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Academics and Israel


In academia, most scholars shun speaking and writing about the state of Israel’s siege and wars in Palestine. Our silence suggests support for the Israeli government’s violation of international law, specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention’s articles 27-34 and 47-78 stipulating that occupying powers have a general obligation to “ensure… the provision of food and medical care to the population under occupation,” and prohibits “collective punishment” of the occupied population and the “confiscation of private property” by the occupier. Our subdued reaction to Israel’s occupation of Palestine generally reflects the fear that pro-Israel supporters will damage our careers if we were to speak and write about the facts of the situation.

Pro-Israel supporters use malicious and debased techniques to threaten us into silence such as threatening university administrators with withdrawal of pro-Israel donors’ funding. The threat to withdraw donor funding is so feared by university administrators that the University of Illinois’s Chancellor Phyllis Wise recently rescinded a job offer made to a professor for speaking out against Israeli atrocities in Gaza on social media. Despite the threat of unemployment and retaliation a critical mass of scholars continue to do our job – questioning the answers generally accepted as fact. We dissect the false Israeli occupation narratives that major media outlets disseminate. We expose how Israel is not, as it says, merely exercising its right to self-defense; it is using the IDF and extrajudicial measures to ethnically cleanse Gaza and the West Bank for annexation.

Academics such as Norman Finkelstein, Juan Cole, Joseph Massad, Nadia Abu El Haj, Erwin Chemerinsky, David Guth and, most recently Steven Salaita, University of Illinois and countless others follow the path of Hannh Arendt, Albert Einstein, and present day Israeli colleagues like Neve Gordon and Ilan Pappé by refusing to remain silent about Israel’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, a majority of academics refuse to see or acknowledge how their “neutrality,” deference to authority and “following the path of least resistance” helps fuel Israeli injustices against Palestinians. These colleagues need to find the courage to speak their minds even when they are being pressured to hold their tongue about Israeli injustices for as Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality” or silence.

Pro-Israel supporters consider critical examination of the facts outside the bounds of the professoriate and “civility,” but academics know it is squarely within our purview. Our professional mission necessitates being suspicious of official (Israeli) interpretations of the occupation and the occupied reactions to it. As fact seekers we unnerve people because we go beyond the commonly accepted or officially defined version of human events. Our explanations of the facts expose why and how Israel seeks to depopulate Palestine of Palestinians through force, starvation, and neglect.

Challenging Israel’s occupation narrative in one’s research or in the case of Professor Salaita, tweets, upsets the applecart so much that some higher education officials seek to abolish academic freedom so professors are not free to criticize and critique official interpretations of events. The tenuousness of scholarly autonomy is always a concern for academics but this uncertainty has never stopped us from interrogating highly controversial problems and events. Critical and untempered public debate is a central pillar of the professoriate that must continue if we seriously want to advance human knowledge and well-being.

In recognition of the professoriates important critiquing mission, more and more scholars are casting aside fear of pro-Israeli supporters’ attempts to pressure them to support the Israel’s narrative of the occupation or remain silent about it. Informed scholars know this position is unacceptable and inconsistent with Judaism.

Zionism is not Judaism. Zionism is political ideology that deems the forceful removal of Palestinians from their homes and land to create a secular “Jewish state” acceptable. Judaism does not permit Jews to oppress other people in order to steal their land. Zionism is a political movement grounded in exclusivity and materialism. Unlike Judaism, which is inclusive and compassionate to people, Zionism lacks a moral and ethical center given it propagates the belief Palestine belongs to Jews not Palestinians.

Since Zionism runs counter to Judaism Albert Einstein, who anticipated the negative consequences of a Zionist nation, argued vigorously against establishing a Jewish homeland via the forceful removal of Palestinian from their homes and land. Rather than creating a narrowly constructed and exclusive “Jewish state,” Einstein believed it more prudent to create a broad-based religious and ethnically inclusive secular state. However, his Palestine vision was cast aside for an exclusionary “Jewish state” with borders, an army and power to ensure Jewish supremacy.

In spite of pressure from administrators and trustees on behalf of pro-Israel donors to cease academics’ critiques of the Israeli occupation, apartheid, racism and sexism the course of academic criticism is growing. Academics no longer fear knee jerk screams of anti-Semitism when we are simply questioning the Israeli government’s intolerable occupation of Palestine and its apartheid system. As academics our job is not contingent on satisfying pro-Israel donors’ interest but rather on our effectiveness of not simply accepting information at face-value in a non-critical or non-evaluative way. The essence of being an academic is not in answering questions but questioning answers. This is why pro-Israeli supporters and timid trustees and administrators do not want scholars critique and criticize the occupation. But scholars are increasingly realizing that remaining silent forsakes their professional responsibilities, making them complicit in Israel’s crimes against humanity.

Johnny E. Williams is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College.                


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