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Resistance Through Education: An Analysis of Education in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Using Albert Memmi’s Theory

By Nour Al-Ali



What is it like to study under occupation? How do Palestinians manage to reach their schools despite the numerous checkpoints and barricades the Israeli military placed across the land? What options do Palestinians have? And how do they resist through education? This paper will use Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized framework to analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the scope of education. It will do so by summarizing Memmi’s theories, referencing a few similar studies, and, finally, taking a closer look at today’s educational systems in occupied Palestine and the Palestinian territories. It will touch the surface of the injustice Palestinians endure, their lack of access to education due to on-going conflict and the colonial occupation of Israel through statistics, personal narratives of Palestinians, and research. Nevertheless, the paper will also discuss counter-oppression efforts done by Palestinians in exodus to better their lives, while also comparatively drawing parallels between the lives of Edward Said, the late Palestinian scholar, and Memmi, and how both scholars utilized exile to fight oppression.


Keywords: Education, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lack of access, education under conflict, colonialism, Albert Memmi, Edward Said


“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.” — (Said, 2003)


     During the first intifada[1], all schools in Palestine were closed for long periods of time because it was likely for students to die while en route to these schools or while in the classroom due to shelling (Save the Children, 2001). The shutting down of schools, the limited access to education, and Israeli colonialism led to a higher illiteracy rate of Palestinians during the conflict. Because of the free time children had on their hands, they began joining the resistance movement by picking up arms at an early age and becoming fighters. The more children joined the frontlines, the higher their casualty rate became (Save the Children, 2001). Fast forward a decade later, in a 2001 literacy study, conducted by Save the Children Alliance, found that 98% of Palestinian youths, age 15-24 years, living in the Palestinian territories were illiterate. Conflict denotes loss—of life, future, education and hope. The greatest price Palestinians have to pay is not just their lives and loss of land, but their future because without education, prospects of a better life seem impossible.


     Aside from the on-going conflict that negatively influences education; the Israeli government constantly finds new ways to hinder access to education, some of which include: enforcing the Israeli curriculum on Palestinian schools, and setting up checkpoints between states that deny or prolong time needed to reach schools and universities. Palestinians, however, resist by maintaining an interest in school, attending despite checkpoints, refusing to use the Israeli curriculum, and in other cases, leaving Palestine. Is leaving the homeland solution for occupation? And can the will to liberate one’s self from the shackles of occupation triumph the guilt of leaving?


     In order to understand the discourse of education in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through Memmi’s philosophy, we must first define the roles of each party—the Israeli colonizers and the colonized Palestinians—within the oppressed society using Memmi’s work. Those different categories and definitions provided by Memmi apply to the Israeli-Palestinian [2] conflict and provide the necessary infrastructure to examine education within its scope. The former, explained further the summary; will pave way to the literature review and discussion.



     In The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi (1965) provides a colonial framework that is relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically in the case of education, where it can be argued that Israel is enforcing epistemic violence[3] on the Palestinian youth through education by dehumanizing—misrepresenting—Palestinians through textbooks. Palestinians resist through several ways: Either by seeking exile, like Edward Said’s family did, or remaining in their land and enduring the atrocities of occupation for the sake of the land.


Summary of The Colonizer and the Colonized

     Memmi examines the imposition of culture upon the colonized in which the colonizer infiltrates the government, education, economy and the country’s basic infrastructure. Deriding from that, Memmi points out that such actions are done by a colonizer, who essentially comes in two forms: one who refuses and another who accepts. While this paper will look more into the latter, it is essential to explain the two to demonstrate how Israel is a colony made up of usurpers that enforces its systems upon Palestine.


     While the “colonizer who refuses” is deemed a “traitor,” (Memmi, 1965, p. 21) because he often questions the legitimacy of empire but does not strictly refuse its rule. Instead, he “adopts the colonized” and is “adopted by them” (Memmi, 1965, p. 23) because his fight for the colonized’s rights will yield a social order in which he does not exist (Memmi, 1965, p. 39) and will not “find a solution for his anguish in revolt” (Memmi, 1965, p. 45). Hence, he is in a constant state of limbo between a conscience telling him to refuse, and a logic dictating otherwise. The colonizer who accepts, however, is a colonialist who “seeks to legitimize colonization” (Memmi, 1965, p. 45) by simply justifying everything the colony commits and dismissing any human rights infringements he comes across for the ultimate goal of the colony (Memmi, 1965, p. 46), which is to exist.. By doing so, the colonist takes the role of the “usurper,” (Memmi, 1965, p. 52) where he has no actual right to rule the natives of a land foreign to him, but does it anyway, accepting his “nonlegitimate privileged” status (Memmi, 1965, p. 52).  The colonizer tries to evict the colonized from his roles in society by denying the latter basic rights such as governing, proper education, and voting, for instance (Memmi, 1965, p. 95).


     When it comes to education, Memmi argues that the colony provides education—befitting its narrative—to the colonized only to benefit from them as colonization in essence is an enterprise. Education is also a means to preserve the native heritage from dying. However, that would be hard to achieve given that a “great majority of the colonized children are in the streets” (Memmi, 1965, p. 102) for a number of reasons, but mainly due to the lack of resources and access to education. Nevertheless, once access to education is provided, and communication between educators and students are set, students will now be saved from “illiteracy only to fall into linguistic dualism” (Memmi, 1965, p. 106) because educators in colonialism will often be forced to teach the colonizer’s language and neglect and ban the native language, punishing a child whenever speaking it. Memmi adds that while the colonized cannot avoid such stark realities, they have two options, either try “to become different” by imitating the colonizer or “reconquer all the dimensions which colonization tore away from him” (Memmi, 1965, p. 120), which is highly possible and much easier to accomplish while in exile. In order to seek liberation, the colonized must first go “through a recovery of self and of autonomous dignity” (Memmi, 1965, p. 128) that may be purposely hindered and prolonged by the colonist.


Literature Review

     Research that bases Memmi’s colonialism theories on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is scarce and somewhat nonexistent. However, his theory has been analyzed within the scope of other conflicts. Mungazi Dickson of Colgate University, for instance, applied Memmi’s theory (1986) to the “educational and political conflicts that led” to the fall of Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—and “the emergence of the independent country” (Dickson. 1986, p. 518). Dickson argues that Africans were liberated from the Rhodesia Front (RF) because they managed to utilize the education they received from their colonizers to their advantage and demand freedom, similarly to what Memmi described in his book. He also remarks, echoing Memmi’s views, that the colonizer “institutes an educational system […] to make himself the principal beneficiary” as education is intended to “make the colonized a more productive servant” (Dickson. 1986, p. 519). The colonizer would then use the “limited education” he received to liberate himself (Dickson. 1986, p. 519). Dickson says Memmi’s theory fits perfectly when applied to the conflict.  The RF gave natives limited education in order for them to become better servants, and hence generate greater profit through them. The colonized, finally awakening, used the education they received and the role of the church to demand freedom.


     In another research that psycho-politically analyzes Memmi’s theories on liberation, oppression and narcissism through Jungian[4] discourse, Lawrence Alschuler notes that the colonizer lives “at the expense of the colonized” (Alschuler, 1996, p. 504) and survives in three ways. The first is by “identifying with a “superior” culture” (Alschuler, 1996, p. 507) thus forcing the colonized to inhibit culture, language, and identity that is not theirs simply because the colonizers believe it is better. This is where enforcing educational systems comes to play. After a certain amount of time, with the help of propaganda and brainwashing education—textbooks in the case of Israel—the colonized will begin to believe that the colonist is superior, which leads to survival of the colonist through the “admiration” of the colonized (Alschuler, 1996, p. 508). The third way is longing for continuous admiration, bound to cease at some point (Alschuler, 1996, p. 210).



     It is essential to note that while the colonization Memmi speaks of is generalized, it could stand different from the Israeli occupation in one regard. When the French colonized Algeria, for example, their interests were mainly economical, socio- and geo- political where they utilized the colonized and native resources to their advantage. They were banking on the survival of the natives for their missions to succeed. While Israel benefits from the previously mentioned interests, it also subjects Palestinians to genocide, massacres, and ethnic cleansing in order to completely conquer their land. This creates a cycle of violence, says Memmi, as conquests that rely on violence “and over-exploitation and oppression” require it for sustenance (p. xxiv). A colonizer, Israel in this case, would purposely keep the natives in a “subhuman condition,” adds Memmi, citing Karl Marx. Memmi also notes that while the colonizer enjoys democracy and practices freedom of speech, he denies the subhuman colonized that same freedom since “he has no rights” (p. xxiv). Israel is also an apartheid state [5] that segregates Palestinians from Israelis and treats them as second-class citizens (Steinberg, 2004), which immensely hinders their—Palestinians—access to education. The framework, nonetheless, fits because Israel, as any other empire, benefits greatly from native resources and follows the similar “us” against “them” thinking.


Early Propaganda through School Textbooks

     Memmi (1965) argues that the only way the colonized can preserve their heritage is through education; passing on habits, language, and traditions to younger generations. Palestinians cannot do that. In an effort to dismantle Palestinian morale and hinder the resistance movement, the Israeli government now enforces its curriculum on Palestinian schools in Jerusalem. In her book Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education, Nurit Peled-Elhanan argues that the Israeli curriculum marginalizes Palestinians by depicting them as primitive terrorists or refugees who can only work as farmers or suicide bombers (2012). Those texts, if studied by Palestinian youth, would eventually carve an inferior sense of identity in their psyche, making them accept the reality of oppression and resist it less and less. This is a problem when considering that traditional education, referred to as the “banking” concept by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), often banks on passive students receiving information from educators without involving any critical thinking and essentially heightening what Memmi referred to as “no communication […] from child to teacher” (1968, p. 105). The role of the Palestinian student while studying the Israeli curriculum would be to “patiently receive, memorize, and repeat,” (1970, p. 70) as Freire puts it, reinforcing and validating the oppressive curriculum as they are specifically taught not to question it. With such interference by the Israeli colonist in the life of the colonized Palestinian student, Memmi argues that the only remaining “possible alternatives” (1968, p. 102) for the colonized are either adapting to such conditions or complete isolation, which in this case would lead to illiteracy. Assimilation leads to what Memmi likened to as the colonized imitating the culture of the colonizer, attempting to “avoid his own past” (1968, p. 104) because as far the new Palestinian generations are concerned, the education they receive—the history they learn—is one sided.


Issues Palestinian University Students Face

     Setting barricades and checkpoints between states also greatly hinders the ability to travel to schools, Bethlehem University Professor Mazin Qumasiyeh explains in an interview (2012). Aside from becoming a serious issue that greatly limits access to education, this also leads to a lack of diversity in universities and schools across the Palestinian territories. Although funded by the Palestinian Authority and partly by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) universities suffer from lack of resources and limited funding as well. After all they operate under an “economy of occupation,” remarks the professor. Another issue many students who wish to study abroad face is the denial of entry by Israel, whereby if they leave they are not allowed to return to Palestine[6], adds Qumasiyeh. These attempts to hinder education processes are what Memmi explains as the colonizer “weakening the colonized” (p. 115) so that regardless of the outcome, the colonized will always need guidance by the colonizer as their standard of living remains “threatened” (p. 115). This in effect reinforces stereotypes of natives who were denied access to education, as they now do not have sufficient education to fulfill their dreams.


Hope Beyond the Horizon

     Although Memmi’s theory is only applicable to colonized people living under oppression, we can derive his philosophies on education in exile from personal experience as well as a few markers in the text itself, as it can be analytically viewed within the scope of exiled Palestinians such as Edward Said, where he dealt in his 1999 memoir, Out of Place, with his displacement and subsequent education abroad. His narrative is essential because Said’s father escaped the Israeli occupation by seeking exile in Cairo and because of that, Said became a noted scholar who resisted Israel through education.


     To break the barrier of colonization, as Memmi puts it, Edward Said’s father avoided injustice by seeking solace in exile. He relocated to Cairo, where his children—Edward—received proper education and then traveled to the United States for higher education. By receiving his higher education in the United States—undergraduate, graduate, and post graduate degrees—Said defied those who colonized his land and resisted through education. When Princeton’s social life was uninspiring him, Said immersed himself in “reading and writing” as they were the “only antidote” to a lifestyle he refused to be part of (Said, 1999, p. 276). In fact, it was due to his education abroad that Said had his first contact with “colonial authority” (Said, 1999, p. 42) that made him further question colonialism and possess a greater will to fight it. He will always be remembered as the Palestinian who refused.


The “Fecundity” of Exile

     Drawing parallels between the lives of Memmi and Said, both scholars sought exile to pursue education and better life standards. However, while Said never made the shift from colonized to colonizer, it can be argued that Memmi, originally be colonized, used his status to benefit from colonization, as he received his education and continues to live in France until this day. He comes from a poorly-educated family, and received his preschool education that reinforced his Jewish beliefs as it revolved around learning how to speak Hebrew and how to pray (Memmi, 1968, p. 159). Nevertheless, after entering the “French-sponsored” Alliance Israelite Universelle, Memmi was exposed to “Western secular education” among the colonial elite (Memmi, 1968, p. 160). This is where he learned how to speak French. By studying hard and exceeding expectations, Memmi received a scholarship to attend the Lycée Carnot, “a French-run high school […] for the Tunisian political elite.” Entering that school, Memmi managed to overcome his colonized roots and join the society of the colonizer (Memmi, 1968, p. 161), which paved way to his education at the prestigious University of Paris in France where he lives to date. Memmi never returned to Tunisia although he very much could. This perhaps is due to the fact that as a Jewish minority in the Middle East, Memmi felt unwelcomed by the Arabs. His life in exile was good to him. He saw the possibility of a new life in exile as he stated in a correspondence, noting that while “The suffering of exile has often been deplored [...] It is time to add that exile is also fecund” (2011). Memmi also said that another side of exile “is to enjoy multiple affiliations and especially to acquire from them a sense of indulgence toward everyone” (Memmi, 2011, p. 5) adding that he would love to explore new countries and become a citizen of them. Memmi’s philosophy about exile is positive and quite different from Said’s struggle with it. While Memmi found his voice in exile, Said struggled to collect fragments of his identity because of it. However, both scholars benefited, without a doubt, from exile through their education. Without it, they would not have become the scholars many are fond of today.



Works Cited

Alschuler, L. (1996). Oppression, liberation, and narcissism: A Jungian psychopolitical analysis of the ideas of Albert Memmi.                 Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 21(4), 497-523. Retrieved from

Dickson, M. (1986). Application of Memmi's theory of the colonizer and the colonized to the conflicts in Zimbabwe. The Journal of  Negro Education, 55(4), 518-534. Retrieved from:

Flaqan, S. (1987). The birth of Israel. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Khalidi, W. (1998). Selected documents on the 1948 Palestine War. Journal of Palestine Studies, 27(3), 60-105. University of California Press. Retrieved from:

Memmi, A. (1965). The colonizer and the colonized. New York, NY: Orion Press.

Memmi, A. (2011). The fecundity of exile. Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy, XIX(2), 4-6.

Nanda, M. (2005). Postcolonial science studies: Ending 'epistemic violence' In D. Patai (Ed.), Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (2007) Israeli-Palestinian fatalities since 2000 - key trends. Retrieved from Unispal Documentations Collection.

Peled-Elhanan, N. (2012). Palestine in israeli school books: Ideology and propaganda in education. New York, NY: I. B. Tauris.

Qumsiyeh, M. (2012, Oct. 14). Israel limits access to education to force Palestinians out. Retrieved from

Said, E. (2003, July 30). Blind imperial arrogance. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Save The Children Alliance. (2001). Palestine: The education of children at risk. Retrieved from Forced Migration Online.

Steinberg, G. (2004, August 28). The apartheid propaganda. Aish: The Jewish Website. Retrieved from



[1] The first Intifada, the official Arabic term for the Palestinian resistance movements, lasted from 1987 to 1993.

[2] Israel occupied Palestine in the wake of 1948, roughly three years after the fall of the Third Reich, prominently known for its persecution of Jews and the holocaust. Known as the Nakba, the two-phased conflict began as a civil war following the 1947 United Nations General Assembly partition plan that ruled a two-state Arab and Jewish scheme in Palestine until the British mandate ended its colonization of Palestine. The civil war manifested into a regional war that had Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria fighting against Israel (Jewish state at the time). Israel won, declared its occupation and led to the exodus of Palestinians (Khalidi, 1998). Approximately 700,000 Palestinians were evicted from or fled their homes, which were then occupied by settlers, due to “intimidation, terror, and forceful expulsion.” The Israeli government then began to demolish their villages and promulgate laws to prevent Palestinians from returning to their land (Flaqan, 1987).

[3] Michel Foucault, who coined this term, defined it as a violence of knowledge that aims to colonize the mind. The colonizer uses this form of violence that shies away from military and governmental forces to radically change the way colonized persons think of themselves with regard to the colony and vice versa (Nanda, 2005).

[4] That is, based on the works of Carl Jung, who founded analytical psychology and is most notably remembered for his research on the human psych and archetypes in his 1921 book Psychological Types.

[5] Similar to that of South Africa in 1984-1994.

[6] Not allowing natives to return is a common practice by states of Apartheid.  An similar historical example on this would be the South African Apartheid, where the natives could not return to their homeland should they decide to leave.


Nour Al-Ali is a Syrian senior at the American University of Sharjah, pursuing a double major in English Language and Literature, with a concentration in Literature, and Mass Communication. She is an advocate of women’s rights, justice, and human rights. She has been published by several local and online news outlets. Her research interests include, but are not limited to: post-colonial discourse, exile, Arab identity, and Syrian modern history. She often publishes poetry, short stories, and blog posts on a wide array of issues at

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