While students across America and around the world took the SAT exam on October 6th, my Palestinian students were denied the chance to do the same. Why? Israeli customs held the exams and failed to release them in time for my students to take the exam -- a test necessary to apply to college in the United States. My students and I couldn't help but ask the obvious question: If Palestinians controlled their own borders, could these students have taken this exam along with American college hopefuls around the globe?
After serving as a teacher with Teach For America, I came to Palestine in the summer of 2011 to run an SAT prep academy and teach English at the Ramallah Friends School -- a Quaker institution for Palestinian students who have had long-standing interest in attending top American universities. My students are enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a rigorous educational program designed to prepare students for university. In the past, our graduates have attended top institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford and countless others, and their presence in these universities has made the academic culture richer, adding wonderful diversity and eager students to college campuses.
In our summer SAT prep academies I have seen students improve their SAT scores by over 300 points as a result of their dedication and hard work. Yet this progress can easily be squandered when test dates are unnecessarily delayed or the process becomes unpredictable. In this case, many of my students had prepared for months for this SAT test, pinning their hopes of a better future on their scores. Unfortunately for them, they didn't get the opportunity to shine on October 6th. Uncertainty lingers as to whether they will be able to take the test on October 20, although the State Department claimed on October 17 that the test would take place.
Under the Oslo Accords, Israel retained control over the borders and customs of the Palestinian territories, so Palestinians depend on Israel's good graces in handing over customs dues and allowing imports to pass into the West Bank. This case of tardy tests highlights two unfortunate, yet all too common, injustices endemic to the Israeli occupation.
First, Palestinians are forced to depend on a foreign occupying power for access to the outside world, which necessarily leads to frequent complications, delays, and items never delivered. The SAT test is challenging and stressful enough without the added uncertainty of whether or not the test booklet will be on the desk.
Second, Israeli customs in this case were, at best, painfully inefficient, and at worst, intentionally harmful to Palestinian interests. The involvement of Amideast, an American international educational organization, could not ensure the timely arrival of the exams.
Israeli customs officials cited the Yom Kippur holiday and a shortage of staff as the reason. In short, Israeli customs were aware that the exams were in their care, but they failed to release them in time for my students to sit for their exam.It is the responsibility of the occupying power to guarantee basic access and rights to the people under occupation. This is, after all, a test that will affect their educational and professional trajectory.
More importantly, this failure troubles me deeply as an educator. I joined the movement for educational equality because I believe that all students deserve the opportunity to attain an excellent education. The injustices and obstacles that Palestinians face on a daily basis as a result of the Israeli occupation are difficult to fathom, and this is not the first time Israel has obstructed Palestinian education.
In October 2009, for example, the Israeli military arrested a Bethlehem University student named Berlanty Azzam in the middle of the night; handcuffed and blindfolded, she was moved against her will from Bethlehem to Gaza. She had been studying at Bethlehem University for four years and was forced back to Gaza only two months before her graduation. Additionally, in September 2012, several Palestinian students from Gaza were denied the right to travel the short distance to the West Bank to study. Both of these instances are part of an Israeli policy of collective punishment and educational limits directed against Palestinians living in Gaza.
One might argue that this case of the tardy tests was all an innocent bureaucratic error or that it was a coincidence the testing date was on a holiday. However, this "mistake" begs the question: if these were American students, would Americans allow anything -- much less a foreign power -- to stand in the way of our children's chances to take the test that determines their future? So it goes for Palestinians under occupation.