Biography

Khalil Abdallah Totah

Educators

Khalil Abdallah Totah

20 May 1886, Ramallah, Palestine
24 February 1955, Whittier CA, USA

Khalil Totah was born in Ramallah, Palestine on 20 May 1886. He was the sixth child of the surviving seven children of his Quaker Christian parents, Aziza Moghannam and Abdallah Totah. He had four sisters—Helaneh, Martha, Nameh, and Nasra—and two brothers, Ibrahim and Salem.

Khalil was first schooled at home and then in 1901, attended the first classes at the newly established Friends Boys’ Training Home in al-Bireh.

He then attended the Friends School in Brummana, Lebanon, and the English School in Jerusalem between 1903 and 1905 before traveling to the United States to complete his high school education at the Friends Oak Grove Seminary in Vassalboro, Maine. He attended Clark College (now University) in Worcester, Massachusetts from 1908 to 1911 and then went to Columbia University’s Teachers College from 1911 to 1912 for his MA degree in education.

In 1912, Totah married an American Quaker, Ermina Jones, and they returned to Palestine so that he could assume the positions of principal and teacher at Ramallah’s Friends Boys’ Training School from 1912 to 1914. After three months of compulsory training in the Ottoman army in the spring of 1914, he left secretly for the United States where he remained absent without leave from the Ottoman army for the duration of World War I. In 1918, in a moment of enthusiasm, he joined the YMCA Volunteers for service with U.S. troops of the 79th Division in route to France.

In 1919, he returned to Palestine, which was then under a British Mandate, and became the first assistant Principal and then Principal of the British-founded Men’s Teacher Training College (later renamed the Arab College) in Jerusalem.

Totah remained principal until 1925—the year when Lord Balfour, author of the infamous Balfour Declaration, visited Jerusalem at the invitation of the Zionist Organization to attend the celebrations associated with the founding of the Hebrew University. Balfour’s visit incensed Arab feelings. A general strike took place and there were many protests and demonstrations. The strike spread to all Arab institutions, including the Teachers College. As a result of all this turmoil Totah resigned from his post and decided to travel to the United States to complete his Ph.D. at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City.

He returned to Ramallah in 1927 to be a teacher and principal of the Friends Boys’ School, positions he held until 1944. During those years he made important contributions to the field of education in Palestine. He was among the few Palestinian educators and intellectuals who fully grasped the critical role of education in the liberation and development of Palestine, who constantly argued for girls’ education; the need for Palestinian centered educational reform in both towns and villages; Palestinians’ control over the education of their children (curricula, books, courses); inclusion of music, art and drama as part of a Palestinian cultural component in the primary and secondary curricula; and agricultural training for the rural students.

He also dealt with personal tragedy—the death of his wife in April 1928. One year later, he married Eva Rae Marshall, an American Quaker teacher at the Friends Girls’ School.

In addition to his work in education, Totah was active in defending Arab rights in Palestine. He testified on the poor conditions of Palestinian education in November 1937 before the Peel Commission.

After eighteen years of outstanding service with the Ramallah Friends Schools, Totah and Eva took their three children, Nabil, Sibyl, and Joy, to the United States in 1944 to begin a new life. He was Executive Director of the New York City-based Institute of Arab American Affairs (IAAA) from 1945 to 1950, during which time he became an American citizen. On 18 January 1946, he testified on Palestinian independence and Zionism before the Anglo-American Committee during its hearings in Washington.

When his IAAA work was completed, he and his family left New Jersey for California where he retired from active work and completed his last work, Dynamite in the Middle East (New York, 1955). In 1952, he returned for the last time to his homeland. He died in the town of Whittier, California, on 24 February 1955.

Khalil Abdallah Totah was an educationist of wide learning and knowledge of current affairs and an eloquent speaker. He was one of the most prominent pioneers of educational reform in Palestine and was among the earliest figures to challenge Zionist propaganda in the United States.

Writings

In English

Arab Progress in Palestine. Series No. 7. New York: Institute of Arab American Affairs, 1946.

The Contribution of the Arabs to Education. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1926.

Dynamite in the Middle East. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.

“Education in Palestine.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 164, no. 2545 (November 1932).

Introducing the Arabs to Americans. Series No. 8. New York: Institute of Arab American Affairs, 1948.

In Arabic

"التربية عند العرب". القدس: المطبعة التجارية، 1932.

[Arab Education]

طوطح وعمر صالح البرغوثي. "طريق فلسطين". القدس: "مرآة الشرق 1923.

[A History of Palestine]

طوطح وحبيب خوري. "جغرافية فلسطين". القدس: "مرأة الشرق"، 1932.

[Geography of Palestine]

طوطح وبولس شحادة. "طريق القدس ودليلها". القدس: مرآة الشرق، 1920.

[A History of Jerusalem and Its Guide]

 

Sources

Hilden, Joy Totah. Passion for Learning: The Life Journey of Khalil Totah, a Palestinian Quaker Educator and Activist. Wiltshire, UK: Ex Libris Press, 2016.

Ricks, Thomas M., ed. Turbulent Times in Palestine: The Diaries of Khalil Totah, 1886–1955. Jerusalem and Ramallah: Institute for Palestine Studies and PASSIA, 2009.     

Rutherford, Colin. The Education of Dr. Khalil Totah. Unpublished MA Thesis, Department of History, California State University, Long Beach, California, 2010.