The most infamous university in Palestine has a new president, and, surprisingly, he is an American professor at an Ivy League school. Starting in the Fall 2021 semester, Beshara Doumani, director of Brown University’s Center for Middle East Studies, will take a two-year leave of absence to become the fifth president of Birzeit University, located in the West Bank town of Birzeit, just a few miles from Ramallah.
I refer to Birzeit as Terrorist University because its history is one with the history of anti-Israel terrorism and because the school is controlled by terrorist organizations. The first sentence one reads about Birzeit on its website is that it has transformed “Palestinian higher education through its impact on community awareness, culture and resistance.” If “resistance” is not clear enough, the second sentence announces that the institution “has been a thorn in the side of the occupation, insisting on playing its role of enlightenment and creating a multicultural Palestinian society on the campus grounds.” One wonders what “multicultural” means on this campus.
Perhaps the former Birzeit Girls’ School (which became Birzeit College in 1942) really did contribute something positive to Palestinian society long ago, but from the moment it changed its name to Birzeit University in 1975, it has functioned as the educational wing of the Palestinian “resistance.”
The first president of Birzeit was Hanna Nasir, who oversaw the school’s transition from college to university. He was also a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee and was one of many PLO members Israel exiled to Lebanon in 1974.
Another PLO luminary, Hanan Ashrawi, founded Birzeit’s English department and taught there for many years.
The most likely outcome of Doumani’s presidency is more Palestinians studying in the U.S. and more Americans studying in Ramallah — neither of which is necessarily a good thing.
Perhaps Birzeit’s most notorious graduate was Kamal Nasser, a poet turned PLO spokesman turned murderer. Nasser was one of the Black September Organization (BSO) terrorists who massacred 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. We could forgive Birzeit for the unfortunate happenstance of so notorious an alumnus, except that Birzeit celebrates him. After Nasser was killed in a 1973 Mossad operation in Beirut, the university named an auditorium in his honor.
Marwan Barghouti is probably Birzeit’s most notorious living alum. As an undergraduate in the 1980s, he led the Fatah student group. In 1998, he got a master’s degree in international relations. He is currently serving five consecutive life terms (plus 40 years) for the murder of five Israelis in three separate attacks. Barghouti is also the co-founder of the PLO’s two most successful suicide-bombing subsidiaries: the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Tanzim.
Of course, a Birzeit sheepskin is not for PLO members only. Hamas’ most creative and prolific suicide bomb-maker, Yahya Ayyash, nicknamed “the Engineer,” graduated from Birzeit, where he studied electrical engineering.
Fathi Shiqaqi, co-founder and director of another suicide-bombing organization called Palestinian Islamic Jihad, also went to Birzeit, where he studied mathematics.
Suicide terrorism appears to be something of a specialty at Birzeit. The 2001 bombing at the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem on August 9, 2001, was planned and facilitated by Ahlam Aref Ahmad al-Tamimi, who studied journalism at Birzeit. She earned her place on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list by dressing like a tourist and escorting Izz al-Din Shuheil al-Masri to the restaurant where he blew himself up, murdering 15 and wounding 130 with a bomb hidden in a guitar case.
Tamimi is not only unrepentant but proud. In 2019 she boasted, “I’m part of an independence movement, a national liberation movement, a resistance movement acting for its freedom.” No doubt Birzeit taught her these ideas. And her alma mater seems proud of her, for instance allowing her to address the student body in 2014 from her exile in Jordan, from which she thanked the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ “military wing.”
According to a 2017 Financial Times feature on Birzeit, school administrators estimated that 60 to 70 students were imprisoned for “security offenses” — Palestinian-speak for terrorism against Israel. Like most crime statistics, that number reflects only those who have been caught, and that number now is likely higher than it was in 2017.
Student groups are the key to terrorist infiltration and control of Birzeit. Nearly all of the students are affiliated with a campus social group called a kutla, and the terrorist organizations control the largest of them. Last November, five Birzeit students were arrested in a Hamas money-laundering scheme that began in Turkey, moved through the Gaza strip, and ended in Ramallah in the form of credit cards legally authorized for student organization activities at Birzeit University.
Terrorist organizations also control the student government at Birzeit. In 2015, for the first time (and every year since then) Hamas’ Wafaa’ Islamic Bloc won the most seats in the student council elections, wresting control from Fatah’s party, called the Martyr Yasser Arafat Bloc, which came in second place, followed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP’s) Democratic Progressive Student Pole. As Khaled Abu Toameh noted at the time, the victorious Hamas students created an “Honorary Chairman” position for the Student Council and selected Bilal Barghouti, another Birzeit alum serving time in an Israeli prison for orchestrating suicide bombings.
So why would a successful Ivy League professor want to be president of Terrorist University? Surely he knows his power will be constrained by the Palestinian terrorist organizations and that he could not have gotten the job without their consent. No one accepting the job could be so naïve.
If the name Beshara Doumani sounds familiar, it is probably because he made headlines last year when he became the Mahmoud Darwish Chair for Palestinian Studies at Brown University, widely lauded as the first of its kind in American academia. Perhaps he is looking for a figurehead position to further burnish his credentials with another “first.”
Doumani’s reasons for accepting the position might be personal. Birzeit’s press release announcing the appointment emphasized that Doumani taught there as a lecturer from 1981–83 and that his wife is a Birzeit alum (1982). Perhaps he is nostalgic for the old days and will avoid rocking the boat, content to focus his administrative efforts on more pedestrian matters like making the curriculum even more “multicultural” or expanding Birzeit’s athletic programs. (Go Bombers!)
Whatever his goals, Doumani’s non-threatening demeanor and reputed charm will benefit Terrorist University by giving it a moderate face to hide behind — a well-connected, influential face. The most likely outcome of his presidency is more Palestinians studying in the U.S. and more Americans studying in Ramallah — neither of which is necessarily a good thing.
The last time Palestinian higher education made headlines in the U.S. came in 2003 when a State Department convoy of SUVs was bombed as it crossed from Israel into Gaza. The American diplomats were visiting Palestinian universities to interview candidates for Fulbright scholarships. Let that sink in: Americans trying to expand educational opportunities for Palestinians (at U.S. taxpayers’ expense) were killed by Palestinians. When help arrived at the bombing site, first responders were unable to respond because a crowd of Palestinian youths threw rocks at them. It took Israel Defense Force soldiers to quell the throngs of future Palestinian college students so that we could collect our dead and treat our wounded.
If Beshara Doumani wants to be remembered as a great university president, he should redirect Birzeit’s focus away from inculcating the culture of “resistance” and towards teaching useful things like logic and history. Logic will show the Palestinians that they have lost their decades-long war against Israel. There will be no “Palestine from the River to the Sea,” and the “right of return” is a fantasy. From history they will learn that the losers of wars don’t dictate terms to the winners.
If Doumani can get his new student body to acknowledge those two truths, he will make the future brighter for all Palestinians, and he could help transform Birzeit into an institution worthy of being called a “university.”
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is also a Ginsberg-Milstein fellow.