Empty chairs: Combating Israel’s assault on Palestinian academia

#Education

Israeli restrictions on scholars wishing to teach at Palestinian universities present a clear violation of academic freedom

Nada Elia's picture
Monday 23 July 2018 10:46 UTC
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In Cork, Ireland, last month, at the annual meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies, an otherwise packed panel on Irish-Palestinian solidarity lacked a Palestinian speaker - not because none were invited, but because of fear among Palestine-based professors that, should they leave the country, they would not be allowed back.   

This fear, which prevents academic exchanges between Palestinians and their counterparts globally, led Birzeit University to issue a statement this month condemning this egregious assault on the academic freedom of its faculty.   

The situation is bleak. Many faculty members at Birzeit, most of whom are diaspora Palestinians, hold foreign passports, and as such are required to obtain long-term visa extensions from Israel in order to teach at Birzeit for a full academic year. These permits, just like permits to build a house, are refused, leading committed faculty to overstay a shorter entry visa. 

Arrested and deported

Just as Israel denies Palestinians house permits, then demolishes a home built without one, so it renders the very presence of foreign faculty at Palestinian universities illegal. The restrictions Israel imposes on scholars wishing to teach at Palestinian universities violate academic exchange, a fundamental requirement of academic freedom. 

They also place the few international faculty members who teach in Palestine effectively under house arrest within a very restricted area around campus, to avoid any of the hundreds of checkpoints in the West Bank, where they can be arrested and deported for working without a permit.   

The claim that Israel is self-sufficient, when it basically deprives the indigenous people of their natural resources to power segregated, Jewish-only communities, is offensive

“At Birzeit University alone, we have 15 foreign passport-holding faculty members whose requests for visa renewals have been refused or significantly delayed,” the university statement explains, adding that some faculty members have already had to leave the country.

“These international professors play a critical role not only in the ongoing provision of quality education at Birzeit University but also in the long-term development of Palestinian higher education. If this policy continues, Palestinian universities, including Birzeit University, will be further isolated from the global academic environment.”

Professor David Lloyd of the University of California-Riverside, one of the speakers on Palestine in Ireland, told me that the panel invited historical comparison and analysis of contemporary lines of solidarity between the two countries. Like Palestine under Israeli occupation, Lloyd said: “Ireland faced under British colonialism the denial of education, first under the Penal Laws in the 18th century, which denied Catholics the right to education … [Later], British education was still antagonistic to Irish language, culture and history, so we understand what it is when an indigenous culture is targeted for elimination by the coloniser.”

The panel was announced in solidarity with the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) “Empty Chair” campaign, which seeks to foreground the absence of Palestinian experts by featuring an empty seat from where they would have presented, were it not for Israel’s restrictions.   

Furthering Israeli propaganda

Writing in the November 2017 BRICUP newsletter, John Chalcraft notes that academics in “privileged” parts of the world do not have to worry about the multiple challenges their Palestine-based peers navigate daily. “We, unlike them, can cross national borders to attend conferences with relative ease … We, unlike them, can commute to teach or study without being stopped by soldiers,” he writes, adding that the empty chair “draws attention to the fact that the absence of Palestinians results from the intolerable and decades-old restrictions placed on their travel, research and study by the Israeli government”.

Yet even as they prevent Palestinian academic exchanges, Israeli authorities and, in particular, Israeli universities, are actively engaged in establishing Israeli exchange programmes with institutions around the world to further Israeli propaganda.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for example, has partnered with Mexico’s Talentum MX programme, which in 2018 offered 10 Mexican college students a scholarship to Israel to enrol in a water technology and management class to learn how Israel “became self-sufficient”.  



University students throw stones at Israeli soldiers at the Atara checkpoint in November 2012 (AFP)

Roberto Sonabend, president of the Mexican Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem group, notes in a translated description of the programme: “They will have the opportunity to know the Golan and other critical places for the security of Israel. They will present the works they prepared in Mexico before Israeli experts.”   

Sonabend continues with a paragraph that captures Israel’s hasbara agenda, its determination to rebrand the country by distracting from its foundational violence: “Israel and Mexico have a similar challenge when viewed from afar.  Mexico is much more than its problems of corruption and violence, and Israel is much more than its conflict with the Palestinians and the unstable situation in the Middle East.”

The claim that Israel is self-sufficient, when it basically deprives the indigenous people of their natural resources to power segregated, Jewish-only communities, is offensive. The imbalance between resource distribution among Palestinians and Israelis in historic Palestine is testament that Israel is not “self-sufficient”, but a resource thief, depriving Palestinians of land and water. 

Exchange programmes

Sonabend notes that the government of Israel was “the first to sign up” to financially support this initiative. So, while it denies academics work permits to teach in Palestinian universities, it funds exchange programmes for foreign students to be exposed to “a very attractive Israel”.   

In a 2015 article, Rima Najjar and I detail how Israel’s attacks on Palestinian education, from underfunding Palestinian majority schools in Israel, to imposing a Zionist curriculum in Jerusalem’s private schools, to harassing schoolchildren and teachers, to raiding and bombing educational institutions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, result in cultural genocide.     

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But just as Palestinians will not give up their right of return, standing up to Israeli snipers itching to shoot down anyone who approaches the illegal “border zone”, they are also not giving up on their right to education. This was evident just this week when, even though the school year doesn’t officially begin until September, the residents of Khan al-Ahmar started sending their young children to class in mid-July as an act of resistance - the one way available to them to prevent the demolition of their school.   

Khan al-Ahmar, a West Bank Bedouin village slated for demolition to allow for illegal Jewish settlement construction, illustrates Israel’s multi-pronged assault on all aspects of Palestinian life. The forced removal and transfer of Khan al-Ahmar’s population is a war crime according to international law. Palestinians’ choice of resistance, namely mere persistence, highlights the power dynamics and reveals the value of education for a people whose very existence Israel seeks to erase.   

Incremental genocide

We do not have to sit and wring our hands. Focusing on the right to a college education may seem like a luxury in the face of incremental genocide. However, when it is understood as part of Israel’s assault on every single aspect of Palestinian life, culture and prospects for a brighter future, it must be denounced for what it is: another cog in Israel’s planned, incremental genocide of the Palestinian people. 

For those of us in the rest of the world who stand in solidarity with Palestinians, there are many actions we can take. These include the simple, yet effective “Empty Chair” campaign; endorsing the academic boycott of complicit Israeli institutions, such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; and supporting Palestinian culture and education, by sponsoring Palestinian students, scholars and cultural workers.

We can also pledge not to study as foreign students in Israel, and expose and denounce Israel’s “very attractive Israel” hasbara scholarships. 

Nada Elia is a diaspora Palestinian writer and political commentator, currently working on her second book, Who You Callin’ ‘Demographic Threat?’ Notes from the Global Intifada. A professor of gender and global studies (retired), she is a member of the steering collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Palestinian students attend their graduation ceremony on 20 May 2016 at Birzeit University in the West Bank (AFP)