The October 7th terrorist attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians and the retaliatory genocide being waged by Israel in a total siege of Gaza have roiled academic communities in the United States and abroad. Charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia have divided colleagues, terrified students, destroyed friendships, and threatened the basic integrity of academic freedom that institutions of higher education hold dear. A brief look at two examples through the historical lens of international law illustrates the gravity confronting scholars who dare to challenge the Israeli narrative.
Two cases, one in the United States and the other in Israel, illustrate this point. In the United States, Dr. Lara Sheehi, an Arab woman professor of clinical psychology who teaches at George Washington University, was targeted by a pro-Israel lobby group, StandWithUs, that prompted some Jewish students to complain that she and a guest speaker from Palestine had made them feel “vulnerable and unsafe.” On behalf those students, StandWithUs filed a complaint against GW University with the U.S. Department of Education and released the complaint on rightwing social media even before filing it. Clearly, the intention was to manufacture controversy.
Dr. Sheehi’s guest was Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an internationally acclaimed scholar and advocate for children’s rights. She spoke on the topic, “Global Mental Health ‘Expertise’, ‘Therapeutic’ Military Occupation and Its Deadly Exchange.” According to the speaker, most of the students were engaged and posed good questions. However, a small number charged that the talk had been a “diatribe against Israel,” according to the StandWithUs complaint filed with the Department of Education.
The George Washington University administration took an unusual step and hired a law firm to pursue an external investigation. Was the pressure from a pro-Israel lobby group accompanied by a rightwing media smear campaign too much for the university to bear? Eventually, both investigations concluded that neither the university nor Dr. Sheehi were guilty of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, in Israel, Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian has become the target of another smear campaign. Following Hamas’s brutal attack and Israel’s retaliatory mass bombing of Gaza, Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian signed a letter protesting the genocide of men, women, and children in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces. In this case, it was the university that attempted to silence the professor, urging her to consider abandoning her post despite the fact that she had in no way justified Hamas’s horrific attack. Nor have the vast majority of civilians in Gaza, where IDF retaliations have now claimed the lives of some 11,000 people, 40 percent of whom are children. These people have been collectively punished for Hamas’s atrocities.
The argument about genocide made in the letter Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian signed is firmly rooted in the international legal framework that emerged after World War II. In 1948, the year that Israel became a nation, the international community joined survivors of the Holocaust by promising that never again may such horror be allowed to happen, and never again may the international community turn a blind eye while such atrocities are occurring.
That year, in a belated response to the Holocaust that killed six million Jews and five million others in the 1930s and ‘40s, the UN General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention, which required member nations “to prevent and to punish” genocide wherever and whenever it is found. The Convention defined genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Such acts included “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” The Genocide Convention also required member nations “to prevent and to punish” genocide wherever and whenever it is found.
In later years, further measures were added. In 1949, collective punishment was termed a war crime under Geneva Convention (IV), Article 33, “Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.” In 2005, the UN General Assembly, prompted by the international community’s failure to respond to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, passed a resolution commonly known as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), which allows the international community to intervene if governments do not protect their citizens from gross human rights violations. Deference to “state sovereignty” can no longer be used as an expedient to allow ethnic cleansing, genocide, or other crimes against humanity to proceed unhindered.
Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, therefore, is not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. More than 800 international lawyers and scholars have termed the actions conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza a possible genocide. Just as nothing can justify Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians, nothing can justify the Netanyahu government’s brutal response.
Like the attack on Dr. Sheehi, the request that Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian to “consider stepping down” from her position because she signed a public letter of protest that adheres to the norms of international humanitarian law violates the principles of democratic academic freedom. George Washington University ultimately cleared Dr. Sheehi of wrongdoing—although it could not give back the peace of mind that was stolen from her or extinguish the threats of violence that continue to plague her. Unless the Hebrew University of Jerusalem does likewise, its status as a site of genuine independent scholarship and intellectual achievement will be undermined. Other institutions should pay heed. Will they walk the walk of academic freedom or simply talk the talk?