Last fall, Congress enacted a law that indirectly led to 29 young Arab leaders losing their scholarships to U.S.-accredited universities and dealt another blow to educational and cultural exchange programming, a critical part of U.S. public diplomacy efforts.
By Kaylee Steck and Mohammed Alhammami
With a mandate to build mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and of other countries, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is the public diplomacy wing of the State Department. One of the major ways ECA fulfills its mission is by sponsoring educational exchange programs that bring foreign nationals to the United States or, in the case of the Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholarship Program, provide the opportunity for them to attend American schools abroad.
Tomorrow’s Leaders (TL) provides four-year scholarships to highly capable high school seniors in the Middle East and North Africa to the American University of Beirut (AUB) and to the Lebanese American University (LAU)—both American-accredited institutions. For students in the Middle East and North Africa, attending an American school in the region promises access to an American education and exposure to America culture without the costs of living in the United States. Since its inception ten years ago, the State Department has awarded 388 TL scholarships to students across the region.
However, the Department of State recently terminated the program for Palestinian students, following the Palestinian Authority’s decision to relinquish all U.S. government aid mentioned in the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), which came into effect on February 1, 2019. This means that all twenty-nine Palestinian students currently studying through TL scholarships will lose their funding at the end of the academic year. Some of the affected students expressed their frustration on social media and online news outlets. Tala Shurrab, a psychology major at LAU, posted her reaction publicly on her social media accounts: “You know what’s sad? We felt privileged that we left a conflict zone for a better future; we left to pursue that in a country where there is no war against our education as Palestinians.”
Heba Al-Sa’idi, another Palestinian TL participant, said that she felt hopeless after learning that her scholarship had been terminated. “What am I going to do? Will the three years of studying go to waste?,” asked Al-Sa’idi. “We are mere students who are trying to advance in life by acquiring high quality education. They did not have to make us victims of politics that we did not want to be part of. All we want is an education.”
What Happened? The 2018 Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act
On October 3, 2018, President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA), which reinforces the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1992 (ATA). These acts allow U.S. victims of international terrorism to seek justice in U.S. courts. In 2015, U.S. victims of terrorist attacks in Israel during the Second Intifada pursued ATA claims against both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York dismissed the case, saying that the court system had no jurisdiction over the PA or the PLO. In response, ATCA brings foreign organizations that accept certain forms of U.S. foreign assistance under American jurisdiction, and thus potentially exposes them to terrorism-related litigation in U.S. federal courts. A press release from ATCA’s principal author, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), states, “no one benefiting from a U.S. program, such as foreign assistance, or maintaining a presence in the United States should be able to simultaneously dodge responsibility in U.S. courts for involvement in terrorist attacks that harm Americans.”
The Government of Palestine Responds to ATCA
The 2015 case against the PLO and PA that was dismissed provided for $655.5 million in damages, which is more than ten percent of the PA’s current annual budget. While the case was dropped and no payment was made, the PA decided to reject all U.S. aid mentioned in ATCA, which includes the funding to the TL scholarship program, in order to avoid the possibility of costly legal retribution in the future. In December, former PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah renounced U.S. aid in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in late-December. “The Government of Palestine respectfully informs the United States Government that, as of January 31st, 2019, it fully disclaims and no longer wishes to accept any form of assistance referenced in ATCA.”
The Prime Minister’s decision follows an alarming trend of U.S. spending cuts in aid for health care and education to the Palestinians. Last year alone, the Trump administration cut hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid to Palestine, including funding for the U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees. In January 2019, the Trump administration blocked an emergency effort to complete U.S. funded infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After the aid cuts, the only substantial form of direct aid still in place was a security assistance program overseen by the U.S. Security Coordinator. Palestinian leadership determined that the remaining amount of U.S. assistance was not worth the potential liability of accepting it.
Implications for Public Diplomacy
For students from the West Bank and Gaza, pursuing higher education might involve crossing multiple checkpoints on a daily basis just to reach a local university. Attending university abroad is a way to escape everyday struggles including such severe restrictions on movement. LAU and AUB are already working to find a solution for Tomorrow’s Leaders students from Palestine. In a statement issued after the suspension of assistance, AUB said it will “secure the $1.2 million in funds necessary to ensure that they can complete their courses up to graduation.” Soon after, LAU announced that it was also able to secure the resources needed for the affected students to continue their studies until graduation. American aid does not solely determine the future of these students or that of the Palestinian people. Perhaps the PA’s rejection of U.S. assistance will be the first in a series of moves to reduce American influence in the Israel-Palestine conflict, allowing other interests to play a greater role in the future.
The cancellation of exchange programs, even if for small groups of people, undermines the U.S. government’s mission to promote academic and cultural exchanges as mandated by the Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961 (commonly known as the Fulbright–Hays Act). As countless beneficiaries of these programs will attest, cultural exchanges not only cultivate mutual understanding, but they also strengthen the global economy by facilitating professional training and work opportunities. Moreover, these programs create connections that can last for generations, as participants tend to share the affinities they develop for different places and cultures with their friends and family. Sadly, the Trump administration has threatened numerous educational and cultural exchange programs, proposing budget cuts to the Fulbright program and seeking to tighten visa oversight for student exchange visitors. Such cuts compromise diplomatic bridges between American citizens and people around the world, weakening diplomatic efforts and limiting the impact of public diplomacy initiatives.
Kaylee Steck is a program officer for Exchange Programs at AMIDEAST and contributes to both CCAS outreach initiatives and research. She graduated from MAAS in 2018.
Mohammed Alhammami is a graduate of Franklin and Marshall College, a first-year student in the MAAS program, and a third-generation Palestinian refugee.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 CCAS Newsmagazine.