Gabi Baramki was born in Jerusalem on 3 November 1929. His father, Anthony Baramki, was a famous architect; a graduate of the Athens Academy of Fine Arts, he supervised the construction of many buildings, houses, and churches in Jerusalem and Ramallah. His mother was Evelyn. He and his wife, Haifa Tarazi, had three children: Hania, Hani, and Sami.
In 1934, at age five, his parents enrolled him in the boarding section of Birzeit High School where he remained until 1946, when he obtained the Palestine Matriculation certificate. (In 1942, the school was renamed Birzeit College.) These foundational years of his early life saw the beginning of his relationship with that pioneering educational institution, a relationship that would last throughout his life.
The Birzeit School was the first private national coeducational school in Palestine. The curriculum was taught in both Arabic and English. It had been founded in 1924 by the educationist Nabiha Nasir (1891–1951) as a girls’ school but became coeducational in 1932. In that school, Gabi Baramki imbibed, as he put it, “his first lessons about Arab nationalism.” During that period the Great Palestinian Rebellion of 1936–39 broke out against British imperialism and the Zionist movement, greatly fortifying Palestinian national consciousness. Baramki relates how the teachers of history would plant in their students a sense of pride in Arab history and heritage, and recalls how the school anthem called for Arab unity in order to convey to students a feeling of belonging and a love of the homeland.
Baramki pursued his higher education at the American University of Beirut where he studied chemistry, obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in 1950 and a Master of Science degree in 1953. The university at that time was home to a vigorous Arab nationalist movement, allowing Baramki to meet figures like Wadi Haddad, Shafiq al-Hout, George Habash, and Kamal Nasir. This was a period of seismic national events: Arab armies entering Palestine were defeated by Zionist militias, Israel was established, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families were expelled from their homes in the cities and villages of Palestine. The Nakba of Palestine in 1948 was a landmark event in the life of every single Palestinian individual, in the history of the Palestinian people in particular and of the Arab nation in general. The Baramki family was expelled from the house built by the father, which happened to be on the front line between east and west Jerusalem. The Zionists occupied the house and turned it into a military barracks; years later, Israel turned it into a museum. The family first took refuge in Gaza before finally settling in Ramallah. Meanwhile, the American University of Beirut undertook to help Palestinian students whose parents could no longer support them, so Baramki was appointed an instructor in the Chemistry Department. That experience was to be the start of his love of teaching to which he would dedicate his life.
In 1954, Baramki returned to Birzeit College to work at the educational institution where his cultural and scientific knowledge was first formed. The year before, it had started to become a university college when a freshman class was added. For the next five decades, Baramki’s name was linked indissolubly with that educational institution. He believed in education as the means to revive the Palestinian people, preserve their national and cultural identity, and come to terms with their tragedy. He would leave that institution for only two years (1957–59) to pursue a doctoral degree at McGill University in Canada through a fellowship from the Ford Foundation.
Gabi Baramki was not simply performing a job at that pioneering institution so much as pursuing a mission he believed in and to which he dedicated his life. This is because the objective circumstances in which Birzeit University came into existence and developed, circumstances that stamped the modern and contemporary history of Palestine, constituted an existential challenge to the Palestinian people. As Birzeit College was turning into a university, Israel launched its war of June 1967 in which it occupied what remained of Palestine, annexed east Jerusalem, and then proceeded to practice policies aimed at stamping out Palestinian national identity and the history of the Palestinian people.
The building of the first national university under the yoke of a colonialist occupation intent on uprooting the land’s original inhabitants was simultaneously a challenge to the occupying power, a refined cultural response in the face of segregationist policies, and an act of resistance to occupation, aimed at restoring the rights of Palestinians in their homeland. This is what Baramki and his Palestinian academic colleagues believed in when they participated in building the university. That faith propelled him to achieve those distinctive accomplishments in laying down the foundations of higher education in Palestine and advancing it further. Baramki was a son of that pioneering institution and followed its growth, first as a teacher, then as head of its secondary school, and then as dean of its university college. He was an active member of the team that transformed it into a full university in 1972.
In 1974, University President Hanna Nasir was deported to Lebanon. The Board of Trustees then elected Baramki to serve as Acting President (a position he retained until 1993). Birzeit University won the first round in challenging the occupation when, despite repression, threats and constant harassments by the Israeli occupation army, it succeeded in graduating its first batch of BA graduates in 1976.
As acting president, Baramki led the university wisely and in a visionary manner during one of the most brutal and dangerous phases of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, especially in the period of the first intifada, which began in December 1987 and continued until the signing of the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO in September 1993. Birzeit University was frequently closed and for lengthy periods. Harassments, campus incursions, arrests, and murders were routinely carried out by the military occupation authorities. Baramki stood up to these illegal practices with forcefulness and courage, facing down the occupation soldiers and officers, their military governors and war ministers in order to ensure that the university would continue to perform its educational and national role.
In this tumultuous period, Baramki framed the rules and regulations governing the work of the university and expanded it by adding a number of new faculties and academic programs. However, his work was not confined to university administration. He strove to coordinate the activities of the Palestinian universities that came into existence at that time. He was one of the founders of The Higher Palestinian Council for Higher Education in 1977 and was its general secretary and vice-president. He also established contact and reached accords with a number of European and US universities and helped to draft The European-Palestinian Program for Academic Cooperation in the Educational Field, which was established in 1991 to support Palestinian universities and provide scholarships for graduate study. He documented this unique experience in a book published in 2010, titled Peaceful Resistance: Building a University Under Occupation. (Former president Jimmy Carter wrote the Introduction.)
When the university president, Hanna Nasir, returned from exile with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Baramki continued to serve the university as an active member of its Board of Trustees. His contributions to the Palestinian educational system and to its development were distinctive and unique. In recognition of his wide experience and exceptional expertise, he was selected to serve as special counselor to the first Ministry of Education and Higher Education in the Palestinian Authority and was the first chairman of the Quality Improvement Fund, taking on at the same time the job of secretary general of the Council for Scientific Research.
Baramki’s contributions were not confined to the field of education. Thus, he was president of the Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace and a participant at the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. (Twice he was elected to its council, at two successive sessions, 1992–2002.) He was also a member of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.
Baramki continued to believe in the principles of peaceful resistance to Israeli occupation, a belief he adhered to throughout his life and his career. In 2004, he was a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. This campaign, in the service of which he employed his wide international network of contacts to help launch and disseminate it, was for him a manifestation of a principle he had always believed in throughout his private and public life, and his commitment to bring it about was one way of ending the last imperialist occupation in the world.
The principle of peaceful resistance was also evident in Baramki’s support for measures to strengthen the attachment of Palestinians to the land. Before his death on 30 August 2012, Baramki recommended the creation of a special fund for applied scientific research in the fields of Palestinian agriculture and industry and within the framework of Birzeit University, which would support university research aimed at improving Palestinian industries. In his will, he left a sum of money to launch that fund.
Baramki was both a highly cultured educator and a committed activist who made a prominent contribution to the higher education system in Palestine and its development.
Baramki received many honors for his lifetime achievements. In 1993, the French Ministry of Higher Education awarded him the Chevalier de l’ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, in recognition of his distinctive contributions to education. The head of the Palestine National Authority posthumously awarded him the Medal of Merit and Distinction “in recognition of his distinctive academic role in improving higher education and contributing to the creation of the first university in Palestine, as also in appreciation of his exceptional national achievements.” Birzeit University established a professorship in chemistry in his name and announced the launch of a Baramki Prize for student excellence.
“Education against all Odds: The Palestinian Struggle for Survival and Excellence.” In Ronald G. Sultana, ed., Educators of the Mediterranean… Up Close and Personal Voices from South Europe and the MENA Region, 7–17. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011.
Peaceful Resistance: Building a University Under Occupation. London and New York: Pluto Press, 2009.
“Palestinian Higher Education – an Overview.” This Week in Palestine, no.102, October 2006.
“Security and Violence in the Middle East.” International School on Disarmament and Research on Conflicts Workshop, Andalo, Italy, January 2003; available at http://www.isodarco.com/courses/andalo04/paper/andalo04-baramki.pdf.
“Itamar Marcus again: Jerusalem Post Editorial about Palestinian Textbooks.” Palestine Monitor, 7 September 2003.
“La même peur.” Le Nouvel Observateur, 28 November 2002.
“Aspects of Palestinian Life Under Occupation.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 19, no.2 (1992): 125–32.
الشيخ، عبد الرحيم. ”سيرة جابي برامكي وتجربته في جامعة بير زيت (1929-2012)". بيروت: مؤسسة الدراسات الفلسطينية، 2015.
جامعة بيرزيت. "كلمة الدكتور حنا ناصر في تأبين الدكتور جابي برامكي (3/11/2012)"، على موقع الجامعة birzeit.edu.
Baramki, Haifa. “Gabi Baramki Fund for Scientific Applied Research.” This Week in Palestine, no.197, September 2014.
The Friends of Birzeit University (FOBZU). “BZU Community Mourns the Loss of Dr. Gabi Baramki,” fobzu.org.
Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU). “Gabi Baramki: Intellectual and Defender of Education,” imeu.org.