Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in Arabic by Aws Yacoub, and published in Romman Magazine, 21 January 2022. The interview was translated into English by Lubna Taha and the translation was reviewed by Muhammad Ali Khalidi.
Next year marks 60 years since the founding of the Institute for Palestine Studies. To reflect on its political, intellectual, cultural, and social impact, Romman Magazine interviewed the Institute's Director General Khaled Farraj to speak to the Institute's prominent activities, publications, and digital work in research on Palestine. Farraj is also a researcher and academic and sits on the Institute's research committee and editorial committee for Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya (the Arabic Journal of Palestine Studies).
Can you tell us about yourself and your relationship to the Institute for Palestine Studies?
I studied at Birzeit University (BZU) during the nineties and was an active member in the student movement. I was arrested and incarcerated in Israeli prisons. Since that time I had always aspired to work with the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS). I was a reader of all publications produced by the IPS, some of which were assigned at BZU, though they were not easily accessible at that time. Coincidentally, my mentor back then was Dr. Salim Tamari, the former director of the IPS-affiliated Institute of Jerusalem Studies, which was based in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. It was registered under this name in 1995 due to legal restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities. Dr. Tamari encouraged me to join his team to coordinate research, administrative, and advisory work. My first mission was to supervise the move of the IPS headquarters from Jerusalem to Ramallah. IPS was forced to close its office in Jerusalem due to the constraints imposed by the Israeli authorities on Palestinian institutions based in Jerusalem. Also, Israeli military raids, curfews, closures, and restrictions, were widespread in the West Bank and Gaza.
We started working in a small office shared with SHAML (the Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Center), before we were able to rent an office in al-Masyoon neighborhood of Ramallah, where we continued our work. After that, I took a full-time job with IPS and occupied different positions, including becoming a researcher, co-Director of the Palestine office (2006), Director of the Palestine office (2010), and finally Director General of IPS (2017). I am also a member of the Research Committee, the Editorial Committee of Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, in addition to other IPS committees.
Throughout these years, I took on various responsibilities under highly challenging conditions, such as the wars on Lebanon and Gaza, and restrictions on movement inside and outside of Palestine. Despite these circumstances, we established English and Arabic editions of the journal Jerusalem Quarterly. During the brutal war on Lebanon in 2006, we collaborated with colleagues in the IPS Beirut office, especially with the former Director General of the Institute, Mahmoud Soueid, on launching a daily newsletter containing translations of major news items, statements, and analyses in the Israeli press, entitled “Selections from the Hebrew Press.” It continues to be published today and is circulated by email as well as posted on the IPS website. Ever since I joined the Institute, one of my main responsibilities has been securing sustainable financial resources. I was also responsible for registering the Institute in Ramallah with the Palestinian authority as a branch of the IPS office in Beirut. Additionally, in 2008, we organized our first annual conference which went on to become an annual tradition. Despite very difficult circumstances, we were able to establish a wide network of researchers, readers, and bloggers, and our work has reached all parts of Palestine. Our publications have even been circulated to the occupied Golan Heights.
What can you tell us about IPS activities and the role they play in the intellectual and cultural Palestinian scene?
Next year, we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Institute for Palestine Studies. It is rare to find an Arab institution that has managed to survive so long in an unstable region that has witnessed devastating wars, such as the 1967 and 1973 wars, the Lebanese civil war that began in 1975, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the invasion of the West Bank in 2002, and the successive wars on the Gaza Strip. Although some members of our staff in Lebanon were displaced after the invasion of Lebanon, IPS managed to maintain its identity and role, and continued knowledge production, publishing a total of around 700 works about the Palestinian cause mostly in Arabic, but also in English and French. Over the past six decades, we published six quarterly journals: Journal of Palestine Studies (1971), Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya (1990), Jerusalem Quarterly (1998), Hawliyyat al-Quds (2003-2014), and Revue d’études Palestiniennes (1981-1997) - the last two of which ceased publication due to financial constraints.
In addition to our publications, IPS organized workshops, conferences, and seminars, on many topics hosting academics, researchers, journalists, and activists. We established the Constantine Zurayk Library which is the largest Palestinian library in the world, occupying four floors in the Beirut headquarters of IPS. The library collections include around 80,000 books in Arabic, English, French, and Hebrew, in addition to documents, maps, and posters, which are accessible to the public. The library's collection places a particular emphasis on Palestine, its population, history, and society, as well on the political, social, military, and economic aspects of Israel. The collection also includes monographs, basic reference works, encyclopedias, yearbooks, bibliographies, official reports, dictionaries, atlases, statistical surveys, newspapers, and rare books, including books issued by the British Mandate authorities in Palestine and volumes produced by the World Zionist Congresses.
The founders of IPS had an original message, which has been upheld since its inception, which is the independence and objectivity of research on Palestine. I’d like to quote a letter I received from Walid Khalidi (former IPS General Secretary and current Honorary Chair of the Board of Trustees) when I was appointed as Director General:
“I don’t need to remind you of the huge challenges facing the Institute when it comes to delivering its message, upholding its academic and research values, preserving its unity and integrity, maintaining its external relationships, and securing its financial needs”.
IPS managed to preserve and strengthen these values partly by being open to collaborating with universities and research institutions around the world. It is practically impossible for anyone to study or research the question of Palestine or the Arab-Zionist conflict today without relying on the Institute’s resources.
What are some of the goals and missions you aspired to accomplish, and were there any that you haven’t been able to accomplish? If so, what were the reasons?
First, it was my responsibility to uphold the values and integrity of IPS. My first official mission as Director General was to review the status quo, especially the financial situation. The Institute faced a real financial crisis when I was appointed. I decided, in consultation with colleagues in the IPS Executive Committee, that we would require some time to improve our financial situation by encouraging our network of friends and partners (including individuals, funds, and foundations) to continue their support of IPS. Accordingly, in autumn 2017, we started preparing for two significant events that would ensure IPS’ sustainability and the continuation of its programs, despite the hardships that we had endured. We organized a philanthropic dinner in Beirut, at which 600 personalities were present, including figures from the world of politics and economics, businessmen and businesswomen, artists, and intellectuals from all over the Arab world. They all gathered under the auspices of the Institute for Palestine Studies. We also organized an art auction, with the participation of 60 artists from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, all of whom donated their artworks in support of IPS’ activities. We were able collect 72 artworks, which were exhibited at Dar El-Nimer Gallery for Culture and Arts in Beirut in 2018. A large crowd attended the opening. As a result, the Institute has made common cause with artists, forging a kind of solidarity among artists, researchers, intellectuals, and academics, in order to uphold the social and moral values of the institute.
Both initiatives constituted new institutional methods in fundraising, and they were instrumental in promoting a spirit of renewal and rebirth at IPS, among the staff and our broader networks. We succeeded in raising US$1.8 million through this initiative. We then started planning for our 2019 programming with a great deal of confidence in the future of IPS. It was the beginning of a new era focusing more on information technology, communications, electronic publishing, and digitization.
The success of the fundraising dinner and auction in Beirut encouraged us to repeat this experience in Washington, DC. We collected 130 artworks from some of the same artists, as well as some new ones. The artworks were exhibited at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, DC, in March 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, the gallery shifted virtually and is currently available at this link: www.keywordpalestine.com.
Does IPS receive any financial assistance from the Palestinian Authority, or any official Arab entities, or private entities? What are your main sources of funding, and are you concerned about the future in view of your financial constraints?
Most Arab and Palestinian institutions currently face a complex funding environment for many reasons, and this has been exacerbated lately by the economic consequences of COVID-19. There has also been a decline in funding for Palestinian institutions in particular. Despite these challenges, I am confident about the financial future of IPS, since we have faith in our products and our partners, including a wide network of supporters that we have built over the years, who share our trust in our work. We depend partly on a small financial endowment, which we are constantly trying to grow, so that it can support our work sustainably, and we can devote all our energies to the development of research rather than fundraising. We receive some limited revenue from selling books and journals. We also receive some funds from governments, organizations, individuals, and foundations, without any strings attached, thanks to some members of our board of trustees who are involved in these institutions. It is important to note that over the past four years, artists from Palestine and the world have generated a new source of income for the Institute by generously donating some of their artwork to support and sustain our activities.
IPS has a an important and unique website. Does its editorial have a particular ideological orientation?
IPS defines itself as the oldest independent academic institute in the Arab world devoted exclusively to documentation, research, analysis, and publication on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was established in Beirut in 1963 and incorporated there as a private, independent, non-profit Arab institution unaffiliated with any political organization or government. Throughout the world, IPS is looked upon as a major source of accurate information and analysis on the question of Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict. We aim to elevate the just Palestinian cause, its historical, legal, and political underpinnings, but we are an independent academic institution and do not adopt a particular ideological or political line. Our website reflects this vision and constitutes an open platform for anyone doing serious research and writing on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict in line with our mission and in accordance with widely accepted standards of academic research.
Who reads your website and how many visitors does it have?
We are proud of the accomplishments achieved by our website in recent years, whether in terms of the quantity or quality of the published content. Our readers have increased significantly, as have our followers on social media. We have also expanded our reach throughout the Arab world and internationally, and constantly try to update our website with new content. Our followers on social media in Arabic and English have exceeded 200,000 and the number of readers of our Arabic and English blogs has exceeded 121,000. We have been giving particular attention to publishing on our blogs and have succeeded in attracting many new writers, especially among the younger generation. Our blogs have covered a variety of Palestinian-related topics and we have organized a number of topical series on our blogs. We initiated a special series of blogposts devoted exclusively to the topic of Palestinian prisoners. For the past couple of years, we have been publishing weekly articles written by prisoners in Israeli prisons or former prisoners which appear every Wednesday, in addition to periodic reports covering many aspects of prisoners’ lives.
What was the main goal behind creating and sharing resources from your digital projects? And what were the challenges?
IPS has continuously kept pace with technological transformations and the digital revolution, and we decided to establish a website to promote our research publications. Subsequently, we began to assemble several digital databases and collections of digitized documents on the question of Palestine, which constitute a rich source of information for researchers and scholars. Foremost among these is the Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestine Question, hosted on the Palestine Journeys platform, which is a project developed in Arabic and English in collaboration with the Palestinian Museum (and it will also eventually be available in French and Spanish). The Encyclopedia has currently exceeded 800,000 words, and we are preparing for an official launch of this resource within the next couple of months, in coordination with the Palestinian Museum. Other online resources include a daily Chronology of Events relating to Palestine from 1982 onwards, the Israeli Settlement Monitor comprising documents and maps pertaining to Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories, United States Congress resolutions and statements concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, a daily newsletter featuring selections from the Hebrew press, and the Palestine Social History Archives, incorporating historical documents and personal papers from prominent historical figures. IPS is in the process of acquiring and disseminating a range of other original resources and making them available in digital format for users.
At IPS we are aware of the rapid technological developments happening continuously, and this has motivated us to strengthen our human resources in these fields, including software engineers, online editors, and social media experts, in our offices in Beirut, Washington, DC, and Ramallah.
What is IPS’ distinctive contribution to the Palestinian cultural and intellectual scene, as well as the publishing landscape?
We have a mutual and interactive relationship with our public, researchers and academics alike. They share their knowledge and expertise with us, and we engage them in our projects. IPS offers an array of resources and research tools related to documentation, research, analysis, and publication on the question of Palestine, Palestinian history, collective memory, identity, heritage, culture, and current affairs. We do so by publishing books, journals, translations, blogposts, digital projects, organizing events, and through the library. We publish in a number of languages and provide the means to address the research questions of our publics. We are currently working on digitizing our library resources, so that researchers will be able to access the library remotely, and make use of a wide range of periodicals, original documents, photographs, reference works, and books in four languages - Arabic, English, French and Hebrew.
How do you make decisions on what to publish? And how do you choose your authors, especially since many of your publications are jointly authored?
All our publications are refereed anonymously by specialists from within and outside of the Institute. We are one of the very few Arab research institutions using the system of peer review in our research evaluations. We have a Research Committee composed of senior researchers at the Institute, including some members of our Board of Trustees, journal editors, and other senior fellows. The committee meets twice a year and discusses research proposals sent by researchers from around the world, and it also periodically sets our research priorities. We have clear publishing guidelines that conform to academic standards, as well as the needs and objectives of IPS.
Do you think you have been able to reach younger Palestinian audiences?
Certainly. Many of our publications are taught at universities in Palestine, the Arab world, and internationally. We are always thinking of new ways in which we can be in touch with the younger generation, tap into their expertise, and keep up with their concerns. IPS offers internship programs at its offices in Beirut, Ramallah, and Washington, DC, for university students and recent graduates in different areas (research, library, archives, administration, and journalism). This offers students the chance to further their academic training and build on it. We also reach younger generations through the Interactive Encyclopedia and our other digital projects, as well as by offering them the chance to publish in our blogs and journals. There is no doubt that IPS has recently broadened its audience among the younger generation.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed IPS’ approach over the past couple of years?
Although the Institute has faced some tough challenges in the past, including wars and closures, the pandemic was particularly disruptive to universities and research centers. We realized early on that we needed to take quick action and create new remote mechanisms in order to persist in our mission, despite lockdowns and difficult working conditions. During the two years of the pandemic we witnessed an increase in our productivity, organizing scores of online activities, workshops, conferences, and lectures. Over the past couple of years, the city of Beirut has faced devastating circumstances, including the port explosion and the steep decline in the standard of living and economic conditions, and this had led many institutions and organizations to regress, contract, or relocate. But IPS took a decision to keep its office open in Beirut despite everything, since it has always been hospitable in embracing us for 60 years. We stayed in Beirut because we are faithful to our supporters in that city. We managed before the pandemic to collect donations from IPS' supporters and from the Qatar Fund for Development in order to renovate our eight-story building. The building had not been renovated for 45 years, and it was in dire need of maintenance. We were able in record time (April-December 2021) to renovate and maintain the whole building. We created a new gallery space to exhibit artworks donated by artists to sustain IPS. I think we can safely say that this was not just a physical renovation, but rather a sign that IPS will always be open to everyone who believes in the just cause of Palestine in Beirut and beyond.