The withdrawal of the invitation to Israeli academics from the upcoming Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation Conference at Stellenbosch University has shone a bright spotlight on the academic boycott of Israel and the normalisation of Israeli occupation and apartheid.
Conference committee chairperson Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela states that “none of the Israeli participants we invited to speak at the conference represents the position of the state of Israel against Palestinians”. But how many of these Israeli academics have ever publicly protested the abrogation of the academic freedoms of their Palestinian colleagues? Their response has been silence and complicity in Israel’s brutal, illegal occupation of Palestinian land and life.
Israeli academics and institutions have been central in planning, executing, justifying and whitewashing the Israeli state’s abuse of Palestinian human rights and its flouting of numerous violations of international law.
Professor Raya Morag of the Hebrew University was so incensed that the conference downplayed her institutional affiliation by stating she was speaking in her personal capacity that she cancelled her attendance herself.
Part of the Hebrew University is situated on land in East Jerusalem (considered part of the occupied territories) that was stolen from Palestinians in 1967.
By moving Israelis (staff and students) to work and live on occupied land, the university, like all illegally established Israeli settlements, is in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which explicitly states that “the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.
Far from opposing the occupation, Israeli academics and academic institutions actively participate and support the denial of Palestinian rights and cannot complain when they are taken to task for this.
Responding to the failure of international institutions and governments to rein Israel in for its apartheid policies, Palestinian academic and civil society called for a boycott of Israeli institutions in 2004.
The rationale for the call of the cultural and academic boycott of Israel is for Israel to extend full human and civil rights to all citizens of Israel, to end the occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and to enable the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. Notably, all these demands are consistent with international humanitarian law.
In the absence of a publicly known position in support of the rationale calling for the academic boycott, most academics remain part of the silent majority implicated in a currently unfolding historical trauma. Remaining silent on their participation at the Stellenbosch conference would have been a normalisation of Israeli oppression in the context of the Palestinian struggle for human rights.
Given our own settler-colonial and apartheid past, our freedom struggle and the legacy of inequality, violence, racism and trauma we live with today, how can we present Israelis and Palestinians as two equal sides, when there is an oppressor and an oppressed, a coloniser and a colonised?
We fail Israel and Palestine by viewing this as a conflict between two equal sides.
Perpetrators and victims cannot be treated equally, and the oppressor and the oppressed cannot be morally equated. Our own experience has taught us that an aggressor state cannot be politically equated with popular resistance movements.
Some defenders of Israel oppose any suggestion of a boycott, claiming it threatens academic freedom. Academic freedom is indeed precious, but it does not take automatic precedence over human rights, as we have learnt from an earlier generation of academics who boycotted apartheid South Africa.
Let’s also not forget that academic freedom remains the exclusive privilege of Israeli academics.
Do Israeli universities protest the frequent Israeli military invasions and the bombing of Palestinian campuses, the arrests of students and academic faculty, the prevention of entry for international academics and students or renewal of study and work visas?
Are Israeli universities concerned about the arduous bureaucracy involved for Palestinian academics to acquire permits and permission to travel for research, conference presentations and other scholarly events so often used to prevent the free movement of Palestinian scholars and graduate students?
Where was the outrage when the Islamic University — Gaza’s leading academic institution — was destroyed during Israel’s military invasion in 2014? Education at all levels has almost collapsed under the Israeli-imposed blockade of the coastal strip.
Academics in South Africa and around the world cannot turn away from these urgent and uncomfortable questions. In the absence of the Israeli academics’ support for the rationale behind the academic boycott, their participation at global conferences is unacceptable in the context of the worsening situation in Palestine-Israel and in respect of the call of the vast majority of Palestinian colleagues.
Sad as it might be for the individuals as colleagues and as fellow human beings, we cannot avoid this difficult moment by calling for a strong message of solidarity with Palestinians and for resistance to Israeli apartheid.
The Palestinian people have made a clear and unambiguous call for us to respond that we cannot ignore.
Where governments seem unwilling to help to move Israel towards achieving a just peace with the Palestinians whose land it occupies, actions by individuals as part of civil society might be the only way forward.
Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network