The writing below is from Professor Sonia Boulos as part of a webinar convened by Security in Context and co-organized by Mada al-Carmel Arab Center for Applied Social Research titled "Academia in the Shadow of Genocide". You can watch the full webinar here:

By Sonia Boulos

Since the beginning of this apocalyptic war on Gaza, Israel has destroyed every single Palestinian university in the strip, 12 in number. Numerous cultural heritage sites, libraries, and museums have also been destroyed and plundered. On April 18, 16 UN Special Rapporteurs and 2 working groups issued a statement expressing grave concern over the pattern of attacks on schools, universities, teachers, and students in Gaza, and over the systemic destruction of the Palestinian educational system. According to the statement, more than 5,479 students, 261 teachers and 95 university professors have been killed in Gaza, and the numbers are growing every day. 

With more than 80% of schools in Gaza damaged or destroyed, the experts used the term scolasticide, a term that was first coined by Professor Karma Nabulsi, and it refers to, as the UN experts highlight, to the “systemic obliteration of education through the arrest, detention or killing of teachers, students and staff, and the destruction of educational infrastructure”. This systematic destruction of the Palestinian educational system is central to the settler colonial “logic of elimination.” But this systematic destruction is not new, it started with the Nakba. Back then, thousands of Palestinian books, libraries, archives, photographs, cultural artifacts and cultural property were destroyed or looted by Zionist militias. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish legal scholar who coined the term genocide believed that genocide aims at “undermin[ing] the fundamental basis of the social order.” Key to this effort is the assault on the cultures of national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups.  

The Palestinian educational and academic community is the subject of attacks in all the territories under the control of Israel. According to Law for Palestine, between January 1, 2019 and Oct 17, 2022 Israel arrested 214 Palestinian students in the West Bank. According to Right2Education campaign, currently there are at least 140 students from Bir Zeit University detained in Israeli prisons and detention facilities, half of them under administrative detention. Since Oct. 7, 70 members of Bir Zeit community were detained, including 4 staff members. Most academic institutions in the West Bank have shifted to online teaching to avoid campus invasions by the Israeli army, and to prevent the harassment, arrest, or even killing of students and staff by Israeli soldiers and violent settlers. 

Moving to Israel, before I address the harassment campaign against Professor Shalhoub and what it signifies, I would like to mention that other faculty members have been harassed for speaking up against the war, including Jewish faculty. For example, professor Regev Nathanson was forced to take an unpaid leave due to students’ pressure for signing a petition asking president Biden to stop sending offensive weapons to Israel. I also want to provide some data on the harassment of Palestinian students studying at Israeli universities. According to Adalah, Between Oct. 7 and Oct. 23, the organization documented over 100 reports from students who faced repression and disciplinary proceedings for their activity on social media platforms. These students faced arrest, suspension or even expulsion. 52 students faced suspension prior to a hearing, eight were expelled without a hearing, and three were expelled from their dorms without prior notice or a hearing. According to testimonies of students, disciplinary hearings turned into McCarthyist interrogations focusing on the students’ political opinions without a direct relationship to the content of what they published. The Minister of Education, Yoav Kish, publicly endorsed these disciplinary actions. He also issued a letter asking universities to suspend or expel individuals who in his view supported terrorism. 

As for the case of Prof. Shalhoub, the harassment campaign against her did not start with the decision to suspend her from the Hebrew University or the decision to detain her and to interrogate her for incitement. This campaign started months ago after she signed and circulated a petition accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. As a response, the Hebrew University leaked an official letter accusing her of incitement and sedition. As for her suspension, the Hebrew University made it clear that it is proud of being a Zionist institution and that Professor Shalhoub was asked repeatedly in the past to find another academic home that suits her position.

To frame this primarily as an academic freedom issue is simply misleading. First of all, when they decided to publicly accuse her of incitement and sedition, they prepared the ground for her harassment by the authorities, they put her life in danger too, given the rising violence of extreme right-wing activists against Palestinians. But most importantly, when academic institutions join the efforts of the state in silencing dissent in the face of flagrant violations of international law and basic morality, like the ones we are witnessing in Gaza, this amounts at least to moral complicity in these atrocities. The commission of international crimes is made possible through aggressive attempts to silence dissent. 

For sure, Israeli universities were willing to tolerate scholarship on settler colonialism or other scholarship highly critical of Israel and Zionism as long as this critique remained confined to academic debates on the margin. In fact, they benefited from this scholarship to boost their reputation as bastions of academic freedom while they were collaborating with security forces in different ways. But when such scholarship started to make waves in international institutions things have changed dramatically. It is no longer a small group of Palestinian and anti-Zionist scholars and few NGOs that use the settler colonial paradigm, or the Apartheid framework or the concept of “slow genocide”, even before the war started. We have UN reports charging Apartheid, or a UN Rapporteur, Francesca Albanese, using the Settler Colonial paradigm to underpin the Apartheid framework. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) indicated multiple provisional measures in the case brough by South Africa, which means that accusations of Genocide are plausible. We have the advisory opinion at the ICJ on the legality of the Israeli Occupation in its entirety. More than 50 states participated in the hearing, the vast majority of them argued that the occupation as a whole is illegal and not just certain practices. Many States and organizations took the view that Israel’s practices in the territories occupied in 1967 amount to Apartheid. Others saw the occupation as a continuation of the Nakba. 

The university’s explicit alignment with Zionism is a direct response to these political changes. It means that the university is actively engaged in producing narratives that normalize this horrific violence in Gaza with the aim of shielding Israel from accountability, while at the same time waging attacks on those who produce counter narratives, that have been endorsed by international institutions. It is no coincidence that they targeted Nadera, a world-renowned scholar, they wanted to send a clear message to all Palestinian faculty members and students, if we can go after someone like Nadera, imagine what will happen if go we after you. 

This amounts to epistemic violence against Palestinian scholars and students, and against those who are committed to justice. For us Palestinians, the only thing the Zionist project brought upon us is ethnic cleansing in 1948, renewed threats of a new Nakba, land dispossession, attacks on our collective identity, attempts to erase our history in our homeland, and being ruled by a regime that is based on racial supremacy. But we will not be stripped of our humanity, will continue to advocate for justice, liberation, decolonization and freedom to our people. We will continue to do so even when the Israeli mainstream propaganda media accuse as of incitement for defending the dignity and basic human rights of our people.

Sonia Boulos is an associate professor of International Human Rights Law at Nebrija University and a Board Member at Mada al-Carmel

Article or Event Link
Jun 21, 2024
Public Policy


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