Restricting academic freedom: a time-honored Israeli tradition

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Establishing itself as the mainstay of academic freedom in the region, Israel has used this categorization interminably in reference to its larger position as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Yet, the nature of academic freedom in Israel, and in the United States regarding those who criticize the colonial-settler state, has long been a part of a historical effort to exclude Palestinians from academic discourse and to stifle criticism of the Zionist entity.

In Out of The Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel Israeli historian Ilan Pappé examines the power of national mythologies, what he calls “the historiographical enterprise,” and how the “nexus between the army and academia corrupted the traditional university ethos, strengthened the army's ideological grip over academic performance and disempowered the universities from playing an independent role in society.” Pappé writes that after the Second Intifada, which lasted from September 2000 to February 2005, by way of Israel’s Minister of Education Limor Livar under Ariel Sharon, any mention of the Nakba was removed from textbooks and school syllabi. This flagrant censorship and limitation of academic freedom and access to information unquestionably affected not only how Israelis explored the uprising as it developed but how future generations would associate themselves with Palestinians and the Palestinian identity. Another troubling response to the Second Intifada, what Pappé called “disturbing,” was that “a considerable number of Israeli politicians, journalists and academics not only affirmed what happened in 1948, but were 'willing to justify it publicly – not just in retrospect but as a prescription for the future. The idea of 'transfer' entered Israeli political discourse openly for the first time since it was propagated in the early years.” Pappé notes that for some in Israel after 2000 the Nakba either never existed or it was indispensable and morally justifiable.

Pappé’s work connecting Palestinian history to the contemporary impasse held “were accepted as legitimate academic studies” abroad but were “instantly rejected in Israel.” “In the eyes of many of my colleagues I ceased to be a genuine scholar.”

The Katz Affair

The Katz Affair, or the case of the ethnic cleansing of Tantura, revealed not only the amount of Nakba-denial present in Israeli academia but how this denial would materialize in the defamation and boycott of Pappé at Haifa University. In 1998, Theodore Katz, an Israeli Jewish graduate student in history at Haifa University, wrote The Exodus of the Arabs from the Villages at the foot of Mount Carmel his master’s thesis. This thesis focused on the fate of a number of Palestinian villages during the 1948 war – one of these villages was Tantura, where he writes that up to 225 Palestinians were slaughtered by Israel’s Alexandroni Brigade in May 1948, a week after the State of Israel was formally declared.

Pappé writes that in 2000 Israeli journalist Amir Gilat published an article on the massacre of Tantura, using the thesis by Katz. Soon after this article was published Katz would find himself being sued by the association of Alexandroni Brigade veterans for over $200,000. Haifa University not only refused to assist him in defending himself but literally erased him from the roll of honours according to Pappé, despite Katz having received a grade of 97 on his thesis and despite his other MA achievements.

Haifa University quickly mobilized in support of the colonial-settler state, and tried to distance itself as much as possible from Katz and his thesis; Pappé commented:

The university authorities prohibited any political activity and imposed draconian penalties on Palestinian students who expressed their national identity, such as waving the Palestinian flag or calling for the liberation of Palestine, while equivalent actions by Jewish students were encouraged during what was widely portrayed as a time of war.

Pappé would write in several languages, after conducting his own research, that a massacre had been committed in Tantura and as a result he was shunned, ridiculed and in 2002 he was asked to appear before a disciplinary court for “violating the duties of an academic member of staff.” He would face an onslaught of charges for his academic work challenging the production of works loyal to the “Jewish state.” The case of Ilan Pappé, and Theodore Katz, is not the only McCarthy-esque attack on academic freedom launched against those who criticize Israel’s Zionist tradition.

Zionist curricula, militarized campuses

The role of Zionist curriculum in upholding and making palatable the violent occupation has been well-documented. According to Education Under Occupation, a report published by Stop The Wall in 2007, a text drafted by a Zionist academic, the professor of education at Bar-Ilan University, made reference to the Nakba and blamed the Arabs for “initiating Zionist attacks on Palestinians in 1948.” Despite this, the entire textbook these remarks were found in was attacked. Keith Whitlam, as quoted by Edward Said: The invented ancient Israel “has silenced Palestinian history and obstructed alternative claims to the past.”

In 2009 the Carmel Academic Center in Haifa “announced that the accountancy concentration would not open,” and despite students being told at first it was due to financial issues, then that not enough students had registered. It was later revealed in a recorded conversation between Dr. Amos Baranes, a senior lecturer and head of Accounting Concentration, at Carmel and Gil Reshef, the center’s entrepreneur, that it was done out of fear of the establishment being categorized as Arab, after ‘too many Palestinians had registered.’ “If it is a majority Arab, we can’t allow ourselves, because we can’t allow ourselves an institution that will be categorized as Arab,” Reshef is recorded saying. Dr. Baranes, “horrified” by what he was being told, contacted Israel’s Council for Higher Education and as a result Carmel College President not only removes him from Carmel’s academic council but, according to USACBI, makes him aware that his “future at the college is unclear”.

In September 2012 “the sub-committee for quality control of the Israeli Council of Higher Education recommended that the department of Politics and Government at [Ben Gurion University] be prevented from registering new students for the 2013-14 academic year” and soon proposed shutting down the entire department allegedly on the basis of academic shortcomings, but according to sources this had more to do with anti-establishment, left-leaning views held by a number of professors. That same year Haifa University “renewed an academic contract with the Israeli army,” which according to the 2011-2012 annual summary Academic Watch report, published by The Arab Culture Association, has ‘militarized campuses.’ According to the same report, Safed Academic College’s Student Union approved an amendment to its constitution which barred anyone who is not a discharged soldier from running for office. In April 2012 the administration of the Western Galilee College “ordered that the wooden benches in the college’s yard be soaked with water, in order to prevent Arab students from sitting down during the sounding of the siren and the commemoration ceremony held for the Israeli army.” This was done in order to establish, in the chilling words of Safed’s Dean of Students, “a sterilized compound”.

In May 2014 Haifa University rejected Palestinian students’ request to hold a Nakba commemoration, approving in its place a dance party. And so, for one hour Israeli students danced while Palestinians quietly braved their tawdry celebration, all while Israeli police videotaped them, with smiles drawn across their faces, according to political activist Sawsan Khalife. Haifa University’s decision to deny the commemoration request may very well have been influenced by Israel’s Nakba Law, which “authorizes [Israel’s] Finance Minister to reduce state funding or support to an institution if it holds an activity that rejects the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorates “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the state was established as a day of mourning.”

American complicity

The United States has also colluded with the Zionist entity in repressing Palestinian academia and denying them access to education by canceling Gaza students’ Fulbright scholarships in 2008, for example, citing Israel’s travel restrictions. In 2007 J. Lorand Matory, formerly the professor of anthropology and of African and African-American studies at Harvard and currently the Lawrence Richardson Professor of Cultural Anthropology and African American Studies at Duke University, wrote of censorship at the University surrounding Israel and its critics:

“Israel has become the heartbeat of U.S. foreign policy and a litmus test of what can be debated – and even of who will be allowed to speak – on university campuses...Two years ago at Harvard, a social scientist who was the most widely cited in his area of study but who had, in a popular book, criticized the U.S.-Israel alliance, became the subject of insinuations that he was anti-Semitic – insinuations that were likely fatal to his candidacy. In recent years, at least three professors – Oxford’s Tom Paulin, DePaul’s Norman Finkelstein, and Rutgers’ Robert Trivers – have been invited to speak at Harvard and then disinvited after complaints that they had spoken critically of Israel or disagreed sharply with Harvard Law School Professor Alan M. Dershowitz regarding Israel’s military conduct.”

In 2014 the Maryland general assembly considered a bill that would prevent public universities “from providing funds to academic organizations that support boycotts of Israel.” Scholars Judith Butler, Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, and Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor in Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University were among many who signed onto a letter published by Jewish Voices for Peace condemning “accelerating efforts to curtail speech.” “Only by refusing to become vehicles for censorship and slander, and rejecting blacklisting, intimidation, and discrimination against certain viewpoints, can these institutions live up to their purpose as centers of learning and culture.”

The struggle for academic freedom is not solely confined to those cases which occur within Israel, nor are scholars in the United States – where the Israeli lobby works tirelessly to prevent the production and publication of academic works and activities – who challenge standard Israeli narrative, exclusively facing the curtain of censorship. It is Israel’s primary goal to segregate Palestinian academia, thereby preventing Palestinian scholars from joining “the broader academic community on the development of their academic institutions and educational development in general,” as noted by the Right to Enter report on Israel’s Restrictions on Foreign National Academics in Palestinian Higher Education Institutions.

The actions of Israel and the Israeli lobby at large are meant to turn the subject of Palestine, and views which do not sit well with the Zionist entity’s narrative, into a sort of forbidden fruit – that which will poison entire careers, academic institutions and organizations. The suppression of academic scholarship that criticizes, even slightly, popular Israeli discourse has not subsided, as seen in the latest case on the subject involving the firing of professor Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois. But in the Salaita case, as with so many others, we find that there is unwavering resistance to this censorship. Academic institutions can either uphold colonial narratives or dismantle them – they can disseminate propaganda on behalf of the colonial-settler state or allow for unrestricted spaces in which scholars and students may not only analyze but challenge these long-held narratives. The choice these institutions make will change the way we see their roles in upholding academic freedom.

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Sydney based Lebanese-American journalist and commentator. She tweets @roqchams and writes 'Letters From the Underground.'


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