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Academic Institutions in the West Can No Longer Remain Silent on Gaza

Israel is targeting Palestinian universities and scholars in Gaza and the West Bank. All academics should speak out.

A picture taken on February 15, 2024 shows the heavily damaged building of Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, amid the continuing Israeli war on Gaza.

Part of the Series

When Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, I was struck by the rapidity with which college campuses in the U.S. all seemed to unfurl a Ukrainian flag and hoist it right next to the American flag on campus. Without questioning. Without discussion.

Four days after the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s flag was flying in Harvard Yard; New York Rep. Elise Stefanik later chastised President Claudine Gay for not affording Israel that same status after it invaded Gaza. Within a week of Russia’s encroachment, most universities in the West made clear statements in solidarity with Ukraine — from the Sorbonne to Emory to the London School of Economics and Political Science to Universität Tübingen. Some institutions — like Harvard and Case Western Reserve — posted resources for people in their academic community affected by the war in Ukraine. Still others — like Bard College, the University of Chicago and the University of Cambridge — created special slots for Ukrainian students to study with scholarship funds. In contrast, efforts are underway in the U.K. to criminalize displays of Palestinian flags, including on university campuses.

If solidarity against oppression is indeed the goal, then why this double standard? Unsurprisingly, academic institutions have only condemned this atrocity in the form of sanitized and ahistorical “both sides” narratives that attempt to equate Hamas resistance’s attack on October 7 with the ensuing genocide inflicted by Israel. Only two academic institutions thus far — the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and Ulster University in Northern Ireland — have invited displaced Palestinian college students to their campus with admissions and scholarship offers, but only women may apply.

Like Ukraine, Gaza was invaded by a neighboring, hostile state. But unlike Ukraine, Gaza has endured a belligerent Israeli siege for 17 years, including several military conflagrations leaving its entire population, especially the younger generation, measuring their lifetimes in wars. While Russia has bombed educational institutions in Ukraine, Israel has targeted both academic installations and academics in Gaza over the past five months. Israel has attacked both UNRWA schools and public schools in Gaza, destroyed all 12 universities in the Strip and murdered 94 university professors, including the mathematician and physicist Sufyan Tayeh, poet Refaat Alareer and Islamic University of Gaza’s Dean of Nursing Nasser Abu Al-Nour. Still, universities in the West remain silent and complicit in Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

While the West may not understand the parallels between Russia’s war on Ukraine and Israel’s invasion of Gaza, Ukrainian people see it quite clearly. As Yuliia Kishchuk told Truthout in an interview:

In fact, Israel and Russia share more in common. They use the same justification of “the right to self-defense” to invade and occupy a land that lawfully does not belong to them.

Their political regimes are also similar; both are far right and authoritarian and fuel their population with hateful and even genocidal propaganda about Ukrainians and Palestinians. They are both oppressor states.

In Gaza, all the universities, archives and libraries have been bombed. They were targets of a hostile nation that not only wants to annihilate the Palestinian people, but also to destroy any evidence that Palestinians are deeply tied to the land, to a culture, to a society that has existed for thousands of years. Those schools that were left standing, sheltering thousands, have been defunded by their biggest benefactors — the United States and its allies.

The Right to Education

Palestinian knowledge and culture have always been under attack. Indeed, during the first Nakba in 1948, over 70,000 Palestinian books were looted from Palestinian homes and institutions. Israel censors reading materials. It shuts down literature festivals. It closes universities. It seizes books and newspapers, archives and artifacts. In every assault on Gaza, Israel targets its academic institutions. I wrote about this with my colleague Akram Habeeb in 2009, when Israel bombed his institution, the Islamic University of Gaza. During that war, Karma Nabulsi coined the term “scholasticide” to describe the specific attacks on Palestinian educational infrastructure.

Israel’s practice of infringing upon Palestinians’ right to education escalated with the founding of the first Palestinian University, Birzeit, in 1972. In addition to curricular materials being subjected to Israeli censors — both in terms of intellectual production within Palestine and what sorts of academic materials may be imported — Palestinian students, faculty and academic institutions are under constant threat. In the West Bank, this began when Israeli military authorities seized and deported Birzeit’s founding president, Hanna Nasir, to Lebanon in 1974, where he lived in exile for 20 years. It continued with the closing of all Palestinian universities, schools and kindergartens during the First Intifada in 1987, rendering Palestinian education illegal.

From 1988-1992, all universities remained closed and according to Riham Barghouti and Helen Murray, “Palestinian education was pushed underground” into people’s homes, mosques, churches and community centers, which were constantly raided and their teachers and students arrested for studying. Since 1992, when Birzeit and other universities were allowed to reopen, Palestinians still found themselves struggling to arrive at their educational institutions because of curfews, closures, checkpoints and Jewish-only roads throughout the West Bank. During the Second Intifada, Palestinian academic institutions were military targets. According to Barghouti and Murray, “eight universities and over three hundred schools have been shelled, shot at or raided by the Israeli Army.”

Failure to Act

One of the students who I have been working with had her dreams of becoming a journalist shattered when her college, the Islamic University of Gaza, was yet again destroyed by Israel. Reaching out to university admissions offices and communications departments in the U.K. and in West Asia, I’m stunned by the responses I’ve received when I’ve inquired about her possible admission: Has she taken the SAT yet? What are her IELTS scores? Can I see her university transcripts?

How does a student who dreams of continuing her studies get transcripts from a demolished university? How does she sit for an exam with little to no internet connectivity? How does she even begin to concentrate on such activities when bombs are dropping and drones are incessantly flying overhead?

While this may not seem like the most pressing concern given the bombs now raining down on Rafah — indeed, in my student’s very neighborhood — I find academia’s lack of desire to move heaven and earth to help students from Gaza infuriating. It’s infuriating because every day we wait anxiously for some sign of justice and humanity from some corner of the world, from some institution or state that can stop this genocide — one would hope that individuals might take it upon themselves to do something.

Of course, there are scholars coming together to document the obliteration of academic institutions like Educators for Palestine and Librarians and Archivists with Palestine, as well as academic groups like Scholars Against the War on Palestine and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which are doing political organizing. And there are ever-increasing numbers of faculty around the world who are educating themselves and their communities about Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza. But it all seems so minimal compared to the weight of this ongoing assault on the Palestinian people, culture, society and history.

In January, Israel conducted a planned implosion of Al-Isra University, the last of Gaza’s 11 universities they destroyed. Prior to detonating their bombs, Israeli soldiers looted artifacts from the university museum dating from the Roman Empire to modern Palestinian history. The Israeli military has a long history of overriding any international laws regulating the transfer of antiquities from one location to another.

Annihilating Palestinian history, culture, academia and people is all connected to the project of erasure and appropriation that enables Israel to continue its mythology that the Palestinian people do not exist while trying to override Palestinian society. This is cultural genocide.

Universities, museums and archives that are silent during this onslaught are complicit in these genocidal acts. And it’s not merely because of their silence. It’s also because they are profiting from this genocide through their investment portfolios. On February 11, protesters targeted the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum because their boards of trustees “directly fund the Zionist occupation via arms manufacturing, lobbying, and corporate investment.” Likewise, students at Brown University went on an eight-day hunger strike as they agitate for their institution to divest from corporations that support settler colonialism in Palestine. Faculty at the University of Michigan have voted to divest from Israel. Students at Pitzer College passed a student senate resolution to cancel its study abroad program with the University of Haifa. And most recently, UC Davis students voted to divest from Israel.

These are drops in the bucket compared to the overwhelming crackdown on student organizing in support of Palestine. This crackdown is part of the institutional complicity — whether in the U.K., the U.S. and Europe or, of course, in Israeli universities. Germany, once again, finds itself on the wrong side of history when it comes to complicity in a genocide.

In the U.S., punishment of Palestinian solidarity activists on college campuses has become so widespread that even the famously anti-Palestinian New York Times has covered it. Indeed, the corporate class is making it clear they’re watching what happens on U.S. campuses very closely. Whether it’s CEOs of companies promising to block the hiring of students who participate in Palestine solidarity actions or donors threatening to pull funding from institutions that they believe are giving space to Palestinian points of view, or demanding presidents of universities resign — it’s clearer than ever before that academia is neither governed from inside, nor in the hands of its intellectual workers or learners, but in the hands of wealthy and influential alumni and donors.

As we watch this live-streamed genocide in Gaza — as over 2 million Palestinian internally displaced people have been stuffed into Rafah, where Israel is on the brink of invading with ground forces — and no academic body steps up to intervene, I’m struck by something Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, wrote in her forward to her father’s book, The Sabbath. She was recalling the exiled Eastern European scholars, who escaped Nazi Germany’s Final Solution, who would congregate in her home for Shabbat:

They did not talk about the murder process of the Holocaust, nor did they use that word in those days, but they would talk about the non-Jewish scholars who had been exposed as Nazis in Max Wenreich’s book Hitler’s Professors. Like my father, most of my parent’s friends had studied before the war at German universities and they remained shocked, twenty, thirty years after the war ended, that scholars whose work they had admired had become Nazis.

While I’m not suggesting those of us who remain silent are Nazis, I am wondering what those of us affiliated with academia in some way will say about where we stood and what we did during this genocide, one in which we cannot say we didn’t know, we didn’t see, we didn’t hear.

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