Student union calls for end to Tel Aviv centenary lectures

Motion demands Soas cancel series in light of Israeli military action in Gaza. Melanie Newman reports

January 16, 2009

The student union at the School of Oriental and African Studies has passed a motion demanding the cancellation of a lecture series celebrating Tel Aviv’s centenary.

The Centre for Jewish Studies at Soas has been hosting the bimonthly lecture series in conjunction with Tel Aviv University since the start of term. The students are calling for the series to end in protest against Israeli military action in Gaza.

The motion, passed on 13 January, aims “to put pressure on the Soas director and all relevant parties to cancel the series of lectures celebrating Tel Aviv centennial, as Tel Aviv represents a colonial city built on ethnic cleansing”.

The president of the Soas branch of the University and College Union is understood to be backing the students.

Graham Dyer, UCU branch president, was quoted in The Jerusalem Post as saying: “A pro-Israeli propaganda exercise masquerading as an academic conference has no place in Soas at the best of times, but to hold a celebration of Tel Aviv as the Israeli war machine wreaks death and destruction on the Gaza ghetto is nothing short of sick.”

He reportedly added that cancelling or postponing the series was not a denial of academic freedom but an expression of “basic humanitarian sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza”.

The newspaper also quoted Sabry Hafez, professor of modern Arabic at Soas, as saying that he was “gravely concerned” that his department, languages and cultures of Near and Middle East, was “indirectly involved in such an act of unashamed propaganda and little or no academic merit”.

He reportedly said: “I call on all the members of this department, and other colleagues… to make their views known, and to write collectively to the director to cancel this ill-conceived programme. I also call on all my colleagues to boycott [it] if it is not cancelled.”

Colin Shindler, professor of Israeli studies, is one of the organisers of the lecture series. He said: “Any call for cancelling this series will be seen as not based on opposition to the centenary but on the participation of Israel academics. Academic institutions rightly do not suppress different narratives and opinions.” (See his full statement below.)

After the UCU issued a statement condemning the bombing of Gaza University earlier this month, Professor Shindler and some Israeli and Jewish colleagues at Soas responded by asking: “Why has the union been silent for many years about the assault on Sapir College in Sderot, inside Israel, whose campus has become a firing range for Hamas units in Gaza?”

The news emerged as the UCU head office circulated a statement on academic freedom with a message from its general secretary, Sally Hunt. She called on branches to persuade their vice-chancellors to sign up to the statement.

It said: “Higher and further education staff have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, expression, association and assembly. Staff must not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through free expression of opinion on matters of public interest. We recognise that this may touch upon sensitive or controversial issues.”

But it added that “academic freedom also comes with the responsibility to respect the democratic rights and freedoms of others”.

Dennis Hayes, founder of Academics for Academic Freedom and a former UCU president, criticised the statement for “ignoring the politically correct censorship of the Left authoritarians in the union and a censorious climate in wider society”.

He said: “That is why it skirts around the issue of freedom of speech, the core of academic freedom, and just talks vaguely about the ‘freedom’ to teach and research, and the right to opine about management. But by making reference to the union rule that is used to deal with harassment, prejudice and unfair discrimination, the statement carries an implicit warning that ‘freedoms’ that the censors in the union do not approve of will not be tolerated.”

Statement from Colin Shindler

Our lecture series “Tel Aviv at 100: 1909-2009” began last term and followed the normal pattern of lectures that we organise around a theme each year.

Joachim Shlöer of the University of Southampton started the series when he spoke about his academic studies on the history of Tel Aviv. The Palestinian Ambassador, Manuel Hassassian, formerly of Bethlehem University, gave a paper on “Tel Aviv and Ramallah: The Next 100 Years”. Reuven Snir, an anti-Zionist Israeli professor from Haifa University, spoke about Arabic literature in Israel. This term, academics from Tel Aviv University were due to speak on the same theme on non-contentious subjects such as architecture and music. The first lecture this evening is by Anita Shapira, on Israel’s leading historians of the early history of Tel Aviv.

It is therefore terribly unfortunate that these lectures, planned months ago, have coincided with the terrible events in Gaza.

Any call for cancelling this series will be seen as not based on opposition to the centenary, but on the participation of Israeli academics, and a resurrection of the attempt to boycott academics simply because they are Israeli regardless of their opinion about the tragedy in Gaza. Soas as an institution and the British Government have always strongly opposed and condemned such a boycott.

Academic institutions rightly do not suppress different narratives and different opinions. Its ethos is that the violence of the street should not be brought into the classroom. On a personal level, it is something that I hold to dearly; and even if I am in a minority of one, I will adhere to this and not bow to any intimidation.

I have never called for the cancellation of a lecture at Soas, even if the views expressed were not to my liking – such as the participation of a Hezbollah representative in a recent conference or the talk given by the hijacker Leila Khaled in the past.

In the ten years that I have been at Soas, I have always worked hard for my students, regardless of their opinions and background. I will continue to do this.

I hope that colleagues will not discriminate against students whose opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict they do not agree with.

These are difficult times for all of us. I am grateful to the many colleagues – whether they share my views or not – who have contacted me. Let us hope that the killing ceases this week and we can attempt to rebuild the bridges between us.

Colin Shindler
Professor of Israeli studies

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