Palestinian student groups at Hebrew University have added their voices to growing calls on actor Morgan Freeman and renowned Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi to pull out of a 6 May Toronto award ceremony and fundraiser hosted by Canadian Friends of Hebrew University.
In a 1 May open letter, published on the website of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation [PDF], several groups representing Palestinian students wrote to Freeman that, “While The Hebrew University grants you the award for ‘combating racism and promoting knowledge and education worldwide,’ it shows no signs of combating racism and discrimination within its walls; racism which is flagrantly practiced on daily basis against Arab students.”
Palestinian citizens of Israel who want to pursue higher education in their own country must attend Israeli Jewish institutions where the main language of instruction is Hebrew and where they face numerous forms of discrimination.
Israel has to this day never permitted the establishment of an Arabic-language university even though Arabic is ostensibly an official language, part of a policy reminiscent of the historic cultural repression of indigenous people in the United States, Canada and other settler-colonial states.
Discrimination, repression at Hebrew University
The five groups signing the letter are the Hebrew University branches of IQRAA - Students Association; NDSA – National Democratic Students Assembly; The Students’ Democratic Front for Peace and Equality and; THURI – A Palestinian Students’ Feminist Group.
Their letter details some of the systemic discrimination in which Hebrew University is involved:
Mr. Freeman, only very few among our generation have been qualified to attend universities due to state’s discriminatory policies against Palestinians in Israel. Our schools mostly lack the basic facilities needed for education, and the curriculum is structured to serve the State’s goal in socializing the pupils for self-estrangement. It contains very little, if any at all, on our history and culture. Furthermore it aims to erase our historical memory and promote the official policy line of divide and rule. This discrimination continues in the Universities in the granting of scholarships among other things.
Yet, the restrictions imposed on our freedom of expression are more stifling. Last year, The Hebrew University banned several activities of Palestinian students within the campus; for example it prohibited the organization of the fifth Palestinian Cultural Festival. Moreover, during the current academic year, six Palestinian students were arrested following peaceful demonstrations which were held at the campus’ entrance, in support of the Palestinian prisoners’ open hunger strikes and against the war on Gaza. The university never intervened or contacted the students although they were brutally attacked by the police. These students did not commit any offense as they were released shortly after their arrests and no charges were pressed against them.
The letter reminds Freeman that “the Hebrew University is built on Palestinian confiscated lands and that it is a militarized institution” that participates in programs to train elite soldiers in Israel’s army of occupation.
Palestinian students refuse to be used to whitewash Israeli discrimination
Yara Sa’di wrote about the police crackdown on Palestinian students at Hebrew University for The Electronic Intifada in March. In November she wrote that “Israel’s repression of Palestinian students reached new level during Gaza attack,” including at Hebrew University.
Sa’di told The Electronic Intifada that the open letter to Freeman is a rejoinder to the university’s efforts to use “its Arab students as a proof to its ‘pluralistic’ nature” and that the letter is “a challenge to the regular strategy of Israel and its institutions to use the Palestinian citizens of Israel as evidence for its decency.”
The Hebrew University students’ letter also comes as the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has escalated its effort to convince Freeman and Ghomeshi to change their minds. More than 7,500 people sent messages to Freeman, according to the Campaign and dozens more have posted notes on Ghomeshi’s official Facebook fan page urging him to reconsider.
BDS South Africa, a Palestine solidarity organization, also wrote an open letter to Freeman urging him “to refuse the pro-Israeli effort to normalise its racist regime through association with your good name.”
The Israeli group Boycott from Within has also urged Freeman to abandon the Hebrew University fundraiser.
It remains to be seen whether Freeman and Ghomeshi will hear these voices and take a stand that requires them to go beyond empty platitudes about “peace” that leave the appalling status quo untouched.