Palestinian Steadfastness and the Ramallah Friends School

by Palestine Center Interns

???????????????????????????????????? Gordon Davis, Betsy Brinson, and Joyce Ajlouny discuss the history of the Ramallah Friends School (from left).

On 16 June, the Palestine Center hosted Gordon Davies, Betsy Brinson and Joyce Ajlouny to speak on the history of the Friends School in Ramallah. The school has withstood the test of time, witnessing Ottoman domination, the British Mandate, Jordanian administration, and Israeli occupation. Yet, the school’s commitment to Quaker values of nonviolence, dialogue, and equality has never wavered. Davies and Brinson spoke on the research and experiences that led to their book Sumoud: Voices and Images of the Ramallah Friends School. Ajlouny discussed her role as director of the school and the significance of the Friends School in the Palestinian community. Before the lecture, The Palestine Center’s summer interns sat for an interview with the three speakers to learn more.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.

A description on the website says that the Friends School has become “a symbolic presence of nonviolence, cooperation across cultures and intellectual integrity.” This is a beautiful note on the school. How do you feel you’ve accomplished this and how important is that to your mission?

Ajlouny: I think that it’s extremely important. It’s the real premise of our success and our perseverance throughout 146 years. You would think that after so many wars, occupations and administrations that the school would suffer and no longer exist, but that isn’t so. We are grounded by our Quaker tradition, ethos, and foundation. They are the things that often come back and challenge us when we make decisions. When we are running the Friends School, we think: how do we incorporate nonviolence, equality, and tolerance into our mission? As an administrator, that is something that I talk about a lot in our meetings with the board, the school administration, the teachers, or the students. We are often reminding people of the importance of that. It’s what has kept us afloat.

As Americans, Gordon Davies and Betsy Brinson, what did writing this book mean to you? And how did it shape your perspective of the conflict?

Davies: During that year we spent at the Friends School, I also taught at Birzeit University. I taught in the English department with a little help from Joyce, who introduced me to the Friends School. Therefore, I saw several perspectives. It was a matter of learning about, and trying to learn about, a different culture, but also learning that we have a huge amount in common. The school’s values were endorsed by young students who said, “The school’s values are that of Judaism, they are that of Islam, and they are that of Christianity. It’s not the religions that are the problem, it’s the people. People misuse the religions.”

Brinson: As a historian, my area of expertise is American social history. This was the hardest history project I’ve ever done. I wasn’t familiar with Palestinian history, so I had to read a lot and ask a lot of questions. It was a tough job. Neither Gordon nor I are from a Palestinian background. We didn’t grow up in it. In contrast, if somebody says the War of 1812 or the Civil War, as an American, I’ll know what they’re talking about.

What is it like to write Palestinian history? Have you ever had difficulty in completing your research or traveling to Ramallah or the Friends School?

Brinson: Our research consisted of using basic primary research documents at various Quaker colleges in the U.S., and that wasn’t a problem. But we did our primary research in Ramallah with many oral history interviews that we did with students, alumni, staff, and administrators. Most of them actually came to us at the school to do the interview. There were a few people that I had to go and meet. I don’t know Arabic. A lot of the streets in Ramallah aren’t marked. Trying to talk to cab drivers was difficult. So it was an interesting experience. We did have problems getting through checkpoints. My biggest concern was my tape recorder and whether I was going to get it through Israeli security at the airport. As it turned out, that was less of a problem than I had feared. But to protect the oral history interviews, I sent them back with several different people, so they were in different suitcases. They all made it back safely, so it wasn’t as much of a concern as I feared it might be.

What are the Quaker values that make up the school? Why are they so important? What do you tell the students, and what do you write about on a daily basis to portray the Friends School accurately?

Davies: We thought getting a Palestinian perspective on the school was very important. Most of the things that had been written previously were written by mostly Americans and some British volunteers. They did good work, but they brought their own perspectives. One story in the book exemplifies the school’s Quaker values in practice. A teacher named Jean Zaru was teaching fifth graders. When she came into the room, the students were shouting, “PLO, Israel no!” It was illegal to talk about PLO before 1993. So, Zaru wrote “PLO” on the blackboard. Everybody stopped. They were frightened. It was illegal to write that. But she did. And she said, “Do you know what that ‘L’ stands for in ‘PLO’? It stands for liberation. Do you know what liberation is? It is not controlling other people and it is not having your way over them. It is sharing with other people and it is understanding another people’s needs. It is understanding that your needs and their needs have something in common.”

That is basically what she conveyed, and that is what I think that the Quakers try to convey. One of the things that struck us when we were there was a big parade we witnessed during Ramadan. It ran right down the street right outside of the school. All the Arab villages came and participated in the parade. But the Christians joined the parade, too. We thought that was remarkable. Then on Easter, the Christians had a parade, and the Muslims joined them! Again, the problem isn’t the differences between religions, but how people use and manipulate their religions.

Joyce Ajlouny, can you speak to how important education is during times of occupation and war to guide and lead the students at their young age?

Ajlouny: I really believe in the power of a value-led education. Time and time again, I have had parents come to my office asking for more financial aid to keep their kids in the school. They tell me that they have lost so much because of occupation. The only thing that they have is their investment in their children’s education. They say, “Don’t take that away from us!” We are in a value-led school, and we are challenged by violence all around us every day. We do have students who come in feeling angry. After the 2014 Gaza war, the lower school principal came and said, “Joyce, we need to hire another counselor.” “But you have one,” I said. “You don’t know what the campus is like,” he explained. Students were more physical. They were running around and it seemed like their behavior was different. It was more violent behavior. They were agitated. We had to hire another counselor to deal with these issues. This is just one example. You can imagine the effect that occupation and war has on these children.

So what is our role as a school, and what do we do to take away the stress? How do we give them something productive to work on and make them feel good about themselves? We give them a platform to voice their opinion and to debate. We have a lot of debates for normalization, against normalization. There is so much happening on campus that we don’t have a homogenous group of students. So, there is always lively debate. But we also have been very creative in allowing them to address these concerns in a productive, meaningful, creative way. Whether it is through art or performance, they do all sorts of commemoration. Nonviolence is always our message. As a Quaker school, it is our role to guide students to a nonviolent path. The BDS movement is very big on our campus, too. Our students are always challenging us as an administration to see if we are keeping up with BDS. When you see alumni of the school, you see their commitment to their country through service and nonviolence.

There was a student of ours who graduated from Stanford. I thought he’d go on to work at the UN. But he came back and started mobilizing in our community. He set up a tent in town and he was trying to mobilize for unity in the government. So these are the types of students who attend our school. Another one headed the BDS office in Ramallah. This is the difference that the Friends School is making in the context of occupation.

Joyce Ajlouny, do students at the Friends School ever have a chance to interact with Israelis, or has there ever been a program of that sort? How does that mix with the Quaker values?

Ajlouny: As a Quaker, I believe that dialogue is the best way to address issues. Yet, I also see that our community in Ramallah is not ready to normalize relationships with Israelis. But the Friends School is very much part of the community. We cannot come and impose what we think is the way forward. If the community at large is not ready to normalize relationships, then there would be huge resistance to any of our endeavors. Once Israelis and Palestinians are on equal footing, normalization will be acceptable. But we can’t normalize relations with our occupiers and the future soldiers who are going to be surrounding our city and bombarding us. The Friends School has to abide by community expectations. From a Quaker perspective, yes, interaction between Palestinians and Israeli is exactly what needs to take place. Communication is how hearts, minds, and souls changes. But that can’t happen quite yet.

The term sumoud is the title of the book, which in Arabic means “steadfastness” or “standing one’s ground.” But what does sumoud mean in relation to the history of the Ramallah Friends School? Why did you choose that as the title of the book?

Davies: The Friends School has witnessed one form of domination after another: first, the Ottoman Empire, then the British Mandate, then Jordanian administration, and finally Israeli occupation. Yet, the school remains and its values persist. We chose sumoud as the title to emphasize the school’s unyielding commitment to dialogue and equal rights.

Ajlouny: What Gordon said is very true, and I also look at it from a different perspective. The families of students tell me that they would have left had it not been for the Friends School. So, the school keeps families steadfast in Palestine. Families remain because of the opportunities we provide. We are the only International Baccalaureate school in Palestine. Our students end up at top universities. There are always some students that make it into the Ivy Leagues. Many families would rather take advantage of the education we offer rather than emigrate to America or Jordan.