Israel’s academic freedom defended, while Palestine’s is destroyed

Following the January 5 suicide attacks, which killed over twenty people in Tel Aviv, Ariel Sharon’s spokesman, Raanan Gissin, announced that Israel would shut down three Palestinian universities, possibly including Bir Zeit, the most prestigious in the West Bank, and academic home to internationally-known Palestinians such as Hanan Ashrawi, and Nablus’ Al-Najah University, the largest in the West Bank. This announcement, although it represents yet another escalation of Israel’s collective punishment and sustained effort to destroy Palestinian civil society, failed to arouse international concern or attention, and has been almost ignored by the media.

Meanwhile, a mere statement by the administrative council of the prestigious University of Paris-VI has caused an uproar in Europe over alleged “boycotts” of Israeli academics. On December 16, the French university’s administrative body approved a motion calling on the European Union to suspend financial support for Israeli universities on the grounds that “The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza renders impossible teaching and research by our Palestinian colleagues.”

This decision produced a near hysterical reaction among some of France’s celebrity intellectuals and political figures. Philospher Bernard Henri-Levy declared that “The professors who voted for this motion conducted themselves like the most extremist of extremist Palestinians,” and went on to compare the motion to the 1933 Nazi laws against Jews. The leftist Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, called the resolution a “shocking act and a tragic error,” while former French culture minister, Jack Lang, opined that “Israeli universities are oases of tolerance,” and calls for a boycott “encourage fanaticism.”

Even the Director-General of Paris-based UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, issued a statement condemning the French university’s decision and stressed that, “places of learning – schools, universities, laboratories and research centres – are seedbeds of the culture of peace. We must do all we can to keep alive there the spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness without which there can be no fruitful dialogue between the different cultures, religions and civilizations.” (8 January 2002)

Gerard Bereziat, one of those who supported the decision, said, however, that “it is not a call for a boycott. We are aiming at institutions, not persons. We want on the contrary to increase direct links with academics.” (“Le boycott universitaire d’Israel choque,” Le Soir (Brussels), 8 January 2002)

Nevertheless, continued uproar, including a pro-Israeli demonstration by nearly three thousand people forced the university administration to state that despite the vote, its policy towards academic cooperation with Israeli institutions was unchanged.

Attention has now shifted to the University of Paris-VII where a similar motion is due to be proposed. On January 9, a group called the “Collective for vigilance against the boycott of Israeli academics” published an advertisement in Le Monde expressing its “consternation” at the Paris-VI decision and stating that the vote would bring about “A generalized process of exclusion whose gravity and implications for individuals and institutions must be measured: exclusion of researchers from scientific committees, publications and conferences; exclusion of international research projects and academic invitations; the setting aside of international exchange programs for students.”

The advertisement, which says that it has gathered more than 25,000 signatures, including those of Nobel Prize winners such as Elie Wiesel, reasons further that Israeli “universities and research institutions, which are independent of the State, are not accountable for the political choices the State makes, whatever they may be. A unilateral rupture of relations would confine their members to isolation as pariahs.” Finally, it argues that since many Israeli academics are at the heart of the Israeli peace movement, targeting them is the last thing that should be done.

What is interesting is that all this fulmination comes not against any actual call for a boycott, or for the breaking of any relations with Israeli academics, but rather for the expression of the view that while Israel is busy destroying Palestinian higher education, the European Union should not be funding Israeli higher education. If in a supposed “democracy,” such as Israel, civil society cannot be held accountable for the actions of the government it elected, by what possible reasoning can tens of thousands of Palestinian academics and students be held responsible for the actions of groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad which are beyond the control of anyone, including what is left of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli occupation army?

Yet those who condemned the Paris-VI statement most vigorously had absolutely nothing to say about the devastation that the latest Israeli decision to shut down three universities would cause, let alone the decades of damage the occupation has done to the education of generations of young people. UNESCO Director-General Matsuura, while defending the lofty ideals about education and the need for “tolerance” when it comes to Israeli institutions, had not one word to say about Israel’s threat to shut down the Palestinian universities.

If Israel does go ahead with a formal shut down of Bir Zeit and other universities, it will scarcely make the existing situation much worse. A recent appeal signed by numerous Palestinian, European, African and North American academics in support of the right to education at Birzeit university underlines that,

“Since March 2001, the working life of the University has been severely disrupted by an intimidating Israeli military checkpoint on the Ramallah-Birzeit road, which is part of the expanded network of roadblocks preventing communication between all Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank. Even when open the checkpoint allows only pedestrian traffic to pass; Israeli soldiers posted there arbitrarily deny passage to students and other civilians, as well as regularly engage in various forms of harassment which at times have resulted in the physical injury of students and faculty. When closed the checkpoint effectively brings the working life of the university to a halt. Since March 2002, the situation at the checkpoint has deteriorated further and access to the University has on the majority of days been totally impeded. Following Israel’s military re-occupation of West Bank towns (including Ramallah) in mid-June 2002, all Palestinian educational life within the re-occupation zones has been brought to a grinding halt by a blanket curfew imposed on the civilian population. The majority of Birzeit students and faculty are confined to their homes with dwindling hope of returning to their academic lives in the foreseeable future.”
Those who claim to defend the moral and intellectual mission of universities by castigating others who seek non-violent ways (such as cutting off taxpayer funding or campaigning for American universities to divest from Israel) to send a message to Israel that colonialism has no place in the twenty-first century, while remaining silent about the systematic, punitive and deliberate destruction of Palestinian civil society and education, display not moral courage, but bankruptcy. They use the same moral calculus of those who vigorously condemn killings of Israelis by Palestinians while rationalizing, defending or even denying the killing of a far greater number of unarmed Palestinian civilians by Israel — hundreds of them children — as merely the accidental and unwanted by-product of the supremely moral army of a country that is just defending itself.

When a foreign military occupier can decree that it will simply shut down entire universities and elicit virtually no reaction, especially from those who declare themselves to be the guardians of the sanctity of the academy, it is a sign of how far the logic of brute force has been normalized and accepted when it comes to Israel.

There are legitimate questions to be asked about if and when international sanctions or boycotts are appropriate and effective. Clearly, in the case of apartheid South Africa, there was a large international consensus that sanctions targeting civil society, business and sports, were not only legitimate, but vital to bringing down the apartheid regime. The Guardian argued recently that there is “clear moral case” and growing consensus for a sports boycott of Zimbabwe in protest at President Robert Mugabe’s growing human rights abuses (“Murdoch and morality: Time to take a stand over Zimbabwe,” The Guardian, 9 January 2002). Israel cannot forever expect to remain above the standards applied to other countries, and to neurotically hide behind the defence that all criticism is motivated by hatred or ill-intent, and never by its own actions.

The growing debate in North American and European universities about the need for popular action against Israel’s abuses is in part a reaction to the total failure of the international community, especially the United States which bankrolls and arms Israel, to end Israel’s four-decade military dictatorship over millions of Palestinians. It is this military dictatorship —the occupation — that fuels the cycle of mutual murder of which the Tel Aviv attacks were just the latest and certainly not the last episode. Vilifying as Nazis and anti-Semites those who are looking for non-violent ways to respond to Israel’s relentless campaign of destruction and colony-construction in Palestine is unlikely to put the debate back in the bottle, nor to save Israel from the perhaps irreversible damage it is doing to itself by rejecting every reasonable compromise that stands a chance of bringing peace.