40 Years of Fobzu

A history of supporting Palestinian education

Fobzu’s Vision

Since 1978, Fobzu has been working to promote the advancement of Palestinian education under occupation and in exile. We believe in the liberating potential of education and the importance of showing Palestinian students, teachers and academics they are not alone as they confront obstacles to their academic freedom, right to education, and the realization of a free and flourishing society.

Over the past 40 years, Fobzu has furthered the cause of Palestinian education by raising awareness in the UK about the needs of Palestinian students and academics and their struggle, supporting educational projects and providing scholarships and bursaries to students in financial need.

Palestinian students stride past Separation Wall

Crisis in Palestinian education

Friends of Birzeit University was established by UK academics in response to the crisis facing Palestinian higher education in the 1970s. Just over a decade had passed since Israel had occupied the remaining territory of historic Palestine: East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The new occupation authorities imposed a range of measures on Palestinian academics and students, curtailing academic freedom and undermining the growth of Palestinian higher education.

Birzeit University campus under construction

Palestine’s first national university

By the mid-1970s Birzeit University had become an important centre of Palestinian national life, with students and academics attending from across historic Palestine and internationally. Originally founded as a girl’s school in 1924, soon after the occupation began in 1967 it had been transformed into Palestine’s first national university, achieving accreditation in 1975.

Education under occupation

Birzeit University and students and faculty across Palestine were subjected to a range of hostile practices by the occupation authorities and responded by calling for international solidarity. In November 1974, the exile of Birzeit University’s first President, Dr Hanna Nasir was the first of a series of deportations and arrests of Palestinian academics and students. Birzeit faced closures, books and teaching materials were banned or confiscated, work permits were denied to faculty members, and students were harassed, arrested and tortured.

We strongly protest this pattern of intolerable repression, harassment, and intimidation of members of the BZU community by the Israeli military occupiers. We call upon all universities and concerned institutions and individuals everywhere to support BZU’s struggle to maintain its vital academic freedom and independence.

Birzeit University protests against renewed harassment by Israeli Military Authorities

December 1, 1978

The call for international solidarity

Responding to calls from Birzeit University for international support, teacher and campaigner Eleanor Aitken proposed the formation of a committee of UK academics to mobilise support for Palestinian higher education. She approached her friend and historian of the Middle East, Elizabeth Monroe, and a number of other scholars and writers.

Monroe was a member of the first generation of Middle East scholars at the Middle East Centre at Oxford University where she also founded the Middle East Centre Archive. She became Fobzu’s first Chair (and later Honorary President) on a committee that was to include some of the UK’s leading scholars and writers on the Arab world.

Among the early committee members were historians and social scientists Roger Owen, Peter Mansfield, Malise Ruthven, Lamia Gailani, Peter Sluglett, Abbas Shiblak and Valerie Yorke.

Fobzu Launch press release

Launching Fobzu

On 23rd June 1978, an inaugural meeting was held at Birkbeck College declaring the establishment of an “independent voluntary society financed by members inside and outside British universities who attach importance to preserving human rights and encouraging liberty of thought.”

Friends of Birzeit University announced its mission “to help the University to preserve its academic freedom and maintain its educational standards”.

40 years of supporting Palestinian education

During its early years, Fobzu supported Birzeit University by raising awareness among the UK academic community about the difficulties of education under occupation, fostering cooperation between UK universities and Birzeit and campaigning on the treatment of Palestinian students and academics by Israel’s occupation authorities. Fobzu organised guest lecturers and delegations to visit occupied Palestine to demonstrate the solidarity of UK academics with their Palestinian colleagues.

Among the many who visited occupied Palestine were the historian Eric Hobsbawm (who later became a Fobzu Patron) and the Nobel-prize-winning scientist Dorothy Hodgkin. The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch was one of a list of academics who volunteered to lecture in Palestine, although in her case, she was unable to undertake the trip.

Protest against university closures

Fobzu published pamphlets providing important information on the impact of measures taken by the occupation authorities against Palestinian academic freedom such as Military Order No. 854 which gave Israel full control over the students that universities admitted and the staff they employed. The committee also devoted energies to raising funds for teaching materials and hosted educational and cultural events in the UK on Palestine and Palestinian education.

Fobzu in 2018

The challenges facing Palestinian education today under occupation and in exile are arguably even greater than they were when Fobzu was established 40 years ago. The expansion of university education in occupied Palestine is a source of hope, but students and teachers still face major obstacles. Palestinian higher education suffers international isolation, and the fragmentation of Palestinian geography associated with the blockade of Gaza, the Separation Wall, the isolation of East Jerusalem and the system of divisions within the West Bank undermine Palestinian educational life. Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees outside Palestine reside in various states of educational deprivation.

Responding to these challenges, Fobzu’s mandate and programme has evolved. While retaining an historic link with Birzeit University, today Fobzu works with Palestinian academics and students at universities inside and outside Palestine.

Fobzu’s scholarship programme supports students at Birzeit as well other universities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We have also supported capacity building initiatives such as the Mental Health Counsellor Training project organised in partnership with the Centre for Continuing Education at Birzeit and financed by a grant from the Big Lottery Fund.

Fobzu campaigns on the right to education for all Palestinians and works to foster greater understanding in the UK about the challenges facing Palestinian education and the struggles of students and teachers to overcome them and transform their lives.

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