Brooking the chasm

Sally Feldman urges partnerships with both Israel's and Palestine's academies

January 15, 2009

Just a few days before Israel launched its devastating bombardment of Gaza, I went to Ramallah with an Israeli friend to meet the distinguished Arab journalist Daoud Kuttab, with whom he had been working on various projects. It wasn't, my friend told me, an easy collaboration. Meetings were erratic, access across the divide unpredictable. But there we were, rattling past Arab cafes, car tyre mountains, rubbish tips, tiny shops wafting exotic smells. And all just a 15-minute drive away from the clean, well-ordered and prosperous centre of Jerusalem where I'd been staying.

Kuttab's office at his company, Community Media Network, was across the road from the media school of Al-Quds University, which he'd set up, equipped and run and that had landed him in a series of unexpected adventures. He had once been imprisoned by the Palestinian authorities for encouraging his students to broadcast uncensored material from Arafat's parliament.

Kuttab was only released, he revealed with relish as we sipped our cranberry tea and watched an Israeli surveillance tank cruising outside the window, through the intervention of Madeleine Albright, who was Bill Clinton's Secretary of State at that time.

At another point, the Israeli army had decided to take over the building as a vantage point and proceeded to wreck the school's studio.

The modest set-up in a ramshackle part of town could not have been more different from the luxurious setting of the Hebrew University, where I had lunch later that day. Its faculty restaurant opened on to a terrace where, from the heights of Mount Scopus, you could see the whole of Jerusalem, a dazzling, white-stoned panorama of all the embattled and beautiful domes and spires that characterise the Old City.

Following the latest events, there will no doubt be renewed calls from the University and College Union for a boycott of Israeli academics. The Hebrew University I visited could well top the list of targets. In a new collection of essays by Jewish critics of Israeli policies, A Time to Speak Out, the sociologist Stan Cohen gives a sadly elegant account of the complicity of Israeli universities in the denial of state abuse, citing a particularly vivid case at the Hebrew University.

During a law faculty graduation, Cohen recalled, where the theme was human rights and natural justice, "you could smell the tear gas in the air and see spirals of smoke coming from the nearby (Palestinian) village of Isawiya".

And yet, despite the shameful catalogue of collaboration that he provides, Cohen is not a supporter of the boycott.

"Unless it's part of a wider movement," he told me, "this can only be an empty gesture, unlikely to achieve much more than allowing some critics of Israel to feel that they have made a stand. I am also uneasy about its facile selectivity."

Kuttab has rather more mixed feelings. Although he recognises the benefits of working with Israelis, he explains, he also strongly believes that nonviolent tactics and strategies can work effectively, as the anti-apartheid boycott did in South Africa.

"Israel depends a lot on international support and it is in this area that Israelis might be forced to come to terms with the fact that their actions are rejected by the world community," Kuttab said.

Cohen, too, has long felt frustrated by Israeli academics' lack of engagement with any genuine dissent. When teaching at the Hebrew University in the 1980s, he thought of himself as working in a virtual institution.

"It felt like an elaborately crafted movie in which there was no occupation, no intifada, as if the university was set in New Zealand," he said.

Even so, criticism and resistance to the present regime does tend to be located within the universities. If a boycott were mounted, those affected would include that small group of academics, both Jewish and Palestinian, who are among the most outspoken of Israel's critics.

But for me, there is another reason to oppose an academic boycott. And that is the nature of education itself.

Kuttab, a critic not just of Israel but also, sometimes, of the Palestinians and of Hamas, is adamantly committed to improving access to information. His company, which produces educational videos for young children, is currently developing an animated series designed to introduce children across the Muslim world to the meaning of Islam.

His are utopian projects, not just because of their scope and subject matter but also because they aim to reach across the divide, fostering understanding and thereby lighting a small, modest candle for peace.

I feel a similar flicker of hope when, back in my own university, I see Arab and Israeli students working on films together. This is where respect takes over from mistrust, friendship from hostility.

And these are the kinds of often-unnoticed activities that really can make a difference. By breaking down barriers, education - and especially media education - can begin to brook the chasms.

So rather than boycott academic partnerships, let's extend them. I'd like those Al-Quds media students to engage in exchange programmes with ours and for the panoply of policies and agreements already afforded to Israeli academics to be extended so that Palestinians can enjoy the same privileges.

Rather than cutting off sources of research and knowledge, we need to work to provide more of it, in a small but telling act of defiance against the rockets, the bombings, the killings and the hate.

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