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University of Haifa
Theater Professor Avraham Oz in Cork Palestine Solidarity Campaign

A Middle East Update, 26 May 2005: Nakba Commemoration; the AUT boycott

Last Saturday I attended a very sad demonstration by a women's group called ZOCHROT (remembering [fem.]), which has organized, on the lawn of Rabin square in Tel Aviv, an installation representing the whole country from north to south. Each of us was asked to select a card bearing the name of a former Palestinian village destroyed or converted in 1948 (with a data of population numbers, and what happened to the village at that time and since) and place it on the "map" according to the coordinates marked on the sides of the lawn, thus creating together a chart of all the abandoned/ruined/obliterated villages. This was their very sad, but very powerful way of commemorating the Naqba. A quiet, sombre, and appropriate memorial service to a dispersed community, following weeks devoted to the commemoration of the holocaust of European Jewry, 60 years to the end of WWII, and the too many Israelis killed during the lasting war in the Middle East. None, I suppose, will see much point in dismantling the flourishing campus of my alma mater, Tel Aviv University, and reconstruct on its ruins the former Palestinian village of Sheikh Muaneis, on the lands of which it was built. But the persistent efforts by official Israeli ideology to make the sad memory of the former village totally obliterated is an evil practice. In that demonstration, Arabs and Jews joined together in remembering the injustice done to the Palestinian people, while trying to secure a national home for another persecuted nation. In attempting to find the sentiments uniting us, it never occurred to any of us present we should shun or boycott each other as part of our campaign for just and lasting peace, even though many of us in that gathering had different views regarding the strategy or tactics this campaign should take.

The AUT boycott was revoked today. My university will no doubt celebrate the glowing triumph of the angels of light over the forces of evil, and its current administration, after gloating over what they deem to be their victory over that anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli conspiracy (as the Rector of Bar-Ilan University said on the news, and the President of the University of Haifa implicitly suggested in a letter distributed on the faculty circuit), will go on organizing academic conferences about THE Demographic Problem, namely, what's to be done about the proliferation in the Jewish state of Arab citizens (offering that bedouins bringing ten children be arrested as criminals, and implicitly suggesting that Jewish religious zealots bringing the same number of children should be probably applauded). It will continue spending its financial resources on expensive lawyers threatening the enemy, namely the British academics, with libel suits; preparing the legal background for defending their decision not to put signs in Arabic on campus (while patting themselves on the shoulder for their alleged admirable liberality in treating its twenty percent Arab students); or legally defending their practice of firing faculty for not accepting their political dictates. This expenditure will come at the expense of accepting a plan offered them by the university's faculty association to divert a small fraction of the budget to save a collapsing pension fund before retired faculty will find themselves broke (the sole occasion on which that association called upon its members this week to come out and protest). The universities administrations will now gather behind the flag raised by the champion of academic freedom: our Minister of Finance Netanyahoo, the real villain behind the financial collapse of higher eduction in Israel, who just yesterday has appointed himself chair of a new authority fighting the discrimination of Israeli universities.

To be sure, I wholeheartedly believe that only a strong and effective pressure on Israel from the outside will make clear to its leaders and citizens alike that the road we hit is leading to total disaster, both morally and pragmatically. Indeed, my compatriots should know Israel cannot go on ignoring international law, stick by its expansionist and repressive policies, and become progressively a look-alike of apartheid South Africa, without eventually alienating the state among the nations. And yet effective is the key term here. Was that the lesson of this short-lived boycott? Not gladly, and at the peril of being accused of self-serving motives, I must reiterate my opinion that this boycott was redundant and pointless. For about a month now, I hardly heard around anything but a discussion of that boycott: whether it upheld or infringed with academic freedom; whether it gave vent to anti-Semitic feelings or was motivated by the policies of Israeli governments; whether it represented the hypocrisy of those who were too afraid to admit that their own institutions or governments deserved a similar sanction; whether it was going to make Israeli academics reconsider their usual practice of conducting business as usual while the atrocities of the occupation were going on, or just enhance this practice by corroborating the feeling that "the entire world is against us." At least this latter point was answered during the period the AUT boycott was on: in the flood of arguments prized by colleagues during the last month, only a handful suggested that we stop and think whether at least part of the fault for that declarative gesture adopted by the AUT lay indeed with us; and those happy few voices were those of ones who, to begin with, were in agreement with the arguments which brought about the boycott, if not necessarily endorsed the boycott itself. And these calls, on the whole, fell on deaf ears.

During that month of boycott fury, the Israeli security forces went on killing Palestinians, some armed, some innocent; just last night, a Palestinian family has complained, a group of soldiers took over their living room for watching, on their TV set, the final football game between Milan and Liverpool (The IDF investigates); While Palestinians in the village Silwan, near Jerusalem, are not given permissions to build necessary extensions to their houses because the site is assigned for archaeological excavations, it forms part of the plans to expand nearby settlements; the IDF provoked the Hizbulla in the north, causing injuries among civilians, admitting more or less it had done so to gauge the level or response the Hizbulla was committed to at this time; the government went on talking about "disengagement," but at the same time pumped more money into strengthening the settlement project; Israeli soldiers continued to stop Palestinians at road-blocks, making their life misery; and making it almost an impossible task for the Palestinian students to attend their colleges and universities. The latter is the primal sin for which Israeli academe should have been reproached, first and foremost, rather than placing a blanket accusation which does not distinguish between those risking their academic positions for raising their voice against wrongs and those who use their positions to perpetrate them. If at all, it is the total silence of Israeli academic institutions (apart from some individual academics) in the face of this regular practice of barring students and faculty from pursuing their study and research should have been the primal cause for sanctioning Israeli academe. Intimidating members of faculty and students who dare express views which are out of line with the university administration is grave enough; maintaining business as usual while academic freedom is downtrodden daily by the occupation forces (while offering to upgrade a third rate college in a settlement into a university as a pure political statement untainted by any academic consideration) is a betrayal of any value reflecting academic conscience. On the last day in which the AUT boycott was still on, my country has symbolically demonstrated its respect for academic freedom: it has prevented the deputy chairman of the Islamic Movement's northern branch, Sheikh Kamel Khatib, from taking part in a conference on the right of return, which is scheduled to take place in London this weekend (see article below -- [PIWP editorial comment: Oz refers to a "breaking news" version of this article which appeared in Ha'aretz next day]). How many colleagues protested against this liberal move? Any word about it from my university's authorities? You have guessed right.

Back in 1982, I went on a coast-to-coast mission, sponsored by the Association of Arab Students of America and the late Edward Said, with my friend, Dr Salim Tamari of Bir-Zeit University, to jointly campaign against the frequent closure of academic institutions of higher education in the occupied territories. For three weeks we toured the US from San Francisco to New York, sharing platforms in public meetings, press conferences, TV shows, radio programs. I bear one crucial memory of that campaign: the sight of two academics, one Palestinian, one Israeli, campaigning together for the cause of peace, was the main factor which has opened the hearts and the minds of those who listened to us. My lesson was, and still is, that joint efforts by academics, artists, and intellectuals of both parties are much more effective than a division enforced by a council vote. I will not complain if a Palestinian academic might feel too outraged at my country's often criminal policies against her/his nation to converse with me, even though I share the same feelings against my government's policies. There are some academics I know with whom I will never collaborate. And I would like to see some hypocrites donning a progressive These reactions are based on my personal feelings. But I think a dictate by vote to boycott a faceless multitude is not helping a bit to the cause of peace.

Let us forget those petty arguments about the justification or erroneous nature of academic boycotts, which divide the camp of those desiring peace in this part of the world. Let us join forces to eradicate the injustice, evil and atrocities perpetrated by my country in the name of security, while persisting the occupation of another nation and thwarting its justified aspiration for self-determination as a free, equal and prosperous one among the family of nations. Let us all work together to stop the misery inflicted on the Palestinians and corruption spread among the Israelis as a direct result of this bloody occupation which lasts for almost four decades. Let us teach ourselves, as well as our young students, through joint research, experiment, and artistic creation, to coexist peacefully, to strive together for a better world, while courageously commemorating and investigating past evils in order to learn how not to repeat them. Let us join our efforts, leaving rift, separation, "disengagement," and alienation to those evil and corrupt forces whom we all wish to overcome. Let us preserve our fighting energies for bringing down the ideological lies which have become a substitute for humanist values in our society, whose living symbol is an occupation zone, irrationaly defended and upheld by corrupt, greedy financial imperialists and their political lackeys.

For better days,
A. Oz

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