‘New Israel and Zionism Society’ of Exeter Wages War on Committed Scholarship

A workshop with Professor Ilan Pappé at the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. (Photo: via University of Exeter website)

By Ilan Pappe – The Palestine Chronicle  

Recently, I received a polite email from an Israeli student in my university inviting me to a talk by one Yoseph Haddad who, I was informed, will tell the campus about the wonderful life of a 48 Arab in Israel. This coincided with the establishment of a new student society at the University of Exeter, the “New Israel and Zionism Society”. The headline in the Jewish Chronicle hailed the fact that no student group on the campus objected to it. 

The reason for the polite invitation was an attempt to represent Zionist propaganda as an organic part of healthy academic life and debates, whereas the absence of objection to the new society was because no one knew about its establishment or its registration. But this is hardly the point. 

What matters is that quite astonishingly, the Anglo-Jewish community that supports Israel and Zionism genuinely believes, at this time and age, that either a Zionist Arab or a new Zionist outfit have a credible message to present to students and faculty alike in British universities. 

The clueless student guild accepted the main argument for having such a society:  “We believe there is a lack of representation of Zionist ideas and values which are often misconceptualized by students in general”.

The “misinformed students” are postgraduate students in Palestine and Middle East Studies, who know more about Israel and Palestine than probably the most senior journalists in The Jewish Chronicle. So, the aspiration of the new society that “our university now has a chance to provide a fair and robust platform for Israel”, is about forty years too late. 

What Israel had done at least in those forty years, what it is doing today – and for many of us knowing what it did since 1948 – is so momentous that if indeed one seeks a fair and robust platform, it can only be done through the same language used by Amnesty International to describe Israel, as an apartheid state. 

There are probably three students who regard themselves as Zionists in Exeter and Hadad will have to bring his own audience to spread the Zionist propaganda on our campus. Thus, this is not meant to educate students or faculty about Zionism; these are just acts of intimidation meant to undermine the successful solidification in the University of Exeter of a fine and professional program of Palestine Studies and a testimony to the great work done by the vibrant pro-Palestinian activists among our students.

Palestine Studies is a relatively new area of inquiry, built on the success of Palestinian scholars since the 1960s. It is a joint scholarly effort that proves that thorough and meticulous research validates the most important claims made by Palestinians over the years; namely, that Zionism is a settler colonial movement, motivated by the logic of the elimination of the natives and employing among other means, apartheid, to try and complete the project of displacement and replacement it had begun in the late 19th century.

There is no scholarly or professional way of challenging the great work we are doing, not only in Exeter but in eight centers for Palestine Studies around the world. This is why the other side is trying to win the moral argument by force, which leads to these rather pathetic attempts to intimidate through presence, the inevitable knowledge production in Palestine. 

This battle has not been won yet, but these centers and study programs keep expanding and influencing others on how to research, study and teach about Palestine. Nonetheless, this comes at a price when countered by these attempts to suppress and silence these achievements – and some of our more vulnerable colleagues are still targeted by the Israeli lobby wherever they are. Some of them paid dearly by losing their jobs because they remained loyal to their moral convictions and their commitment to the struggle in Palestine.

There are also still countries such as Germany, Italy, and France, not to mention the new members of the European Union, where academics do not dare as yet to establish a Palestine center or impact the study program, and that, while knowing well that was is taught in their universities is pure propaganda, they are unable so far to stop this travesty in their own campuses. It behooves upon us to visit and lecture in these places as much as we can to help our brave colleagues to withstand an onslaught of their freedom of expression and academic work. 

Our biggest challenge yet is not constituted by these attempts to intimidate us in our scholarly environment, or the inability to spread the effort globally. It lies elsewhere. While the quantity and the quality of the committed research on Palestine are constantly on the rise, so far it fails to impact the reality on the ground. In fact, these seem to be two diametrically opposed trajectories– worsening conditions inside Palestine, and clear and powerful production of knowledge, outside of Palestine.

This frustrating fact of life was highlighted in a recent and excellent conference on Palestine organized by the Arab Research Centre in Doha. A conference that brought to the fore some of the brilliant recent scholarships by young Palestinian academics and academics working on Palestine. Next to them, we were able to listen to veteran scholars with stellar careers in many disciplines from all over the world. 

The essence of the challenge is how to make committed scholarship more effective, and make the pen mightier, at least at times, than the sword. No person can figure out how best to do it; it requires a joint effort.

The one advantage the global scholarly community on Palestine has is its consensual approach to the Palestine issue in general; this community is much less divided ideologically or politically. 

It represents quite a solid and unified vision for the future, without underestimating its particular, and limited, place in a liberation movement. As such, it does not assume the role of leadership, nor do academics see themselves as representatives of the movements. But they form a human capital that probably can be better employed in order to assist with the decolonization and liberation effort. 

This human capital is ready and accessible and whenever, and hopefully soon, a process of democratization, unity, and representation would mature within the liberation movement, it would prove to be a huge asset for the cause. 

After all, it played a crucial role in the 1960s in the institutionalization of the liberation struggle, which commenced a very formative and impressive period in the liberation struggle until 1982 and, once more, was there in the background of the most inspiring uprising so far in 1987 (even if some academics played unintentionally quite a negative role in enthusing about the disastrous Oslo accord). Moreover, it is an important part of the resilience shown today by Palestinians inside and outside the Green Line. 

These are all glimpses of hope from the past, but they can become much more transformative and revolutionary in the future as part of the struggle ahead of us.

– Ilan Pappé is a professor at the University of Exeter. He was formerly a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa. He is the author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, The Modern Middle East, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, and Ten Myths about Israel. He is the co-editor, with Ramzy Baroud of ‘Our Vision for Liberation.’ Pappé is described as one of Israel’s ‘New Historians’ who, since the release of pertinent British and Israeli government documents in the early 1980s, have been rewriting the history of Israel’s creation in 1948. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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