About 200 yards away from the entrance to Al Quds University — where I am studying abroad this semester — stands Israel’s 26-foot-high Apartheid Wall, which runs through the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis and cuts it and its residents off from the rest of Jerusalem.
On the surface, Al Quds University seems like any other large university, with a law, dental and medical school and many undergraduate majors. However, Israel will not give accreditation to Al Quds University. This means that Al Quds graduates cannot make minimum wage in Israel, and graduates of its medical school cannot practice medicine in Israel.
Within Al Quds University, Bard College has started a small honors college at which Palestinian students can earn a dual-degree with American accreditation.
The partnership with Bard no doubt opens up incredible opportunities for Al Quds Bard graduates. But here, as in the context of any system of oppression, we find belief in the discourse of empowerment.
Especially at Penn, we like to “empower” people. We have all sorts of organizations and initiatives to do this. We really like to “empower” communities and women.
Have you ever thought about what it means to “empower” someone? It implies us deciding what empowerment means and assuming that someone is unempowered based on what we think we know about their life circumstances.
Furthermore, it implies that their lack of material success as defined by Western standards is due to the fact that they are not feeling empowered — a state presumably from which we can save them by swooping in and “empowering” them — rather than due to worldwide systems of white supremacism and colonialism in which we are complicit.
The discourse of empowerment makes us feel good about putting a Band-Aid on something while avoiding actually questioning our role in systematic racism, oppression and injustice.
Surely the American funders of the AQB program are patting themselves on the back for empowering and teaching Palestinian students to engage in liberal democracy. This discourse parallels the one that I hear most frequently at Penn: “We just need dialogue!”
Both lines — that we should educate and empower Palestinians and that we should encourage dialogue and negotiations — treat Israeli apartheid as something that just needs some reforms and can be talked out.
But Israel’s actions in Abu Dis and on the Al Quds University campus uncover the senseless notion of just talking out what Israel is doing in Palestine. How can you talk things out when your “negotiating partner” has unilaterally built a giant concrete wall through your neighborhood to annex your land and restrict your movement? How can you talk things out when your negotiating partner routinely shoots tear gas bombs and rubber-coated steel bullets onto your campus, as Israeli Occupation Forces do onto the Al Quds campus?
The problem is not that Palestinians are uneducated or unempowered. The problem is not for lack of talking things out.
When you talk about this issue in terms of two sides and needing to talk it out, you normalize the actions of an apartheid state. When you think that educating and empowering Palestinians is the answer, you whitewash Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians, the aim of which is to erase a people and its history and culture.
You’re also indulging in the racist, Orientalist discourse that Israel has exploited since the beginning to portray the inhabitants of Palestine as uneducated and ultimately unworthy of the status of human beings, or simply as non-existent altogether.
We should instead be encouraging our universities to cut ties with institutions linked to the Israeli government and our own government to end its material and military support to Israel. The system cannot be reformed. It has to end.
This isn’t just about Palestine. On a larger scale, we need to recognize that the way we think about things that seem wrong may in and of itself be perpetuating the systematic injustice of what is wrong. Sometimes the systems themselves need to be challenged and dismantled.
Clarissa O’Conor is a College junior from Lititz, Pa., who is studying abroad in Palestine this fall. Her email address is email@example.com. View her tumblr here. “From Palestine to Penn” appears every other Tuesday.