Hatem Husseini (b. 1941 in Jerusalem) was a professor, information officer, author, and the first president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.
Hatem Ishaq Husseini
Childhood and Education
Hatem Husseini was born in Jerusalem in 1941. His father, Ishak, was the first Arab to earn a PhD (in 1934) from the University of London in literary studies and to become a professor of Islamic literature. His mother, Ulwiya Husseini, came from an established family with long roots in Jerusalem; Hind Husseini was her cousin. The couple lived in a home in Upper Baq‘a and had three children: Hatem, Nawar, and Bishr.
By the end of 1947, the Husseini home had become unsafe (see The West Side Story). The children were confined to their home with their mother while heavy shelling reverberated in their neighborhood. Ishak Husseini worked in an office next to the King David Hotel, which was nearby, yet he could not return home because the streets were so unsafe. In an interview conducted with her years later, Ulwiya Husseini spoke about living through the months of combat alone with her children; the oldest was Hatem, age five, and he “held onto my dress as the bombs shrilled overhead.”1
After two months, they had to leave Jerusalem. The family intended to return to their home when the combat ended and took little with them. As Ulwiya notes:
Ishak Husseini, a proficient writer, had a library of over 60,000 volumes. He lost his collection and his home in the war.
Education amid Displacement
In March 1948, the family fled to Aleppo and stayed there for a year and a half, living off the family savings. The children had a very difficult time adjusting; they longed for their own beds, toys, and rooms in Jerusalem. Then Ishak was offered a teaching job at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, and the family moved to Beirut. A few years later, in 1956, they left Beirut and moved to Cairo, as Ishak accepted a new position in the Arabic Department at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Over an eight-year period, the family lived in three countries, all the while longing to return to Jerusalem. They lost their house in al-Baq‘a in Jerusalem, but the couple began building another house in East Jerusalem. They put all their retirement savings into it with the intention of retiring there. In 1967, Hatem Husseini’s mother managed to visit Jerusalem to see their new house, yet the war of 1967 began just then. The return to Jerusalem had to be postponed.
Husseini was a diligent student. He first studied in Lebanon and then pursued his BA in economics from AUC. After Egypt, he continued his studies in the US. He earned an MA in business administration from the University of Rhode Island. In 1969, he got a PhD in political science from the University of Massachusetts (UMass). He was active in the MIT Organization of Arab Students, being named to its executive committee in early September 1967, at its 16th annual convention held in Boston at MIT, while he was a student at UMass.3
Teaching Career and Influence
Husseini taught at several institutions in the US, including Smith College, Shaw University, and the University of Maryland. He got invited to lecture at various universities, including Duke University. Husseini also wrote and published several articles and booklets, including Toward Peace in Palestine and The Palestine Problem, both published in 1974.
Husseini was a senior figure in Fatah, the Palestinian national liberation movement. In 1977, he became a member of the Palestinian National Council, the Palestinian parliament in exile. Soon thereafter, he worked with the League of Arab States, a regional organization that was formed in Cairo in 1945 with 6 country members (now expanded to 22). Husseini was then appointed director of its office in Washington, DC.
In 1978, Husseini opened the Palestinian Information Office (for the PLO) in Washington, DC. Its purpose was to promote “better Palestinian-American understanding. We seek to bring the views of the Palestinian people on their problems in the Middle East to the attention of the American people.”4
In 1982, he became deputy director of the Palestine Observer Mission to the UN. He remained in that position until 1983.
After spending almost 25 years in the US, Husseini (with his wife, Rabi‘a, and son, Hadi) returned to his beloved Jerusalem in 1993. It was the city he identified with, as noted by a columnist who profiled him in the late 1970s: “Jerusalem is his city, not Washington and Palestine, not America, is where the bones of his fathers have been gathered for maybe a thousand years.”5
Upon his return, he was appointed president of Al-Quds University. The position had been offered to his father years earlier. Ishak Husseini had been asked to lead the effort to establish a higher learning institution for Palestinians in Jerusalem and had worked on the project until he died in 1990. Al-Quds University was founded in 1984, but its official constitution was written in 1993, the same year Hatem was appointed president.
An article about Husseini written after his death states that
Husseini’s recent activities focused on raising the standard of al-Quds University, which includes four colleges in the Jerusalem area: Science and Technology, Islamic Theological Studies, and Nursing. His greatest ambition, friends say, was to make al-Quds University a major Palestinian educational institution. Israeli authorities maintained the unification of the university was illegal and issued separate licenses to the four colleges.6
A year after assuming the presidency of Al-Quds University, Husseini proposed that a medical school be established. He wanted to raise the standards of the university and dreamed of making Al-Quds University a major Palestinian educational institution. On November 11, 1994, Husseini noted:
Every Palestinian should feel proud that a new Palestinian medical school is on its way to being established in Jerusalem. This is a dream that has long been with us. However, the tensions of war and conflict kept us from building essential educational institutions for our people . . .
In less than six years we will enter the twenty-first century. We must face the challenges with professional and excellent institutions.
Those who tell us to move slowly are wrong. We have to move fast, we have to mobilize all our energies, and we have to act as if we are in a state of emergency. We have wasted enough precious time and resources. The excellent Palestinian doctors have left us for Europe and the United States because we have not built our own medical institutions . . .
In order to succeed we must unite all our efforts, and cooperate and support each other . . .
Let us keep the dream alive and let us join hands to build what is best for our Palestinian people.7
Although he lived much of his life outside of Jerusalem, Husseini held on to a dream of contributing to Palestinian education and society.
Husseini died of cancer at the age of 53 on December 27, 1994, in Jerusalem. In an obituary written after his death, Ali Khalili, editor in chief of the Palestinian weekly The Jerusalem Times, was quoted as saying: “Hatem was a pragmatic person and a philosopher whose main goal was to build the Palestinian society on a democratic basis. He was a modest person with a heart filled with love of Jerusalem.”
Abu Aker, Khaled. “Hatem Husseini, a Palestinian Educator Dies.” United Press International (UPI). December 28, 1994.
“Deaths: Hatem Husseini – Fatah Official.” Washington Post. Accessed October 21, 2022.
Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestine Question. “Ishaq Musa al-Husseini.” Accessed October 21, 2022.
Madsen, Ann Nicholls. Making Their Own Peace: Twelve Women of Jerusalem. New York: Lantern Books, 2003.
Mitchell, Henry. “A Man without a Country Makes the Case for 4 Million Palestinians.” Washington Post. August 17, 1979.
Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. “Al-Husseini, Hatem Izhaq (1941–1994).” Accessed October 21, 2022.
[Profile photo: PASSIA, Item 318]
Ann Nicholls Madsen, Making Their Own Peace: Twelve Women of Jerusalem (New York: Lantern Books, 2003), 84.
Madsen, Making Their Own Peace, 85.
Laura Holbrow, “Arab Students Hit Conciliation,” The Boston Globe, September 3, 1967, retrieved from newspapers.com.
Henry Mitchell, “A Man without a Country Makes the Case for 4 Million Palestinians,” Washington Post, August 17, 1979.
Madsen, Making Their Own Peace, 91–92.