Palestinian community. It is a town comprising Muslims and Christians living in a guarded, but generally peaceful co-existence. There is also a largely Jewish Upper Nazareth, run by an avowedly racist Jewish mayor who’s under a legal-ethical cloud, indicted for taking bribes. Given that the national government refuses to fund in Palestinian areas the typical amenities it regularly funds in Jewish communities, there is no state-funded college or university there. In fact, the community founded the Nazareth Academic Institute that grants degrees in two fields, but the state couldn’t manage to find anything in its budget for the institution. This despite the fact that it recently upgraded the education status of Ariel College to a full-fledged university despite the overwhelming opposition of every major university in the country.
Now, a consortium of Christian Zionist Islamophobes, local Palestinian educators and politicians, a Fatah-friendly oil billionaire, and the Israel Council for Higher Education, has quietly (until now) colluded to bring Texas A&M University to Nazareth. They will assume control of the existing institute, change its name to “Peace University” (I kid you not), and create the first foreign university campus in Israel. The other place where this school has a foreign campus is (where else?) Qatar.
Texas A&M’s Military-Intelligence Role
Texas A&M is also one of six U.S. “Senior Military Colleges.” Its corps of cadets is one of the largest uniformed student bodies outside the service academies. Many members serve in ROTC and earn officer commissions armed forces on graduation. It is basically a feeder school for the U.S. military. I can imagine some of those Texas A&M future officers taking courses at Peace U in Arabic language and culture before deploying to assignments in the Middle East. So much more comfortable studying in a friendly setting (Israel) than doing so in places like Cairo or Beirut where so many unpleasant things can happen to an American.
I could also see Israeli Mossad agents studying in Nazareth. After all, the Shabak and Mossad have trained their agents in Israeli Palestinian villages in order to prepare them for operations either in the Occupied Territories or hostile Arab nations.
It’s important to note that a local Greek Orthodox priest has been lauded by Netanyahu for recruiting Christian youth to enlist in the IDF. Imagine the Israeli military-security apparatus seeing in “Peace U” a fertile ground for recruiting Palestinian officers and security agents? That too should go over very well with the local community! It’s also worth noting that Nazareth’s (Christian) Mayor Ramiz Jaraisi has gone to court to locate the supposedly missing votes of three dozen Palestinian Christians serving in the IDF.
The Israeli government and military favors any potential ethnic or religious division among the Israeli Palestinian population. That’s why it encourages splits between Christians and Muslims. The more the political power of the Muslim majority can be attenuated, the weaker the forces of Palestinian nationalism. Hence the weaker the challenge to Jewish domination of the State.
Israeli Education as Branding Opportunity
I spent twelve years in graduate and undergraduate studies at five universities. They were not “brands” in those days. They were centers of higher learning. The idea of branding an institution as “Peace University” would’ve been derided as a bastardization of the mission of higher education. Nowadays schools, especially those outside the top rank like Texas A&M (ranked 69th among national universities by U.S. News), need a “hook” to promote their brand. So Nazareth will be the “peace” brand. It doesn’t matter that Texas A&M has virtually no reputation in the field of peace studies, political science or Middle East studies. It doesn’t matter that the school has probably given no thought to how it will realize it’s mission to advance peace. It’s not even clear the new school can offer an engineering degree, which is the only degree worth much that Texas A&M offers! It’s all cynicism, hucksterism, and hocus pocus. The only victims of this are the good people of Nazareth, who were promised a silk purse and got a sow’s ear. Presumably, Peres and Trajtenberg expect the Palestinians of Galilee to bow and scrape and say: “thank you massa” for the educational crumbs they’re offered.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry Sees Hasbara Opportunity
The director general of the ministry’s hasbara effort saw the equivalent of a goose laying a golden egg in the project:
Meir said the existing high-tech, research and development industries in Israel combined with Texas A&M will help foster economic growth in the region.
“Our vision is to have a Silicon Valley there,” Meir said.
Meir said it would take a highly-ranked and established university like A&M to achieve the ambitious goals for the project. He said the campus will not only help relations between the different demographics in Israel, but also further the bond between Israel and Texas. “It’s a special relationship between our governments, which value democracy, peace, understanding and culture,” Meir said. “We’re talking the same language.”
What do you think “furthering the bond between Texas and Israel” could mean, aside from deepening Israel’s alliances with the Christian Zionist universe represented by Hagee and Friends? As for establishing a Silicon Valley in Galilee: I can just see that boast becoming part of Israel’s vaunted hasbara sloganeering.
Finally, why would any serious university allow a legitimate academic effort to become part of a country’s hasbara apparatus?
Christian Zionists Hagee and Perry’s Key Role Facilitating Project
Who participated in this consortium? Pride of place goes to John Hagee, the international Christian Zionist apocalyptic firebrand who blamed the Jewish victims of the Holocaust for their own martyrdom. Hagee, an avid proselytizer of the heathen, also is known as an avowed Islamophobe. Presumably he’s delighted to plop a U.S. Christian Zionist university in the middle of tens of thousands of Israeli Palestinian Muslims. One wonders whether Hagee and his followers would play some role in the institution and use it as a base for preaching to the “heathen.”
Another participant was former Texas governor, Rick Perry, a Christian Zionist perennial presidential candidate. He used a recent political pilgrimage to Israel to announce the deal with a flourish together with Israel’s nonagenarian president, Shimon Peres. It’s no accident that Texas A&M’s chancellor was a college roommate of Rick Perry. Though not an evangelical (he’s Catholic), he uses the Christian Zionist lingo when he boasts of his “kinship” with Israel.
The Texas university has pledged to raise $70-million to finance the project, which seems achievable with the help of Hagee and a plethora of wealthy evangelical Texans seeking to advance the Rapture.
Israeli Education Bureacracy’s Faux Support for Palestinian Higher Ed
The final deal was sealed during a lunch between the Texas A&M chancellor and the lead player from the Council for Higher Education, Manuel Trajtenberg:
The project took shape when Sharp visited Israel earlier this year and had lunch with Manuel Trajtenberg, an economist who has chaired the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education in Israel for about four years. In that role, Trajtenberg has worked to increase access to higher education for, among other groups, the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.
“There is no major academic institution in any Arab city or town within Israel,” he observed in an interview with the Tribune.
Sharp’s desire to set up shop in the region since shortly after assuming the chancellorship in 2011 complemented Trajtenberg’s desire to address this problem…
…Over the course of their meal they narrowed in on Nazareth, a predominantly Arab city, as the location. “It really was a meeting of the minds,” Trajtenberg said. “Really a great coincidence. He came with the general idea of doing something in Israel, but he wasn’t aware of our efforts in that direction.”
Note carefully, a series of specious statements offered by Trajtenberg in this passage. He claims he’s worked to open educational opportunities for Haredim and Palestinians. I’ve never heard or read a shred of evidence to support this. In fact, his Council rubber-stamped the Likudist government’s elevation of the settler institution, Ariel College to university status. Thus increasing educational opportunities for settlers.
Further evidence contradicting the two-faced Israeli academic is this statement from the Institute’s president:
NAI’s president, Prof. George Kanaza, told Haaretz three years ago that the Council for Higher Education even conditioned the institution’s accreditation on a promise not to apply for state funding. “Apparently, the CHE hoped we would expire from lack of funds,” he told Haaretz at the time.
Further, the Israeli academician touts Texas A&M as a godsend-solution for an Israeli problem: the lack of higher education for Palestinians. But he neglects to address the scandalous refusal of the Israeli government to offer such opportunities to its own Palestinian citizens. For him, it’s terribly convenient for an American university to do for the Arab minority what the nation has refused to do for them.
Peace U: Look Ma, No Arabs!
Finally, you’ll note that the deal was sealed between an American Christian educator and Israeli Jewish academic deal-maker. What’s missing from this picture? Do you see an Israeli Palestinian anywhere in sight? No, because they’re deemed insignificant to the overall project. Perhaps they even know Palestinians might boycott the project, which in turn would allow it to become yet another Jewish university. This is the epitome of a condescending colonial attitude.
Haneen Zoabi reports to me that Mayor Jaraisi not only knew about what was called in the Arab press, the “Arab University,” he touted it in his campaign as one of his main achievements. To which I can only reply: what was he thinking? Joining together with right-wing American Christians to bring this institution, and place it in the middle of one of Israel’s largest Muslim populations–it boggles the mind. Zoabi also says that the story of this project was covered in the local Arab press as a positive development, with no discussion of the important implications I’ve outlined here. It appears that the local population were treated either as dupes or irrelevant to the overall project.
Haaretz notes that the Palestinian staff of the Nazareth Institute seem pleased with the new arrangement. After all, they will be elevated from an academic backwater to a branch of a respected (though second-rate) U.S. academic institution:
“We hoped and wanted to be an Israeli academic institution in every respect, not a branch [of a foreign university,]” said NAI’s dean of students, Soher Bsharat. “But when we didn’t find a budgeting solution, and ran into many problems, we saw that cooperation with Texas, which is a respected university, was a solution.”
The project was announced with great fanfare and the participation of Pres. Shimon Peres and Gov. Perry the day after Israeli municipal elections, in which Nazareth’s incumbent mayor was running against two strong challengers, one of whom was Zoabi (only a few votes separate Mayor Jaraisi from his businessman-challenger). The timing of the publicity event conveniently and cynically removed it as an election issue there.
Israel Lands Authority Expels Bedouin in Negev, But Manages to Find Land for Peace U
The new campus for this mongrel educational institution will sit on land donated by the Israeli Lands Authority. No one mysteriously has identified where the site is located (if anyone in Nazareth knows, please contact me). The ILA is the same institution that is working to expel Israel’s 40,000 Bedouin from their native Negev communities and move them to government-sponsored “reservations.” This is also known as the infamous Prawer Plan. This land transfer would enable the Judaization of the Negev, just as settlers are gradually expelling East Jerusalem Palestinians from their homes in neighborhoods like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah.
Perhaps the crowning glory in all this is the identity of the Sugar Daddy who’s going to finance the construction of this munificent educational palace. He is none other than Munib al-Masri, the wealthiest Palestinian in the world. Numerous media profiles of him invariably feature his weirdly out-of-place Italian palazzo in the middle of the West Bank. Al-Masri has a far-flung empire that includes a construction company that will likely undertake building the campus. He is a key power player in the PA and Fatah and undoubtedly seeks to curry favor with Israel, which could lead to further business opportunities.
Chrisitan-Muslim Conflict in Nazareth
To add some historical background: some years ago the local Muslim community announced its intent to build a new mosque in the same town square where the Church of the Annunciation sits. There were months of acrimony, protest, and riots over this encroachment by Muslims on what the local Christians perceived to be their holy ground. The controversy only subsided when Muslims finally relented and put their plans in abeyance.
Now Texas-based Christians who, if they know anything about local conditions (which they may not), want to add to this combustible religious mix. Their willing partners in this include an Israeli president and a Palestinian oil man/construction magnate, all seeking to build an institution promoting an ersatz liberal Zionist version of peaceful co-existence.
Possible Role of Peace U in Judaizing Galillee
Manuel Trajtenberg, a key player in the Israeli Council for Higher Education, which approves applications for all educational institutions, revealed another possible hidden intent of the university project. If Israeli Palestinian students refuse to attend it, this does not mean the failure of the project by any means:
“Of course, we would appeal to potential students in the area, but also Jewish Israelis of all sorts, because we want that to be a multicultural place,” he said. “I suspect there will be a strong demand for this institution from students who would prefer to study in English and are comfortable in a multicultural environment.”
In other words, if Palestinians don’t come, then Jews will willingly take their place. This is a significant statement because Israeli ultra-nationalists have set their sights on “Judaizing” all of the territory within Israel with significant Arab populations including the Negev, Galilee, and East Jerusalem. This is part of a covert attempt to expel Palestinians through attrition. Trajtenberg is tacitly putting Nazareth further into play in this battle by suggesting that Israeli Jews from around the country may find attractive the opportunity to pursue English-language studies at a low-cost American university. In such a way, Texas A&M could become an advertent or inadvertent participant in this far-right campaign toward a Jewish majority in the Galilee.
Besides all this, there is an even more critical issue: why does the State of Israel have to turn to a second-rate U.S. university to do for its Palestinian community what the State itself refuses to do? This is truly a scandal. Not only has the government virtually abandoned higher education for its Jewish population, where budgets have been heavily slashed, it has now orphaned Palestinian students seeking a university education.
To be clear, Israel’s largely Jewish institutions do accept small numbers of Palestinian students, but they are far below the percentage in the overall population. There is no state-sponsored Palestinian education institution, as there are multiple Jewish ones throughout the country.
This borderline crazy plan was devised by a country that has abandoned its Palestinian population. Accepting Texas A&M as a partner is a tacit admission that the nation either cannot or will not treat its Palestinian minority in the same way its treats the Jewish majority. It is yet another nail in the coffin of the concept, espoused in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, of Jewish-Arab equality in a democratic Israeli state.
Jonathan Cook, who lives in the Galilee, wrote an excellent post about this story.