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The Palestinian Surgeon Burying Balfour’s Legacy

The election of Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu-Sittah to the rectorship of Glasgow University has been a victory for Palestinian solidarity — and a stunning rebuke of the university’s collaboration with the arms trade.

Three decades before his forty-six-word declaration announcing the British government’s support for the settler colonisation of Palestine, Arthur Balfour was appointed Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. ‘A survey of the world… shows us a vast number of savage communities, apparently at a stage of culture not profoundly different from that which prevailed among pre-historic man,’ said Balfour during his rectorial address in 1891. His words dripped with the hatred that would characterise his government’s 1905 Aliens Act, which sought to stop Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe from entering Britain, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Later this month, a radically different Rector will be installed in Bute Hall. Palestinian surgeon Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah, who worked in Al-Shifa hospital during the latest Israeli onslaught on Gaza, was elected with an incredible 80 percent of the vote by Glasgow University students last Tuesday.

His campaign was clear: a vote for Ghassan was a vote for Gaza. Dr. Abu-Sittah’s manifesto commits him to fighting for the University to divest from the arms trade and stand in solidarity with Palestine. Students responded to his candidacy by burying Arthur Balfour’s legacy in Glasgow. 

The position of rector is almost unique and dates back to the Reformation. Today, Glasgow is one of only five universities with the role, whose job is to represent students’ views to management on the institution’s governing body, the University Court. Election turnout more than doubled from the previous election, ensuring a landslide victory for Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah and the Palestinian cause — which could not have been more timely.

In October, the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), the oldest in the Strip, was reduced to rubble by the Israeli Defence Force. Founded in 1978, the IUG housed twenty research centres and educated over 20,000 students. For fifteen years, the University of Glasgow had been one of the institution’s principal academic partners, welcoming Palestinian students to Scotland’s largest city and teaching via video link amidst the Occupation’s blockade.

In January, as Gaza’s displaced families took refuge amidst the ruins, the campus was shelled once again. Bombed during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the latest attacks on the IUG are part of the Israelis’ systematic assault on the Palestinian education system. Denying Palestinians the right to learn and share knowledge has long been central to Israel’s settler-colonial project. 76 percent of school buildings and all twelve universities in Gaza have been destroyed. 4,327 students and 94 University professors including the IUG’s Sufian Tayeh, Refaat Alareer and Nasser Abu Al-Nour have been killed.

Confronting the War Machine

Remarkably, the University of Glasgow did not deem the destruction of their twinned institution worthy of comment. When WHO employee and Glasgow alumnus Dima Alhaj was killed alongside her young family in Southern Gaza last December, the University remained silent. As one of the largest academic funders of the arms trade with £6.8 million invested in weapons companies, including those providing arms to Israel perhaps that should come as no surprise. Indeed, the share price of BAE Systems, in which Glasgow University has a sizable investment, has risen 39 percent since October 2023.

Dr. Abu-Sittah’s election is a clear rejection of this complicity. Dismantling the war machine and strengthening the movement for Palestinian liberation requires in addition to proactively engaging with workers in the defence industry initiating a confrontation with those institutions that reap the rewards of British imperialism. To its shame, Glasgow University is among them. Highlighting why the struggle in Glasgow was crucial during his campaign, Dr Abu-Sittah explained that ‘Israel is just the tip of the genocidal project.’

‘The rest of the iceberg exists elsewhere…What the British government has done, what the American government has done is to protect the continuation of the genocidal project. In addition to this axis of genocide, there is a system of genocide enablers, institutions like Glasgow University that have profited from the sale of weapons. The system that has been created over 75 years does not only function to protect Israel, but actually to ensure the longevity of the genocidal project so that after six months it can continue taking the lives of over 100 Palestinians every day.’

Implicit in Joe Biden’s infamous declaration that ‘if there were not an Israel, we’d have to invent one’ is the recognition of Israel as a regional outpost for Western imperialism. To illustrate this, we can return to Arthur Balfour who served as Chief Secretary for Ireland during his tenure as Glasow University Rector. So brutal was his enforcement of British colonial rule on the island, that he earned the name ‘Bloody Balfour’. 

In the early years of the British Mandate, the same colonial forces who had followed the orders of the British state in Ireland were dispatched to Palestine. Just as they were in Ireland, these men were advised to repress resistance using ‘whatever measures are necessary’. Historically, as today, the occupation of Palestine has been central to the advancement of imperial interests. That is why we say that no one is truly free until Palestine is free, and it’s why Dr. Abu-Sittah’s election is so important.

A Radical Tradition

In recent decades, the rectorship of Glasgow University has had a much more radical tradition, reflecting recognition of the importance of solidarity at home and abroad. In 1971, amid the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-In, trade unionist Jimmy Reid was elected rector. The New York Times reprinted his rectorial address in full, describing it as ‘the greatest speech since President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address’. In a contribution fitting for today’s context, Reid challenged ‘the right of any man or any group of men… to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable.’

Fifteen years later, when Dr. Abu-Sittah arrived in Glasgow to study medicine, Winnie Mandela was elected rector during the darkest days of South African apartheid. In 2004, Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear technician who revealed the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme to the world, was also elected rector. Imprisonment by state authorities prevented either from attending their instalment ceremonies. Last week, Glasgow University students’ historic commitment to peace and justice echoed down the years as Dr. Abu-Sittah won a victory that will resonate on campuses around the world.

To mark the election of Mordechai Vanunu twenty years ago, the great poet and Glasgow University professor Tom Leonard penned ‘Being A Human Being’. ‘The desire for liberty and freedom from mutual destruction that Vanunu stood for, and stands for, cannot be suppressed,’ wrote Leonard of his poem. As we celebrate the victory of Dr. Abu-Sittah, his words are as relevant today as they were then.

‘Being A Human Being’ concludes:

‘I am a human being

and I exist

a human being

and a citizen of the world

responsible to that world

— and responsible for that world.’