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Right from the beginning of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza, Israel’s academic institutions displayed their boundless support of the military. This was not in itself surprising: Israel’s universities have a habit of rallying behind the military on these occasions. What was different this time was that the repression of Palestinian students in Israel reached a new level of ferocity.
The complicity of universities with the attack was exemplified by the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private college. Israelis belonging to its student union set up a “war room” to send out messages in support of the attack on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter (“University students make case for Israel,” Israel Hayom, 21 November 2012).
More than 70 overseas students were recruited to help the Herzliya student union “market Israel” and the attack. This “war room” coordinated its activities with the Israeli Ministry of Information and received updates directly from the Israeli military and the office of Benjamin Netanyahyu, the prime minister. One of its products was the “Israel Under Fire” Facebook page.
Meanwhile, Israeli police brutally attacked Palestinian students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on 20 November. The students were holding a peaceful demonstration against the assault on Gaza at the campus’ entrance. Four of them were arrested.
As reported by the website Arabs 48, the authorities at Tel Aviv University banned protest activity by Palestinian students, citing “security reasons,” although similar protests have been allowed in the past.
And at the University of Haifa, Palestinian students were widely denounced simply for exercising their right to protest. On 15 November, Palestinian students gathered to observe a minute of silence in solidarity with Gaza and its martyrs. This peaceful act was followed by bullying from Israeli students.
Yona Yahav, Haifa’s mayor, called for a ban on further protests by Palestinian students, alleging that the demonstrators were supporters of “terrorist organizations.”
In a letter to Amos Shapira, the university’s president, Yahav wrote: “It’s good that educational institutions allow for democracy and freedom of expression for various political and social positions. However, cynical abuse of this natural right in order to advance the ideology of terrorist organizations, who hail the killing of children and innocent civilians, is beyond the pale of human values and decency … I expect a firm denunciation by university’s administration of this behavior, and an action by all possible means to prevent radical and negative elements from disseminating their evil propaganda in the campus” (“Protests over Gaza violence disrupt Israeli campuses,” JTA, 16 November 2012).
The students union at Haifa University declared its support for the Gaza attack, and the university’s administration issued a similar statement, saying: “University of Haifa supports the soldiers of the IDF [Israeli army] in defending the state and sends its condolences to the bereaved families in Kiryat Malachi [a town in southern Israel where three people were killed by a rocket fired from Gaza on 15 November]. The university’s administration has taken and will take all legal measures in order to prevent any provocation on the campus” (“University of Haifa denounces students who mourned Jaabari,” Arutz Sheva, 16 November 2012).
Moreover, on 18 November, the dean’s office at Haifa University issued a ban on all public activities on the campus for two weeks. The ban was criticized as a violation on freedom of speech by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. Palestinian students responded by holding a protest just outside the campus entrance the following day.
It is significant that the authorities in Haifa University allowed a pro-Israel demonstration on the day the ban was declared. Zionist students and staff assembled to express support for the attack on Gaza. Some of the participants chanted racist slogans, including “Death to Arabs.”
This gathering was attended by Amos Shapira, the university’s president, who explained: “I’m here because I’m an Israeli, president of an Israeli university, sixth generation in the country, a former soldier and now individuals from my family are soldiers … Of course, I identify with the residents of southern Israel and IDF [Israeli army] soldiers. This flag is my flag.”
At the end of this demonstration, Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben-Ari, far-right members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, visited the campus, along with extremist provocateurs Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel. The university’s willingness to allow them visit is in stark contrast to how it has constantly prevented some Palestinian political leaders, including Haneen Zoabi and Sheikh Raed Salah, from visiting the campus.
The venomous atmosphere on campuses was reflected by comments on social media websites. Racist posts and petitions were widely circulated and attracted thousands of anti-Arab hate comments. For example, one petition which called for the punishment of those Palestinian students who observed a minute of silence at Haifa University has been signed by almost 2,400 persons.
In another case, a post was circulated about a Palestinian student activist at Haifa University. Calls were made for “Jewish students” to report her personal information in order “to deal with her in a way that is commonly used with Arabs.” Moreover, people were asked to request that Facebook close her account.
Ayoub Kara, a member of the Knesset with Netanyahu’s party, Likud, urged that Palestinian students at Haifa University should be punished for observing a minute of silence. In an opinion piece published by the newspaper Maariv, he wrote: “According to the law not much can be done. However, in practice, each one of these students should know that he will be punished for being ungrateful.” Kara urged students and lecturers who supported the military action not to grant any requests from Palestinian students who opposed it. He also argued that scholarships should be denied to protesters.
Those who have been reluctant to support an academic boycott of Israel should reflect on what has happened recently. These recent cases show how Israeli universities identify completely with the State of Israel and go out of their way to drum up support for its crimes against the Palestinian people. These cases illustrate, too, how Palestinian students are denied their rights in Israel.
Yara Sa’di is a postgraduate student and activist from Haifa.