Giving a voice to the voiceless in Israel

Allowing Palestinian academics to speak Arabic in Israeli universities can strengthen identity, says Audrey Osler

July 16, 2015
From Where I Sit illustration (16 July 2015)

Earlier this year, staff and students at Soas, University of London became the first in the UK to hold a vote on an academic boycott of Israel, backing it by an overwhelming majority in the student union-organised vote.

An invitation to a postgraduate seminar from a Palestinian Israeli citizen working at the University of Haifa caused me to confront the issue. Could I participate without breaking the boycott? I was assured that the event would not be publicly advertised. Names of speakers and their universities would not be used to promote a business as usual message.

The academic boycott is part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, which advocates no institutional or cultural links with Israel. Projects that promote “co-resistance” to discriminatory state policies are exempt.

The seminar theme was “Diversity and belonging in education: conflicts of positioning” – a subject impossible to discuss when discrimination is widespread and institutionalised, without engaging with justice and human rights.

The seminar, funded by a German government-sponsored initiative, brought together young scholars from Israel and Germany, including Palestinian and Jewish Israelis, and Germans of Turkish and Iranian descent. They confronted difficult political questions over four meetings, including one held during the 2014 Gaza war. They discussed unequal power relations and their experiences as eyewitnesses to institutionalised discriminatory practices.

At the university, I visited a graduate class. Hebrew is the language of instruction in Israeli higher education but, exceptionally, this class worked in Arabic with a Palestinian lecturer. Most children study in separate Hebrew or Arabic language schools, so Palestinians arrive at university ill-equipped to manage academic Hebrew.

In parts of Haifa, it is easy to believe that you are in a Palestinian city, with handsome stone houses, Arabic voices and music. I was surprised to find the military absent. But on campus, uniformed Jewish Israeli students, carrying guns, their studies sponsored as part of their military service, were ubiquitous.

I visited Mada al-Carmel, an independent research institute that supports Palestinians in Israel, examining national identity, democratic citizenship and government policy. Mada provides an independent voice for scholars outside the state system, promoting Arabic as an academic language. Although one in five Israeli citizens is Palestinian, Palestinians comprise just 1.75 per cent of academics at Israel’s eight research universities. Mada supports those whose identities, scholarly work and activism may well leave them marginalised.

Another research goal is to foster a collective memory of Palestinian and Arab history and Islamic civilisation, since the Israeli school system attempts to keep Palestinians in ignorance of their history. Textbooks omit mention of Al Nakba, for Palestinians the 1948 “catastrophe” in which 700,000 fled as refugees as a Jewish state was secured. Mada’s “Haifa Declaration” sets out preconditions for reconciliation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. It stresses the need for a dignified life for Palestinians in their homeland, founded on justice, freedom, equality and mutual respect.

Campaigners argue that Israel’s universities are complicit in the occupation of Palestinian territories and denial of Palestinians’ human rights. So, did I break the boycott? Although I sought to follow the guidelines, one Mada colleague felt that I had. One thing, however, is clear: internationally, the boycott is gaining ground.

Audrey Osler is professor of education at Buskerud and Vestfold University College in Norway.

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