Hundreds of academics call for boycott of Hebrew University conference in 2014

Israeli forces arrest a Palestinian at Hebrew University during a protest against Israel’s attack on Gaza, 20 November 2012.

Mahfouz Abu Turk APA images

Hundreds of Palestinian, Israeli and other oral historians and academics from Europe, South Africa and North America are calling on their colleagues to boycott the June 2014 International Conference on Oral History organized by the Oral History Division of the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“While all Israeli universities are deeply complicit in the occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is particularly noteworthy,” says the letter, published by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

Land theft

The letter spells out some of the most egregious abuses in which the Hebrew University has been directly involved, including supporting institutions in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and the confiscation and theft of Palestinian land:

Ironically, the oral history conference is organized by an institute named after Avraham Harman, president of the Hebrew University from 1968 to 1983. As president of the Hebrew University he was directly responsible for the rebuilding and expansion of the original campus on Mount Scopus built on land illegally confiscated from Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Unequal treatment

This is only part of the Hebrew University’s direct support for occupation and unequal treatment of Palestinians including, the letter states, the fact that the university “has chosen to remain silent when the entire population of Gaza has been excluded from the possibility to enroll and study in the university by the Israeli government. Palestinian students from Gaza have a better chance of getting into a university in the US than into Hebrew University.”

Limiting free speech, facilitating war

The letter states:

The Hebrew University administration restricts the freedom of speech and protest of its few Palestinian students. For example, it had forbidden a commemoration event for the invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 in which about 1,400 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli forces. On the other hand, the Hebrew University offered special considerations and benefits to students who participated in that invasion as soldiers.

In March, Yara Sa’di reported for The Electronic Intifada on the ongoing crackdown and arrests of Palestinian students demonstrating in support of Palestinian political prisoners.

Individual responsibility

Recalling the broad support for the academic and cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the letter argues that individual academics now have a similar responsibility:

Your actions have a direct impact on our joint struggle for a just peace in Palestine-Israel and on our solidarity with fellow Palestinian academics whose universities have been closed down, blockaded and even bombed by Israeli aircraft in the last three decades; universities which have been subjected to a lengthy and brutal Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

The Electronic Intifada recently published several reports about Palestinian students stranded in Gaza as a result of Israel’s siege, which prevents or delays them from taking up scholarships or other educational opportunities abroad.

The academics’ letter adds:

At a time when the international movement to boycott Israeli academic and cultural institutions is gaining ground in response to Israel’s flagrant and persistent infringement of Palestinian human and political rights, we urge scholars and professionals to reflect upon the implications of taking part in a conference at a complicit institution, and to refrain from such participation.

The conference is an attempt to improve the image and reputation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the West and to cover up for the fact that the university is closely associated with Israeli annexation and ‘Separation/Apartheid Wall’ policies—policies that were strongly condemned on 9 July 2004 by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Boycott does not hurt academic freedom

The letter refutes often-heard objections that boycott hurts academic freedom or hampers dialogue.

But this notion is challenged even more thoroughly in a separate piece in CounterPunch by Haim Bresheeth and Sherna Berger Gluck: “On the Fallacy of ‘Engaging’ with the Israeli Academy.”

Bresheeth, who teaches at SOAS, University of London, and Berger Gluck, professor emerita at California State University, both signers of the academics’ letter, write:

Israeli academics continually ignore calls of Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel’s agressive occupation, arguing instead for  ‘dialogue’ with Israeli colleagues. In fact, the Hebrew University conference is promoted as a “participatory site in which ‘difficult dialogues’ on memory and perspectives will be discussed.” As usual, instead of promoting dialogue with Palestinian academics, the best that the conference organizers can muster is a reference to “the issues that this country and region face.” One wonders – is the occupation such an issue?

What could possibly be wrong with dialogue, you might ask? Instead, perhaps the appropriate question might be: “is it moral to collaborate with a militarized, racist, colonial state, in order to cleanse its crimes?” Doesn’t this mean that crimes continue and newer ones are perpetrated? Indeed, evidence clearly demonstrates that continuing ‘engagements’ have not led to resolution, but instead served to numb the sensibilities of international academia to the realities of occupied Palestine. In the case of South Africa, it was clear to all academics that there was no way to ‘engage’ with apartheid by speaking to its representatives; the only way to deal with apartheid was to oppose it – to boycott, divest and apply sanctions; to deny South African institutions any support and dialogue; and to follow the advice of the ANC [African National Congress].

Other academics are invited to add their signatures to the letter by writing to the email address provided.

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It is time that Israeli academics faced to their responsibilites serving a regime a settler-colonial regime that imposes the worst kind of discriminatory system on the Palestinian people and uses all its military, economic and USA support to keep Palestinians under occupation and siege, in diaspora and Apartheid system.

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Zionists and their fellow travellers descry boycotts of any description levelled against Israel and yet they are swift to use every means at their disposal to shut down, disrupt or in any way to hinder any function with which they disagree. For example, the Australian National University in conjunction with the British Academy hosted the Human Rights in Palestine: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories conference in Canberra, 10-12 September 2013. Organiser Dr Victoria Mason told us that International law Professor Richard Falk, ex UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Professor Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) and Research Professor of Global Studies Hilal Elver (co-director of the Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy), led a strong line-up of experts covering education, international law, water resources, health, settlements and settler violence, the movement restrictive pass system, land and housing dispossession, administrative detention (imprisonment without charge), the blockade of Gaza, the effects of the Security/Apartheid Wall and the rights of children. We were shocked to learn from conference organiser Dr Victoria Mason that she had received threats of disruption and "numerous attacks from those who do not want these issues discussed". The Australian newspaper wrote "ANU faces rage over conference: Jewish community objects to mid-east hardliners" and placed an insert in the same article headlined "Bullets and burning towers on Islamic group's 9/11 fare" (September 11). Professor Falk commented that we have an obligation to tell the truth as accurately as possible and not be intimidated; it was shocking that truth telling could be construed as anti-semitism.

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.