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An American Physicist Visits Birzeit University

By Joel Lebowitz

Joel Lebowitz (left) at Birzeit University with Dean of Science Aziz Shawabka.
Photo Credit: Ivar Ekeland
Joel Lebowitz (left) at Birzeit University with Dean of Science Aziz Shawabka.
I strongly believe that the scientific perspective makes differences between peoples based on nationality, race, religion or gender entirely trivial compared to the things all humans have in common. This places extra responsibility on scientists to use their knowledge and influence towards bridging gaps between peoples and to be responsive to the needs of our colleagues everywhere.

Like many scientists and others right now, I am deeply concerned about the continuing tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. With that in mind, I was very glad to accept an invitation from Professor Aziz Shawabka, Dean of Science at the Palestinian University of Birzeit to lecture there (The contact with Prof. Shawabka was established by Prof. Vincent Rivasseau, from Orsay, France). I was visiting Israel for a conference and lectures and made the final arrangements with Prof. Shawabka over the telephone from the Weizmann Institute.

At 8 a.m. on Tuesday, January 14, Prof. Iyad Jaber, head of the Computer Science Department at Birzeit, met me with his car in front of the American Consulate in East Jerusalem. On the ride, Jaber explained that, as a resident of East Jerusalem, he has an Israeli ID and license plates, which permit him to travel on recently built roads in the West Bank from which West Bank Palestinians are excluded.

This makes his commuting possible. (However, many Israelis who don't live on the West Bank shun these controversial "bypass roads" out of fear, as there have been some shootings there.)

Jaber—who got his masters' degree in computing at the American University in Washington, DC—informed me that the computer situation in Birzeit was quite good and that he had a good staff. He mentioned that during the effective closure of Birzeit for two months the previous spring they continued lessons via the Internet so students could finish their semester. After a while we turned off the good road and then, a few kilometers from Birzeit, there was a checkpoint with a few Israeli soldiers. Prof. Jaber stopped his car and showed them his ID, I showed them my passport and we were through in a minute.

When we arrived, the village of Birzeit looked drab and dilapidated under the drizzling rain. In contrast to the village, the campus looked prosperous. It is about a dozen years old with very nice four-story stone buildings, donated mainly by wealthy Palestinians and other Arabs. To my pleasant surprise, things appeared very normal, with students milling about in front of the building. Aside from the traditional long-sleeved dresses and head scarves worn by many of the women, it could have been any small university campus in the US or in Europe. There are about 5,000 students in Birzeit and the campus has functioned normally (without closures) since the fall semester began. I then met my host, Aziz Shawabka, who had received his PhD in Physics from the University of Colorado in Boulder. He told me that the economic situation at Birzeit is quite bad and that all of last year the faculty had received only half their salaries. This led to the threat of a strike by the faculty and for the last three months they had been getting full salary but are uncertain how long that will last.

I told Shawabka that my Israeli colleagues were all very eager to cooperate with their Palestinian colleagues, but felt that Palestinians were not willing to do that. He confirmed that this is indeed the case at present, for both security and political reasons.

Security reasons are obvious at the present time and in fact the Israeli government has recently prohibited its citizens, for security reasons, to visit Palestinian areas in the West Bank or Gaza. The political situation is such that the Palestinian academics would feel uncomfortable getting special permission to go to Israel while it is difficult for other Palestinians to pass checkpoints even when on their way to hospitals. Both Shawabka and others with whom I spoke expressed the hope that this will change. When asked if they had any objection to meeting Israelis at conferences abroad or to visitors like me going to both Israeli universities and to Birzeit, everyone said emphatically no.

After a seminar given by the French mathematician Ivar Ekeland, we met with about a dozen faculty members from the sciences, who expressed their strong interest in opportunities to spend time in Europe and the US doing science. There are currently a few Fulbright fellowships for travel to the US and some programs in European countries, but these are quite limited, so additional funding is highly desired. I repeated that I had just come from visiting various Israeli universities and that there are many people there very eager to collaborate scientifically. While apparently accepting the good intentions of the Israeli scientists, they told me again that this is not the right time for that. (There was later some skepticism expressed about the Israeli academic community's sincerity in this regard. In particular it was pointed out that there are very few Arabs on the science faculties of Israeli universities (less than half a dozen and none in Jerusalem) despite the fact that there are quite a few Israeli Arabs with PhD's from Israeli and foreign universities.)

There was also a report from Ekeland on his program for teaching undergraduates mathematics applied to economics, organized about three years ago by four Parisian universities. They send lecturers to Birzeit for a few weeks at a time and offer the Birzeit faculty visits to France equivalent to a total of two months per year. They also give some fellowships to students finishing the program. The program is supposed to be taken over fully by Birzeit this year. It appeared to be popular with students, although it was not clear what jobs these students could get in the Palestinian areas at the present time. I was told that the physics department had started a program in computer simulation, since the number of students interested in majoring in physics was rather small. (One of the organizers of this program is Prof. Najeh Jisrawi, a Rutgers PhD, who is currently on sabbatical at Brookhaven.)

We then met with Hanna Nasir, President of Birzeit University. (He got his PhD in physics from Purdue University.) We ended up having a revealing discussion about the different perceptions by Israelis and Palestinians about the current situation. I asked Nasir about statements by Arafat and others from the Palestinian Authority, often quoted by Israelis and Americans, saying that the Oslo Agreement, which had been signed by Israel and the PLO in 1993, was for them just a first step in a program which would really make all of Israel into a Palestinian state. Nasir responded (disingenuously, I thought) that he did not know about such statements and that he was part of a committee involved in the Palestinian Authority officially recognizing Israel. (He heads the Central Elections Committee and is a member of the Palestinian National Council.) He added that of course there are extremists who disagree, but it was the official Palestinian position.

Nasir opined that maybe in the long term there ought to be just a single democratic state. I said that this would mean that Israel would no longer be a Jewish State. He agreed but said there was already a philosophical question of how Israel can be a Jewish state while the population was 20% Arab. I said I didn't see any insurmountable problem with that. After all, France has 10% Arabs and is still a French state. In any case, I don't see a one-state solution in the foreseeable future. All I can see at the present time is a two-state solution. He seemed to agree.

I also brought up the question of suicide bombers, saying that I did not see enough condemnation of it from the Palestinian leadership and intellectuals. Nasir responded that he had written statements in arabic opposing suicide attacks. He added, however, that the Israelis should think about what they have done to make these people willing to commit suicide. He noted particularly the settlements, which he said were designed to establish "facts on the ground" ' that would make a viable Palestinian state impossible. Nassir cited those around East Jerusalem as an example. (I agree with him about the settlements but was disappointed by his refusal to really come straight out and condemn those who incite the young people to hate and kill including committing suicide attacks.)

Meanwhile, his wife, Tanya Nasir, joined us. She described her experience crossing the checkpoint between Birzeit and Ramallah, where it is impossible to cross by car for a distance of about one kilometer. It was a muddy day and an elderly person was being moved across in a wheelbarrow. Seeing a sympathetic—looking Israeli soldier, she went up to him and said: "Do you see what you are doing to these people". He didn't have an answer, but other soldiers said it was just part of security because of recent attacks. (According to Israeli sources, many attacks by suicide bombers and car bombs are prevented by such checkpoints.)

Over lunch, I told Nasir that I would be seeing Yakov Ziv, the President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the next morning and asked whether there was any message he wanted me to convey. Nasir told me that a few weeks earlier the Israeli army had, for the first time in a long period, entered Birzeit University, forcing the gates to be opened. They came in with some jeeps, drove through the campus, and left. He said it was lucky it had happened on a Friday, when there were very few students on the campus. He was afraid, however, that if they returned during regular school time there would likely be incidents with potentially serious consequences.

On the drive back to Jerusalem in the car of Ismae'l Badran, another Birzeit faculty member, we ran into a checkpoint with a long line of waiting cars soon after leaving the campus. Badran said it might take us hours to cross the checkpoint, which normally took half an hour to forty-five minutes. Indeed, after one hour we had only progressed about 25 meters and we were still about 50 meters from the actual checkpoint. Finally Badran decided to pull out of the line and go ahead to the checkpoint in the hope that, since he had an East Jerusalem license plate and had foreigners in his car, they would let us pass instead of sending us back to the end of the line. The maneuver worked. After showing our documents we were permitted to pass and we then went along smoothly towards Jerusalem. On the plane returning from Israel via Paris I sat next to a young French fellow, Bruno Fert (the son of a French physicist), who was returning from Ramallah and Birzeit, where he had taken photographs of young people for a book in a series "Being 20 in ...". He contrasted the quiet of Birzeit and the absence there of any posters of "martyrs" with the agitated atmosphere in Ramallah.

In a way, my visit to Birzeit confirmed my worst fears about the political and existential chasm separating the two sides, despite the many things they have in common. However, it also confirmed my belief that there are positive things we can and should do to try to help things move in the right direction. As a first step in that direction, it is very important for scientists from the outside to inform themselves properly about the way the "two" sides perceive the current situation. This is best done by establishing and strengthening contacts with colleagues on both sides. Having done this we should try to get those on each side to see how the situation looks from the other side and act appropriately. This has to be done carefully so as not to appear "pontificating", and will not be universally appreciated. But, if not we, then who? And if not now, then when?

A free interchange between scientists and academics on both sides of the conflict would of course be ideal, but clearly this did not seem feasible at this time to the Palestinians I talked to. Outside scientists must therefore assume the role of intermediaries for the present time. In addition to visiting there it is also possible to help our Palestinian colleagues in practical way, such as inviting them for extended scientific visits, using local funds and existing national and international programs. If you are interested, please contact me by e-mail.

For an extended version of this report and related matters, please visit my web site, http://www.math.rutgers.edu/~lebowitz

Joel Lebowitz is the George William Hill Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Rutgers University.

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