As Ibrahim begins his remarks, students stand up and start to walk out.
“What you are doing is shameful, it’s called normalization,” one student says directly to Ibrahim. “You’re a traitor.”
Several chant “Shame!” and “Long live the Egyptian and Palestinian people.”
Others accuse him of abandoning his Arab nationalism. As a large group of protesting students walks out of the packed lecture hall, they chant “normalization is treason.”
Earlier, the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) had tweeted its condemnation of Ibrahim for “his involvement in normalization with the Israeli academy that helps perpetuate Israel’s regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid.”It noted that this was especially egregious “at a time of escalating refusal and resistance locally, in the Arab world and globally towards the Israeli occupation and its ally Trump” – an apparent reference to the near-universal rejection of the American president’s recognition a month ago of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The BNC urged Palestinian students at Tel Aviv University to “confront [Ibrahim] in a peaceful manner.”
In Egypt, where refusal to normalize ties with Israel remains strong despite the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, intellectuals and activists have denounced Ibrahim’s trip to Tel Aviv.
Defending a dictator
The Egyptian-American Ibrahim gained global prominence as a human rights activist jailed during the rule of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak.
He has habitually received awards from Western institutions, including the US-government-backed Freedom House and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank affiliated with the powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC.
More recently, Ibrahim has become an apologist for dictatorship in Egypt.
In 2013, the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, the nongovernmental organization he founded, issued a report completely exonerating Egyptian authorities for the mass killings of civilian protesters in Cairo’s Raba al-Adawiya square following the army’s overthrow of elected president Muhammad Morsi.
A Human Rights Watch investigation into those and other killings found that “police and army forces systematically and intentionally used excessive lethal force in their policing, resulting in killings of protesters on a scale unprecedented in Egypt.”
Based on the evidence it gathered, Human Rights Watch said the killings of 1,000 people “likely amounted to crimes against humanity, given both their widespread and systematic nature and the evidence suggesting the killings were part of a policy to attack unarmed persons on political grounds.”
But according to Ibrahim’s Ibn Khaldun Center, from the very first moment, “police forces complied fully with international standards for breaking up demonstrations.”
In 2014, the erstwhile human rights defender published a video to apologize to Sisi for critical comments he claimed he’d been tricked into making by Al Jazeera.
In the video, Ibrahim deflects criticism for Sisi’s mass arrests of political dissidents, asserting that most had been carried out before Sisi seized power.
“I apologize to President Sisi for what happened as a result of the provocations from the Al Jazeera presenter, and to all the lovers and fans of President Sisi,” Ibrahim stated, adding that “my admiration for him has no limits.”
Israeli embassy defends Ibrahim
Given his support for Sisi, and Sisi’s close alliance with Israel, Ibrahim is a natural fit to cement ties between the two governments.
Israel’s embassy in Cairo rose quickly to Ibrahim’s defense following Tuesday’s protest.
“Based on the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, all Egyptians are welcome to visit Israel and engage in dialogue with Israeli society,” the embassy stated in a Facebook post.
It added that the embassy considers “the behavior of some of the Arab students to be blatant hypocrisy, since they are Arab citizens” who are studying in an Israeli university while “at the same time calling for the boycott of the same university.”
This charge of hypocrisy is one frequently heard from opponents of boycotts, but it is baseless.
Separate and unequal
They attend Israeli universities because they have no choice if they want to pursue a higher education and remain in their native country.
Those who get to university must first survive Israel’s separate and unequal primary and secondary education system that leaves Palestinian students at a major disadvantage.
Israel has moreover always prevented the establishment of an Arabic-language university despite nominally recognizing Arabic as an official language. That means Arabic-speaking students must overcome additional hurdles to meet Israeli universities’ language requirements.
That has forced many thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel who want to study in their native language to leave the country.
The purpose of international solidarity campaigns is to force Israeli institutions, especially Israel’s “warrior” universities, to end their complicity in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights – particularly arms research.
The fact that South Africa’s apartheid regime permitted Black students to enroll in its universities did not blunt the urgency to end apartheid.
Nor did those endorsing the boycott of South African universities demand that Black students withdraw, because the whole point was to force the universities to become less racist, not more segregated, as part of the overall anti-apartheid struggle.
Yet the boycott of South African universities specifically included pledges by international scholars not to accept appointments at those universities and to shun institutional exchanges and invitations.
By the late 1980s, trade union campaigners in the UK concluded that “Recent improvements in some South African universities provide evidence that the policy is beginning to have some effect” – though far from enough to justify easing the boycott.
What Palestinian students made clear to Saad Eddin Ibrahim is they don’t want major Arab public figures coming to Tel Aviv University and normalizing Israel’s oppression.