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Call for Academic Freedom Reflection on Paletine and Irael

Feras Hammami, KTH, Royal Institute of technology, Stockholm, Sweden

“Israeli academic freedom is under severe attack”. This was written in a petition signed by staff members of several Israeli universities protesting against a proposal made by the Subcommittee for Quality Assessment of the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE) to bar the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University (BGU) from admitting students for the 2013-14 academic year. This proposal follows a report prepared by an international committee appointed by the CHE to scrutinize political science departments in Israel. This is seen by some as a “conclusive step toward closing the Department, which is known in Israel for the political activism of some of its professors, some of whom are vocal and sharp critics of the Israeli regime” (Adi Ophir)

While this petition was signed in September 2012, freedom of expression in Israeli universities has been policed by the Zionist ideology of the State of Israel since its establishment in 1948. The apartheid and racist nature of this ideology has been institutionalized in the different public agencies of Israel and has guided the occupation practices in the Palestinian Territories, challenging people’s identity and regulating their everyday life activities. As a Palestinian who has lived the first 24 years of his life under occupation, writing about academic freedom evokes meanings beyond its common definition, “the freedom of students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy,” and uncovers the apartheid nature of the State of Israel.

I remember the stories told by students who came from outside Nablus city, West Bank, to study at An-Najah University. During my Bachelor program in architectural engineering, I used to meet with some classmates in Al-Hamra Square after the submission of a design studio project. It was October 2000 when we sat in the square talking about our experiences from the previous night as we finished AutoCAD drawings for the course, Architectural Studio IV. We talked about our classmate Ahmad, from Gaza city, who didn’t submit his drawings. Just before we left the square Ahmad showed up with a furious face. We asked him about his drawings but he replied by asking whether any of us could provide him with accommodation for a few nights. He wanted to hide from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who had gathered all students whose permanent address was in the Gaza Strip. After security screening, the students were either forced to return to Gaza or kept in jails. Upon their arrival, the students searched all possible means to return to their universities in the West Bank, or join the Islamic University in Gaza. Some gave up education and worked in their family businesses.

I graduated in July 2001 and found a part-time job in a consultancy company as an architect. On the 3rd of April 2002, the IDF enforced a curfew and carried out heavy incursions into the whole city of Nablus. They gradually entered the refugee camps and the historic city by tunnelling through inside walls to move from house to house. From September 2000 to April 2005, more than 522 people were killed (locally revered as martyrs) in addition to the 900 houses that were destroyed and thousands of others damaged throughout the Nablus governorate (UN 2005: 2-3). The whole city was surrounded by the Israeli checkpoints until the 29th of June, 2007. During this period, people stayed inside their houses for more than 312 days without education or work. Through Internet, which was my only window to the outside world, I managed to receive a scholarship to a University in Germany. Because of the curfews it took me three months to reach the Embassy of Germany in Ramallah city, which is about 50km away from Nablus. The Embassy rejected my visa application because I was late. Instead I managed to join the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden without a scholarship.

In 2004, my friend Amal who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel defended her master’s thesis about contemporary Arab-American poetry in the English Department at Tel-Aviv University. Among the poems Amal analyzed was Lisa Suhair Majaj’s “ Fifty Years On / Stones in an Unfinished Wall” (1999) which commemorates the Palestinian Nakba – the Palestinian Catastrophe, the loss of historic Palestine, ethnic cleansing, displacements, death of families and friends, loss of lands, and other Palestinian massacres by the Zionist militants before 1948 and by the Israeli occupation forces since 1948. It also commemorates the foundation of the State of Israel as a Jewish State. When Amal presented her thesis, both Jewish-Israeli thesis advisers expressed strong objections to [her] reading of the poem. They asked [her] to “explain what [she] meant by Nakba and include the Zionist perspective in order to contextualize the history of the actual massacre” (Eqeiq 2012). Their strong reaction against Amal’s thesis is explained by the fact that discussing Nakba in Israeli academic environments is taboo. In fact Nakba has been removed from the Israeli history books. In March 2011, ‘the Israeli Knesset passed the Nakba Law, stating that institutions who receive state funding are not to permit any commemoration of the Palestinian catastrophe in 1948’ (Sheizaf 2012). It would also fine anybody who denies that Israel is a Jewish state. According to Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, this Nakba Law “severely damages freedom of political expression, freedom of artistic expression, and freedom of protest.” This legalized oppression has intensified the political memory of Nakba by promoting the gap between the outlawed traumatic memory of the Palestinians and the legitimated myth of the Jewish-Israeli “victory” (Eqeiq 2012).

Yusef, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, a student of the University of Ben Gurion, and among the leaders of the Arab Student Committee on campus, lost his life when challenging the Jewish-Israeli myth and promoting the commemoration of Nakba. The Israeli police, together with secret service agents, arrested Yusef and took the hard drive from his computer. While Yusef hoped to get his files back to be able to complete his university assignments he was found dead in his apartment a few days after the arrest. Yusef wasn’t the only Palestinian student at Israeli universities to be arrested and interrogated by the police and secret services (Gordon 2006: 194-5). Such cases and the limited freedom at Israeli universities have enhanced many Palestinian students with Israel citizenship to seek higher education abroad.

These stories show how the Zionist ideology of the Jewish State of Israel has created special socio-political conditions for defending “the mission of the Academy” in both Israeli and Palestinian universities. This ideology is a highly selected project enmeshed by power struggles over a unified race and ethnicity of the Jewish State of Israel and against any threats that might challenge this unity. Since 1948, “university closures [in the OPT] have been used by the Israelis to collectively punish the Palestinian community and hinder their chances of developing a strong independent Palestinian infrastructure which could become the foundation of a Palestinian state” (McGregor 1991: iii). This is evident in the story of Ahmad whose everyday life was embedded by fear of losing his education due to the discriminatory boundaries between Gaza and the West Bank, defined by the illegal occupation. The cases of Amal and Yusef also showed how their identities in Israeli Universities were conditioned not only by the acceptance of the Israeli narratives of Nakba but also by silencing the Palestinian counter narratives.

I therefore agree with Amal’s note that “Nakba is not a one-time event that occurred more than half a century ago. Nakba is an ongoing event of erasure, occupation and dispossession. To talk about Nakba is to engage in a complex act of translation that includes moving back and forth between narratives, memories, languages, times and geographies” (Eqeiq 2012). The Israeli educational system, as curriculum, institutions and legal documents, not only ignore the Palestinian narratives of Nakba but also reproduce the histories of the Holy Land so that they are anchored in the two themes of the Zionist narratives: Jewish return to the Holy Land after thousands of years in the Diaspora and the Jewish revival of a homogeneous national identity. As the ideology of Jewish national revival, modern political Zionism ultimately aims to establish a major Jewish revolt against all civilizations settled in the land claimed by the Jews to belong to their forefathers. Anchored in the specific circumstances of Jewish collective existence in “exile,” national revival was singled out by its emphasis upon “return” (the return to Zion) as the national restoration. The motif of quintessence return not only dominated the Zionist mythology and praxis but also entailed a rejection of “exile” as a Jewish option. The Zionist “return” included two racist projects, one for Jewish-Israel settlement and one for the eviction of the non-Jewish-Palestinians. Both aimed at establishing a coherent nation with a defined territorial base for nationhood, and the revival of Hebrew culture and identity (Sand 2010). As a result, those projects and their supporting narratives have resulted in the sustenance of the Palestinians’ Nakba.

Important actors here are the Israeli universities. They have promoted the Zionist myths about the Holy Land through the re/production of historical literatures. They also have chosen to fully support the Israeli security forces and policies for the illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories, despite the serious suspicions of crimes and atrocities hovering over them. A report published by The Alternative Information Centre (Hever 2009) uncovers the consistent political choices made by more than 27 Israeli universities and Institutes to support the illegal activities of occupation. These choices have not only limited the freedom of expression in Israel’s universities but also challenged the ethical policies of their partners from the international academic community.

Participation in Military Activities

Production of military research is perhaps common worldwide. However, Israeli universities produce military research and offer the Israeli occupation forces with physical spaces to experiment these researches and carry out their military training. Technion University includes a “job fair” for weapon manufacturing companies, such as Elbit and RAFAEL, and offers training for engineers to specifically work for these companies. Since 2008, Elbit awards half a million dollars in grants to Technion research students. Officers from Elbit are part of the University’s Board of Directors (Hever 2009). Such relations with Technion have empowered Elbit in defining the strategic research of Technion. It has promoted the advance of unmanned vehicles, which aided the Israeli army attack on Gaza in 2008-2009, and resulted in the destruction of several Palestinian houses and physical infrastructures. Although European governments have financed some of these infrastructures the Technion University leads “Home Security” projects in collaboration with other European universities financed by the European Framework Program FP7. Maintaining international partnerships with Technion despite its support to the illegal Israel occupation made Technion supercilious. It has employed and honored military officers who are implicit in the illegal occupation. Haim Russo, a senior manager in Elbit Systems, joins the Technion’s quaternion. Technion has granted an honorary doctorate to the President of Elbit Systems and has provided special assistance to the students who served in Israel’s 2008 attack on the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, several Israeli Universities are built on the ruins of Palestinian villages and towns that were destroyed in the wars of 1948 and 1967. Others are located in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Tel-Aviv University is located on the destroyed Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanis, whose residents were displaced and exiled by the Zionist militants. This history has never been acknowledged by the university, although one might expect such a “neutral institution” to recognize the historic development of the different ethnicities of a society and their rights to associate themselves with their specific histories and geographies. The Ariel University Center of Samaria is located in the Ariel settlement, West Bank. Although the college and its staff have been boycotted both in Israel and overseas, the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Minister of Education Gideon Saar praised the decision of the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria to grant the institution full university status.

Stifling of Political Dissent in the Israeli Universities

Since the 1960s, the growth of the international calls for social and political inclusions has encouraged universities worldwide to offer spaces for freedom of expression. In Israel, a series of repressive measures are sanctioned by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to intimidate domestic criticism, ranging from human rights groups to the media and judiciary (Cook 2012, 22). According to researches by Dirasat (a Nazareth-based organization monitoring education issues) Palestinian citizens of Israel (20% of Israel’s population) experience rampant discrimination. As applicants at Israeli Universities, they are three times more likely to be rejected than their Jewish counterparts.

Inside the universities, Jewish students and faculty members police the academic environments and act as the watchdog of the courses of “dissident” professors. To avoid public vilification, job loss, imprisonment, or even death, staff members delimit the information that might disrupt external political groups or the authorities. Nizar Hassan, director of several award-winning films, was condemned by the Knesset Education Committee after he criticized a Jewish student who arrived in his film studies class at Sapir College in the Negev wearing his uniform (Cook 2008). This wasn’t the case when a Jewish lecturer at the same college asked a female Bedouin student not to come to class wearing a veil. When Eyal Rosenberg, a Master student at the Technion University didn’t participate in singing the national anthem (Hatikva) in a graduation official ceremony he was warned not to attend the next ceremony.

Professor Ilan Pappe who supports academic boycott of Israel was himself boycotted at Haifa University. After he had received several death threats and had been condemned by the Knesset, he moved his work to the University of Exeter in 2008. Professor Ariella Azoulay of Bar-Ilan University was denied tenure because of her political associations. The Zionist extra-parliamentary group Im Tirtzu published a report propagating the need to dismiss Professor Neve Gordon at Ben-Gurion University after he announced his support for the boycott of Israeli in 2009. This report called upon the University of Ben Gurion to “put an end to its anti-Zionist tilt” (Haaretz 2012). In response, the education minister, Gideon Sa’ar, has criticized the department at Ben Gurion for their “post-Zionist” bias. In an interview reported in Haaretz, Professor Gilad Haran who initiated the aforementioned petition stated that, “academic freedom in Israel’s higher education system is in severe danger”.

The examples above indicate that closing down the Department of Government and Politics at BGU is not without its own political interests. It aims to support the aforementioned Zionist ideology and to reduce threats this department generates against the Jewish unity of the State of Israel. As stated by the president of BGU, Professor Rivka Carmi, in her letter to the Presidents of Israel’s research universities: “I request your support against this dangerous development which is taking place before our eyes… there are many internal and external threats against Israeli academic institutions… This is not Ben Gurion University’s private battle, but a struggle of all Israeli academic institutions… Ratification of the current decision by the CHE is like hoisting a black flag over the independence of Israeli academics.” Professor Tanya Reinhart of Tel Aviv University, says that, “Never in its history did the Board of any Israeli university pass a resolution protesting the frequent closure of Palestinian universities…. [I]n extreme situations of violations of human rights and moral principles, the academia refuses to criticize and take a side, it collaborates with the oppressing system’ (Reinhart, 2003). The same is true of Israel’s supporters abroad; not one of the 450 presidents of American colleges, who denounced the boycott call, protested against the destruction of the Islamic University in Gaza.

In response to the silencing and policing practices of Israel academia, especially after the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008-2009, concerned academics worldwide have demanded their universities to break their relations with Israel universities that have not dissociated themselves from Israel’s apartheid policy. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP: www.bricup.org.uk/) was formed in response to the Palestinian Call for Academic Boycott. It supports the Palestinian universities, and opposes the continued illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands with its concomitant breaches of international conventions of human rights, its refusal to accept UN resolutions or rulings of the International Court, and its persistent suppression of Palestinian academic freedom (BRICUP website).

In Sweden, a group of students and faculty members of the Royal Institute of Technology formed the “Action Group at KTH for the Boycott of Israel” (PSABI: www.psabi.net ). The president of KTH banned the use of KTH premises for the activities of the group. In a press release, PSABI demanded that KTH implement its ethical policy against the Israeli universities that are implicated in the illegal occupation. In December 2011, PSABI escalated this call to the national level. 218 academics endorsed this call which was sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all Swedish universities. In Norway, 100 prominent persons signed an appeal to the same end. Other examples include the university staff association of McGill University in Montreal, students and academics at the Uppsala University, Sweden, and the student union of the University of California – Berkeley. The University of Johannesburg has already broken its cooperation with Ben Gurion University.

At the European level, more than 260 academics from 20 different countries have written to the European Commission urging it to take action to prevent Israeli arms producers and other companies involved in abusing Palestinian human rights from participating in EU funded research consortia such as the aforementioned FP7. The letter argues that EU funded research programs supporting Israeli companies that help Israel violate international law “undermines both the reputation of these programs and the stated goals of the European Union and its member states.” In September 2012, Márie Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, sent a carefully worded reply that avoids taking a position.

The boycott campaign is often seen as standing in conflict with free dialogues and cooperation, and the achievement of academic freedom. For its proponents, the past 70 years of various types of dialogue with the Israeli authorities have neither promoted the peace process nor obliged Israel to comply with the different UN resolutions. Examples from South Africa during the apartheid regime show that calls for academic freedoms from within and outside the official boundaries of universities can be effective. Such calls might uncover the apartheid policy of the Israeli government; challenge the police system that control freedom of speech in universities; and thereby rescue Israeli universities from their current ethical crisis.


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