How a Tel Aviv Univ. event is being sold as boycott compliant at Brown

Support for boycotting Israeli academic institutions complicit in gross violations of Palestinian rights is growing, especially since Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer, which was fully backed by Israeli universities.

As a result, Israeli institutions must find creative ways to evade the boycott while appearing to comply with it.

A case in point is a seminar planned for 13 April at Brown University’s Cogut Center for Humanities entitled “The Humanities in Israel/Palestine: Reflections on the State of Knowledge.”

An organizer insists the event does not violate the boycott, but correspondence seen by The Electronic Intifada indicates that the institutional involvement of an Israeli center is being deliberately – and perhaps deceptively – downplayed.

The symposium includes a number of scholars from the Minerva Center for the Humanities at Tel Aviv University, and two Palestinian scholars at Brown University, history professor Beshara Doumani and postdoctoral fellow Sa’ed Atshan.

Both Doumani and Atshan are on record publicly supporting an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, as part of the broader boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Who is the organizer?

One of the symposium’s organizers is Tel Aviv University professor Adi Ophir, co-director of the Minerva Center, and currently a visiting professor in the humanities at Brown University.

In an email to The Electronic Intifada, Ophir emphatically denied that the symposium could be seen as violating the boycott.

“As far as I know, and as far as I have been involved in this project, the mini-symposium on the Humanities in Israel/Palestine is not ‘a joint’ project of the Minerva Humanities Center and the Cogut Center for the Humanities,” Ophir writes. “The Minerva Center is part of this only in the sense that it fosters this type of academic work and gives its faculty the freedom to pursue it. The Israeli center is not involved in the organization of the event at the Cogut Center in any other way. No funding or organizational work on part of the Israeli institution is involved and the Israeli scholars do not represent Tel Aviv University in any formal capacity.”

“I am involved in this project as a member of the faculty at the Cogut Center,” Ophir continues. “I hope that this clarifies the matter and that the BDS targets institutions, not individuals.”

Clear violation

Ophir appears to have carefully read the boycott guidelines issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

PACBI is clear that it does not call for a boycott of individual scholars just because they are Israeli, but rather of institutional ties to complicit Israeli institutions.

In a statement sent to The Electronic Intifada, PACBI notes that although Ophir “is a member of the Brown University faculty, he is also the current director – not just a research fellow – of the Minerva Center at Tel Aviv University (TAU), an unquestionably boycottable university.”

“Organizing this event at Brown while being a director of an Israeli institution constitutes an institutional link as he is considered a representative of this boycottable institution, increasing that institution’s profile through such an event, and not merely an individual academic affiliated to a boycottable institution,” PACBI adds.

“Ophir’s political views are irrelevant here,” PACBI states, “it is his representation of a boycottable institution that matters.”

Downplaying institutional tie

Correspondence seen by The Electronic Intifada suggests that Ophir’s reply dissociating the Minerva Center from the event is a deliberate attempt to downplay this clear institutional link.

Ophir himself sent out invitations to potential speakers by email:

I am writing to invite you to take part in a symposium I am co-organizing with Michael Steinberg. The Cogut Center for the Humanities will host four young scholars from the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University (Brown is inviting individual scholars, no institutional contact is involved). The Minerva Humanities Center (of which I am still serving as one of the directors, together with my friends Raef Zriek and Rivka Feldhay) is a hub for many young scholars whose academic work is [a] good example of “engaged knowledge” that often involves sharp critique of the current Israeli regime. The four guests will present reflections on the condition of the humanities in Israel/Palestine and the politics of knowledge in times that never cease to seem dark. A draft of an short [sic] description of the event is attached below together with the papers’ abstracts.

In fact, the draft description to which Ophir refers – a Microsoft Word document attached to the email – is plainly titled: “Joint Symposium with Members of the Minerva Humanities Center, Tel Aviv University, Cogut Center for the Humanities, Brown University.”

Metadata contained in the Microsoft Word document indicates that it was created on a copy of the word processing program registered to Minerva Center co-director Raef Zreik.

Simply claiming the participants are being invited as “individuals” cannot disguise the fact that they are being brought as a group affiliated with the Minerva Center to a bilateral event with Brown, co-organized by at least one director of the Minerva Center.

“Clarification”

After initial correspondence with The Electronic Intifada, Ophir subsequently sent an unprompted “clarification” saying he had been “made aware” that The Electronic Intifada had seen the invitation email and attachment calling the event a “joint symposium.”

“I admit that this is an ambiguous phrase, although even here the emphasis is on individuals, not on the institution,” he said. Ophir adds that the “phrase is not included in the poster and public announcements of the event, and it does not reflect the facts.”

He insists that “Beshara Doumani was added to the program recently without a written invitation.”

Doumani wrote to The Electronic Intifada that he was only invited to take part in the event “verbally” several days ago. He said he had never been sent the invitation describing the event as a “joint symposium,” but asked Ophir to show it to him a result of The Electronic Intifada’s inquiries.

“This is unfortunate and I would have certainly warned him about it if I had known,” Doumani stated.

“The organizers are well aware of my support for BDS and I have discussed the implications of that position with them several times in the past,” Doumani wrote, adding that he accepted the invitation “after making sure there was no institutional connection.”

Last year, the Middle East Studies center at Brown University, which Doumani directs, was criticized by PACBI over its co-sponsorship of a lecture by the Israeli consul general in Boston.

“Branding with a mask”

Although the public announcements for next week’s symposium do not describe it as a “joint” event, they hardly dispel the notion that this is precisely what it is.

The Cogut Center’s published description – which Ophir confirmed he personally wrote – reads as nothing short of a laudatory promotion of Tel Aviv University’s Minerva Center.

It talks about how in Israel, “large segments of research and teaching have been vehemently criticized by right-wing politicians, activists, donors, and journalists.” Departments and individual academics have been subjected to attacks “de-legitimizing their work as politically-tainted i.e., leftist and anti-Zionist” and “a threat to the national ethos.”

As a result, some academics have been cowed from including critical and politically challenging analysis in their work, the description asserts.

But the “Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University has become a hub and a home for researchers who insist on integrating this kind of reflection in their academic work,” it states.

“From a careful reading of the event description, Israel is merely presented as another ‘developed’ country that has issues with neoliberalism and some right wing anti-democratic practices,” PACBI observes in its statement. “The event showcases an Israeli institution as a center of academic excellence and critical thinking, saying nothing about Tel Aviv University’s deep involvement in war crimes against the Palestinian people, including its pivotal role in developing the criminal Dahiya Doctrine, used extensively in Israel’s latest massacre in Gaza in the summer of 2014.”

PACBI likens the symposium to a hypothetical event in the 1980s “with the director of an ‘enlightened’ department in an otherwise apartheid South African university, showering praise on that beacon of critical thought without mentioning the overall context of apartheid and the university’s complicity in it.”

“It would have been revolting,” PACBI states. “So is this current Brown University symposium.”

“This symposium constitutes branding, but with a mask,” PACBI states. “Omitting the essential context of TAU’s criminal complicity while highlighting a tiny ‘hub’ of ‘critique’ in the university is Brand-Israel-esque.”

Silence

Some individual scholars at the Minerva Center are indeed critical of Israeli policies and practices. Ophir himself was among a tiny handful of Israeli academics who signed on to a brief statement deploring Israel’s attack on Gaza last summer.

But Ophir acknowledges that Israeli academics signed the protest statements as “individuals.” He confirms that the Minerva Center “has never issued any public statement, including public statements on the ‘occupation’ and the ongoing war against the Palestinian people.”

He adds that “no statement of this kind has ever been published by any academic unit in Israel. The reasons for this are not necessarily complacency or acquiescence, but (at least among the more liberal Israelis) the tacit assumption – which has never been put to the test – that taking such an act would endanger the very existence of the unit and immediately harm its non-tenured faculty.”

While Ophir contemplates the hypothetical consequences of speaking out on Israeli academics, the devastating effects of Israeli academia’s silence and complicity are felt every day by millions of Palestinians.

Moreover, the Minerva Center has organized international conferences at Tel Aviv University that overseas participants could only attend by directly violating the PACBI call for boycott. (Ophir has criticized the Palestinian-led BDS campaign and expressed opposition to a key pillar: respect for the Palestinian right of return.)

The fact that Ophir went to such lengths to frame this boycott-busting event as boycott compliant is perhaps an indication of the growing influence of the academic boycott campaign.

Attempts to portray the Brown symposium as merely a gathering of unaffiliated individuals cannot obscure the clear institutional links with Tel Aviv University.

In reality, the Brown symposium is an attempt to re-brand this complicit institution and, in the process, to co-opt Palestinian academics who – having declared their public support for the boycott – should have done a bit more due diligence.

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Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.