Hammam Farah: UCU: Between Boycott and Apartheid

By Hammam Farah
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

After passing a motion in May that called for the circulation and debate of the Palestinian call for the academic boycott of Israel, Britain’s University and College Union (UCU)’s strategy and finance committee unanimously accepted a recommendation from its Secretary-General, Sally Hunt, that not only is the call to boycott apparently unlawful under discrimination legislation, but even debates on the issue at the union’s meetings should be silenced "to ensure that the union acts lawfully." Consequently, the union also cancelled a UK speaking tour in which Palestinian academics would discuss the academic boycott of Israel with their counterparts at UK universities.

There is ample reason to doubt the claim that the union and its members are at risk.  After months of trepidation over the boycott due to its alleged violation of academic freedom, the irony lies in that the sole violator of academic freedom is the leadership of the UCU.  One is forced to question whether they were driven by genuine concern for justice and the importance of the boycott for achieving it, or bitter resentment at their own membership’s democratic decision to discuss the boycott. As Amjad Barham, head of the council of the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, stated, "by muzzling debate and free discussion on the boycott, the [Israeli] lobby and its supporters within the UCU are suppressing academic freedom in the most crude manner." In addition, the opacity of the UCU statement further compounds the perception of hypocrisy felt towards the leadership of the union. The fact that academic unions in the UK are discussing the issue of academic boycott is a big step in the right direction, but it seems like the activists in the UCU will have to continue this uphill battle against apartheid, and we can expect them to keep fighting.

It appears we have been put on the defensive, consumed more with rebutting the allegations of violating academic freedom and singling out Israel than with providing a thorough elaboration of the appalling ways in which Israel has been systematically violating Palestinian academic freedom and students’ right to education for the past 60 years:  Schools and universities have been closed for hundreds of days by the military government; students shot and left to bleed in their classrooms; violent crackdowns on student non-violent demonstrations; thousands of arrests and detainments of students and faculty members are common; permits to study abroad, even from Gaza to the West Bank, are regularly denied.  Just recently, Israel’s High Court rejected a petition by students from Gaza to transfer to the West Bank to study occupational therapy because the universities in Gaza do not provide the program.  This process of academic destruction has driven Palestinian education underground, where classes are held secretly in teachers’ apartments, in local churches and mosques, and in refugee camps.

Perhaps more importantly concerning the academic boycott, however, is not only the Israeli government’s actions, but the active participation of Israeli academia itself in discriminating against Palestinian students, and here I mean Palestinian citizens of Israel since Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not even allowed to physically access Israeli universities to take admission exams, let alone go to class. Here are just some of the examples of Israeli academic institutions’ role in perpetuating apartheid, above and beyond the fact that they have failed to condemn Israel’s colonial/apartheid policies.

While 25% of Haifa University’s students are Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, they make up 80% of the students facing disciplinary action, a clear disproportion.  Recently, students were brought in front of a disciplinary committee for demonstrating against a university-sponsored conference entitled "The Demographic Problem and the Demographic Policy of Israel." The "demographic problem" alludes to the racist fear of the high Arab birth rates that threaten Zionism’s obsession with maintaining Israel’s Jewish majority at any and all costs.  Can you imagine the uproar that would ensue if Black students were brought in front of a disciplinary committee in the US or Canada for demonstrating against a conference addressing the population growth "problem" of Blacks?  Furthermore, Haifa University’s official guide for foreign and exchange students includes a warning entitled "Special Security Instructions" cautioning against visiting Arab-Palestinian towns and villages in Israel.  These are only a few of many Haifa University discriminatory practices. At Ohalo College, the only Palestinian student candidate running for head of the student union was disqualified, on the day of the election nonetheless. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Arab-Palestinian visitors are required to carry a "certificate of integrity" if they wish to enter the university.

Many of the universities have also played a role in the theft and confiscation of Palestinian land. Hebrew University began expanding its housing and offices in 2004 over the destroyed and depopulated Palestinian village of Lifta – and of course, the Palestinian refugees do not have the right to return, which means that the people whose land the university is built on are not allowed to study at the institution, let alone reclaim their land. Professor Margaret Aziza Pappano of Canada’s Queen’s University informed us recently that "Hebrew University has a long and deleterious history of appropriating Palestinian land.  In 1968, in opposition to a UN resolution, the university evicted hundreds of Palestinian families to expand their campus in East Jerusalem. This history of confiscation continues, as October 2004 saw more evictions of Palestinian families and destruction of their homes for another campus expansion."

Tel Aviv University was built over the destroyed and depopulated village of Sheikh Muwannis. The former home of the village Mukhtar (mayor) has become the faculty club/cafeteria.  To add insult to injury, the university refuses to allow the posting of a sign that would explain the origins of the building – perhaps it would spoil the faculty’s appetite.  The university plans to ironically build a new Faculty of Archeology as an expansion of its campus further into the lands of the destroyed village.  Last but not least, in perhaps the most infamous case, the Ariel University Centre of Samaria (AKA "the settler university"), an extension of Bar Ilan University, was built inside the illegal settlement of Ariel inside the West Bank.  The village of Salfit endured massive land confiscations to make way for the settlement and its residents will soon be displaced to the other side of the illegal Wall that is being erected inside the West Bank (separating students from their universities) to cage in Palestinian communities and to eventually annex the illegal settlement blocks where this University will operate.

This is only a glimpse of the long list of Israeli academia’s participation in the colonization of Palestinian land and in the discrimination against Palestinian students.  If we are to build on the case for the academic boycott of Israel, we must dedicate more time to disseminating the painful details of this academic apartheid that is part and parcel of the wider apartheid system imposed by Israel on the Palestinians.

In light of this, it is a fair demand on behalf of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine that the leadership of the UCU publish the ‘legal advice’ for examination and tell us who provided it, tell us whether any other sources were sought out for advice, and what the nature of that advice was.  Furthermore, an explanation of why it was ‘heroic’ for British academic unions to lead the academic boycott of South Africa, but ‘illegal’ to even discuss the academic boycott of Israel is vital.  Indeed, a fundamental component of academic freedom is academic transparency.

Lastly, it is important to note that academia, perhaps more than any other sector of society, should be at the forefront of the boycott campaign because of its long professed commitments to anti-oppressive and anti-racist ideals.  Just as dangerous or hate-speech is ideally exempted from the right to freedom of speech, so should academic practices that perpetuate and entrench racism and apartheid be exempted from academic freedom.  All around the world, academics have begun to take principled positions against Israeli apartheid, and history will remember this. Conversely, history will also remember those academics and university presidents who stood on the side of apartheid, oppression, and colonial domination. So, to Sally Hunt and her ‘legal’ team, the lines are drawn – which will it be?

-Hammam Farah is a Palestinian Canadian who was born in the Gaza Strip as part of Gaza’s small Christian community.  He resides in Toronto and is a solidarity activist with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA), which is spearheading the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign in Canada.  He can be reached at hammamf@gmail.com

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