I have known Rami Hamdallah for the past 15 years, and have worked side by side with him on academic, international and regional issues. Over the years, we have broadened our professional partnerships in the fields of social work, law, architecture, housing, education and medicine, and, on a personal level deepened our trust, respect and friendship. I have witnessed and come to admire the broad scope of Rami’s vision, and his incredible capacity to lead under pressure, to negotiate complex, conflicting agendas and interests while focusing on the overall common good.
I have seen his mettle tested in the most turbulent of times, and I have been at his side during times of unimaginable personal anguish. We have celebrated together and mourned together. Underlying his undeniable accomplishments is an authentic, dedicated, honest, dignified human being, whom I have seen interact with heads of state, ambassadors and significant donors, as well as with doormen, students and disabled children with equal humility, respect and abundant kindness.
Hamdallah represents a side of Palestinian society to which most Jewish audiences have little access. Accounts in the Israeli and Jewish press underreport the positive dimensions to Palestinian statehood, and the quiet, consistent, determined, day to day activities of highly capable individuals who continue to build the foundations for such a state. At best dismissed as an ineffective minority, their actual impact is grossly underestimated, their value to regional stability is not understood, and numerous opportunities to move peace and prosperity forward dry up through filtered lenses in the desert sun.
I first met Professor Hamdallah in April 1998 when he was vice president of An Najah National University in Nablus – shortly before he assumed the presidency.
The context was a program I had founded: The McGill Middle East Program in Civil Society and Peace Building (MMEP), now rebranded as the International Community Action Network (ICAN-McGill).
Over the years, the program had established bilateral relationships with Jordanian academic institutions and with Israeli universities to develop community-based and volunteer-driven organizations located in low-income neighborhoods. These centers operate independently and in direct bilateral relations with the McGill program. The centers bring university expertise to low-income neighborhoods, empower local residents to access their rights and improve their circumstances.
Currently, over 100,000 persons in the region are reached annually through our 11 centers.
In 1997, the McGill program initiated graduate degree fellowships to students affiliated with our institutional partners in Israel and Jordan to spend a year at McGill developing expertise in rights-based, interdisciplinary community practice and to return home for the second year of their fellowship to translate ideas into best practice by establishing new programs and organizations linked to an affiliated academic partner in their country. Its essence is to transfer academic expertise to those with least access to it and to empower disadvantaged residents to improve their circumstances.
in 1998, we had obtained major funding from the Canadian government to expand our work by establishing a separate, bilateral Palestinian program with the goal of providing advanced graduate training at McGill and developing community practice centers linked to academic institutions.
My first visit to An Najah, in April, 1998, was to explore the possibilities of a partnership with An Najah, and it was in this context that I met Rami Hamdallah.
Hamdallah had imaginative plans for the expansion of the university. His vision entailed high standards of academic excellence and integrity, academic leadership internationally, and a commitment to the university’s important role and powerful impact on Palestinian intellectual, social and cultural development in general, and on the Nablus community in particular.
Our program fit well into Hamdallah’s vision. Within one hour, we understood each other, agreed on the broad contours of the program and its management, and immediately developed a plan of action to recruit two graduate fellows to leave for Montreal within three months.
It is often unnecessarily complicated to negotiate new programs in any university system. Rami is adept at using his authority quietly, negotiating skillfully, managing with integrity and effectiveness, and open to reasoned argument from all points of view. Rami is a pragmatist and a problem solver. A man of great humility, I have never seen him put his own personal interest first.
These characteristics underlie the phenomenal growth and development An Najah has made over the past 15 years – often under conditions of adversity. Rami raised more than $400 million, and oversaw the construction of a new campus that he himself initiated with only $1m. dollars in hand. He opened a medical school and I recently visited their new, state of the art teaching hospital. He tripled the number of students, diversified programs and knitted the fabric of An Najah deeply into all of Palestinian society. While doing so, An Najah vaulted from being considered a public university not on a par with private institutions to its current ranking of first in Palestine, eighth in the Arab world, and among the top six percent of universities worldwide, out of 20,000 universities (‘Ranking Web of World Universities’ (Webometrics) Times, Higher Education).
With the McGill partnership alone, we have awarded graduate degrees in rightsbased community practice to social workers, architects, poets, doctors, physicists and education and gender specialists.
Together they established the An Najah Community Service Center (CSC) – McGill’s flagship in the West Bank. The work of this center highlights the remarkable vision of Rami Hamdallah to bring academic excellence to the most disadvantaged.
In one program, social work and architecture students have fixed more than 600 dilapidated homes – homes to the elderly, the disabled, and single parents. Going door-to-door, students design alternatives together with the residents: they replace earthen floors, install bathrooms, kitchens and proper ventilation systems. They argue with suppliers to obtain building material at cost, and then – as voluntary service to the community – physically put their muscle to work and rebuild these homes.
Due to the voluntary efforts, the average cost of a renovation is less than NIS 4,000.
More importantly, however, this work is actualizing Rami’s vision, which reconnects isolated individuals to the Palestinian community by activating the university as a catalyst for change.
The CSC, with Hamdallah’s full backing, has effectively lobbied changes to government policy to assure accessibility for people with physical disabilities to schools and other public buildings, has brought about legislative changes to ensure proper hospital care for the sick and elderly, and has convinced the Health Ministry to introduce paid positions for social workers in public hospitals across the West Bank, which enables doctors and nurses to focus on medical treatment.
The An Najah-McGill partnership trains more than 3,000 students each year in rights-based approaches. They then intern in governmental and non-profit organizations.
Nearly 30,000 young adults are now more engaged in shaping community life.
Hamdallah champions these efforts and has chaired PCAN – the Palestinian Community Advocacy Network, which promotes the building of these kinds of civil society organizations wherever Palestinians lack access to basic social and economic rights.
The McGill-An Najah partnership demonstrates in a microcosm the kind of society Hamdallah will promote as prime minister: open to the world, forthright and transparent, and dedicated to excellence, civil society and progress. Hamdallah’s work is consistent and unwavering.
Returning to the broader picture, Hamdallah’s record of accomplishment as university president would be considered exceptionally strong at any university anywhere on the globe. Consider then how much more extraordinary Hamdallah’s accomplishments are as they took place during periods of extreme violence, closures, and military occupation during the second intifada. Rami managed a tense university climate, student protest, militarily ordered work stoppages, and disruptions in cash flows during a period of great danger and uncertainty.
I met with Rami often during these times and gained great respect for his ability to stick to principle, remain focused, while being flexible and open to dissent. In one instance, Rami spoke with a student group which had put up a particularly vile display on An Najah campus. Rami said to them, “You can take it down or I will.”
“You have discredited yourself already by putting up this display. The only positive thing you can do is to take it down yourself.”
They did. Throughout this turbulent time, even those who passionately disagreed with Hamdallah respected him for his integrity, his political independence, and his judgment, and loved him for being so closely connected to the welfare of the average Palestinian.
Hamdallah also endured unimaginable personal tragedy in 2000 when his children were killed in a traffic accident. I was with Rami at the hospital in Nablus, and I do not know how any human being deals with such tragedy and finds the will to go on. Rami found solace in his faith, his family and his friends and slowly, with grace, humility and quiet dignity, moved forward. Know the man, and you will not underestimate him. Mahmoud Abbas made a wise choice in appointing Rami Hamdallah Palestinian Authority prime minister.
In 2005, I represented Canada as an observer to the Palestinian presidential elections. My role was to monitor the conduct of the election to ensure that voters had undeterred access to the polls, and that ballots were safeguarded and counted in our presence. My responsibilities were to cover some 17 villages north of Ramallah, which I did with a fellow monitor from Poland, a driver, and a translator.
Here in the Palestinian heartland, I saw a people taking steps toward democratic government – people determined to shape their own future through democratic means.
One particular vignette remains constant in my mind’s eye. A very elderly woman in a wheelchair was carried up a few steps by election officials, in order to vote. Grinning, with purple dye affixed to her thumb, I asked her why she took the trouble to come out and vote. She pointed to a crowd including five generations of women in her family, and, through my interpreter, said, “I want all those generations to know that their great, great, great grandmother was the first woman in this village to vote, and they all must follow in my footsteps.”
Rami Hamdallah was secretary-general of the election commission. Under his command, a clean election took place, which gave voice even to a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair, in an isolated, mountaintop village.
Through my relationship with Rami Hamdallah and people like him, I have changed many of my views. I have come to understand, respect, admire and authentically befriend in a very deep way many Palestinian academics, community organizers, civil society activists, students and institutional leaders who have dedicated their efforts to building a state which is independent, democratic, peaceful, socially just, responsible and a leader in the promotion of intellectual progress.
Rami Hamdallah is a prime ministerial example of these people.
That my views required change is not hard to understand. My parents were survivors who fled and ultimately settled in New York. For at least five generations, my family has been in the forefront of the movement to establish the State of Israel, to revive the Hebrew language, and to encourage the growth, development and safety of the state. With this upbringing, I had never encountered an Arab or Palestinian, and everything I was told about them taught me to fear them and to dismiss their claims.
I believe that the majority of The Jerusalem Post’s readership experienced upbringings not dissimilar from my own. Further, the very real history and threat of violence, regional instability, and passionate counterclaims within Israel reinforce negative stereotypes about “the other.”
Perhaps this piece may make a small contribution to opening doors rather than closing them by acquainting you with Rami Hamdallah from someone who knows him well.
The author is a professor of social work and the founder/director of ICAN McGill-International Community Action Network.