Academic Freedom? Not for Arabs in Israel

NAZARETH — In the strange world of Israeli academia, an Arab college lecturer is being dismissed from his job because he refused to declare his “respect for the uniform of the Israeli army”. The bizarre demand was made of Nizar Hassan, director of several award-winning films, after he criticised a Jewish student who arrived in his film studies class at Sapir College in the Negev for wearing his uniform and carrying a gun.

The incident raises disturbing questions about the freedom of Israeli academics, sheds light on the veneration of the military in Israeli public life, and exposes the close, verging on incestuous, ties between the army and Israeli academia.

Meanwhile, for many of Israel’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens, who are nearly a fifth of the country’s population, Hassan’s treatment confirms their fears that decades of discrimination, especially in higher education, are far from over.

Hassan has faced a storm of criticism, including claims that he is anti-Semitic, since the Israeli media mistakenly reported back in November that he had thrown out of class one of his students, Eyal Cohen, over the way he was dressed. Hassan and most of the students present say Cohen was simply warned not to attend class in future wearing his uniform.

The story soon gained a life of its own, becoming the subject of incensed talk shows and newspaper columns. A group of rightwing college staff and students lobbied for Hassan, the only Arab lecturer in the film school, to be dismissed, and the Knesset’s Education Committee denounced him.

Critics claim, apparently without irony, that Hassan humiliated the student, abused the concept of academic freedom and impugned the reputation of the Israeli army.

Condemnation has come from surprising quarters, including the journalist Gideon Levy, better known for his articles attacking the the army’s treatment of the Palestinians under occupation.

But more predictable has been outrage from the right. Last month two leaders of extremist Jewish settlers in Hebron, Baruch Marzel and Itimar Ben Gvir, announced that they had enrolled on Hassan’s course. “I would love for him to ask me about my army service,” said Marzel. “I can only assure you that he will be the one walking out of the classroom.”

The army added its voice too, with senior officers, including the Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, putting pressure on Sapir College to publicly rebuke the film-maker and punish him.

A letter from the head of army personnel, General Elazar Stern, accused the college of failing to act with “proper determination” and urged that Hassan face “sharp, public, official condemnation”. Stern added that Hassan must be made to apologise or be sacked, otherwise the army would end its funding of places for hundreds of soldiers who attend courses at Sapir.

Most academic institutions in Israel not only depend on such funding but receive special grants and endowments for research in security-related subjects. The Israeli revisionist historian Ilan Pappe, who was forced out of Haifa University last year, estimates that half of lecturers in Israeli universities have ties to the security services.

In Sapir College’s case, links to the army have been reinforced by its location in Sderot, a poor development town close to Gaza that is the target of most of the Qassam rockets fired into Israel.

Under growing pressure, the college’s Academic Council suspended Hassan without offering him a hearing. It also appointed for the first time in the college’s history an academic committee to investigate the incident and report on what disciplinary action should be taken.

The committee published its report late last month, conceding that he is an “outstanding teacher” but offering only a cursory examination the events at the centre of the controversy. Instead the members harshly criticised Hassan’s behaviour and personality and recommended that he apologise to Cohen or face dismissal.

The college’s president, Zeev Tzahor, intervened by contributing his own condition. He wrote to Hassan telling him that in his apology “you must refer to your obligation to be respectful to the IDF uniform and the full right of every student to enter your classroom in uniform.”

Hassan refused and, according to reports last week, the college has begun proceedings to dismiss him.

“The whole reaction has been hysterical,” Hassan, who lives in Nazareth, said. “It really surprised me, as did the lies that were told about what had happened.”

His students say the issue has been blown out proportion and that Hassan has never hidden his opposition to militarism, wherever it exists.

Enass Masri, one of two Arab students in Hassan’s film class, said: “When he saw Cohen wearing his uniform, he explained that all military uniforms — of the Israeli army, of Fatah or of Hamas — are symbols of violence and that he does not allow them into his classroom.

“His concerns about the blurring in Israeli society of the boundaries between the civil and military are well known.”

She added that the mistaken reports about Cohen being thrown out of class may have been part of a long-standing campaign to oust Hassan from his job. He had made himself unpopular with some staff and students by speaking his mind, she said. “Some people at the college are not prepared to accept the kind of things he says from an Arab.”

Sapir College calls itself “a lighthouse in the Negev”, and its film school once had a reputaton for encouraging dissenting social and political opinions.

In other Israeli colleges, discussion of “politics” — a euphemism for views not officially sanctioned — is rarely allowed.

For example, at Haifa University, which has the largest Arab student body in the country, all protests on campus are banned unless licensed by the vice-chancellor. Unofficial demonstrations, however peaceful, are broken up and usually filmed by security staff. Video evidence is used as grounds for suspending or expelling students.

Sapir’s president, Tzahor, recently told the Haaretz newspaper that his motto is: “Politics — only as far as the classroom door.”

However, the college’s definition of “politics” appears selective. In another recent incident at Sapir, lecturer Shlomit Tamari told a Bedouin student to remove her head-covering, telling her it was a sign of her oppression. No disciplinary action was taken against Tamari, who is unrepentant: “I told the college that I have academic freedom, and I can talk about that subject and I am continuing to do so.”

Enass Masri said she was also shocked that the college committee did not question the students in Hassan’s class about what took place. “We thought we would be able to put the record straight, but we were never invited to testify.

“Almost all of the students are on Hassan’s side, and we wrote a letter to the college authorities in protest at his treatment.”

Instead, she says, the committee interpreted the “meaning” of what happened, according to their own view of Hassan. “They looked at him not as a human being but as an Arab, and Arabs are not allowed to have an opinion on Israeli militarism.”

Hassan takes a slightly different view. Describing his questioning by the committee, he said: ”They wanted me to be the Palestinian in the room, and I refused to oblige. They wanted to believe that I object to the army uniform because I am Palestinian. But I reject the uniform because it is opposed to my universal and human values. I acted as I did because I am a teacher and a human being.

“What shocked me was that the committee refused to believe that could be my motivation.”

Certainly the committee’s report dismisses Hassan’s arguments, claiming: “Nizar abused his status and his authority as a teacher to flaunt his opinions, feelings and frustrations as a member of the Arab national minority in Israel, cloaking himself in a ‘humane’ and ‘universal’ garb, whereas in fact he demonstrated a stance of brute force bearing a distinctly nationalist character.”

Haim Bresheeth, an Israeli film-maker who was dean of Sapir’s film school between 1996 and 2002, until he was hounded out over his anti-Zionist views, wrote to Tzahor, the college president, arguing that he was making an “irrational and immoral demand” in expecting Hassan to respect the army’s uniform.

Bresheeth, referring to the reserve duty that most Israeli Jewish men perform well into their forties, added: “You are a soldier first, and only then an academic … I call on the historian Zeev Tzahor to refuse the orders of Major Zeev Tzahor.”

As in most other areas of Israeli life, the country’s Palestinian minority faces systematic discrimination in higher education. No public university is located in an Arab community or teaches in Arabic, and, though the minority is a fifth of the population, fewer than 1 per cent of lecturers are Arab.

In addition, the number of Arab students is third of their proportion in the population — an under-representation that is apparently intentional. In 2003, psychometric tests biased towards Western culture were scrapped in an effort to help “weaker sections” of society gain acceptance to university. However, when the Committee of University Heads learnt that the number of Arabs entering university had risen sharply as a result, the tests were immediately reinstated.

Several leading Israeli academics are outspoken racists, including David Bukay and Arnon Sofer at Haifa University and Raphael Israeli at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The latter was called as an “expert” witness by the state at a trial in 2004 in which he stated that the Arab mentality was composed of “a sense of victimization”, “pathological anti-Semitism” and “a tendency to live in a world of illusions”.

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.

18 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. jaime said on March 3rd, 2008 at 4:44pm #

    I think Nizar Hassan would be much happier in Gaza or libya.

    He’s free to leave.

  2. sk said on March 3rd, 2008 at 4:50pm #

    Like their academic peers, “journalists and publishers see themselves as actors within the Zionist movement, not as critical outsiders.” Here’s a sampling of phrases used in their Orwellian reportage:

    The Israeli army never intentionally kills anyone, let alone murders them–a state of affairs any other armed organisation would be envious of. Even when a one-ton bomb is dropped onto a dense residential area in Gaza, killing one gunman and 14 innocent civilians, including nine children, it’s still not an intentional killing or murder: it is a targeted assassination. An Israeli journalist can say that IDF soldiers hit Palestinians, or killed them, or killed them by mistake, and that Palestinians were hit, or were killed or even found their death (as if they were looking for it), but murder is out of the question.

  3. Ray Ralph said on March 3rd, 2008 at 8:53pm #

    Jaime, If Nizar Hassan would be much happier in Gaza or Libya, where would you be happier? Let me suggest the island of Tarawa in the South Pacific. There are few available computers there and sending you there for a few month would therefore give us DV readers a rest from your interminable Zionist bullshit! On the other hand, the residents of Tarawa are nice people and, like the Palestinians, they only have a limited amount of land. I guess I’m afraid to send a Zionist like you there. You might get ideas about stealing their land for the creation of yet another Jewish state. You already have Israel and the USofA. Keep your dirty bloodstained mitts off Tarawa!!!

  4. jaime said on March 3rd, 2008 at 9:47pm #

    Ray wrote:

    “You might get ideas about stealing their land for the creation of yet another Jewish state. You already have Israel and the USofA.”

    Almost correct. But thanks.

    Here’s a more complete listing:

    New Zealand

    Did I miss any?

  5. Ray Ralph said on March 3rd, 2008 at 10:14pm #

    Actually, Jaime, you did miss one: PALESTINE! Oh,but I forgot, you Ziofascists deny that either Palestine or the Palestinians even exist. And after the Shoah ends and you have killed them all, I guess they won’t exist. Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu (whose name will long be remembered in infamy along with Hitler and Himmler and Eichman) has called for the “carpet bombing” of Gaza “regardless of the price in Palestinian life.” His bloodthirsty son Schmuel Eliyahu has proposed that the IDF should kill as many as a million Palestinians because of their “collective guilt” for the deeds of a few terrorists. After you Ziofascists have killed all the Palestinians (every last father, mother, child and baby of them), after your evil Shoah has ended, will you then deny that you did it? Will you become holocaust deniers? What horrors the wretched and evil Zionist enterprise has unleashed upon the world!!! The murderous rabbi quoted Psalms to justify his call for genocide: “I will pursue my enemies and apprehend them and I will not desist until I have eradicated them.” You may find these quoatations in the May 30, 2007 Jerusalem Post: Matthew Wagner, “Eliyahu advocates carpet bombing Gaza.”

  6. jaime said on March 4th, 2008 at 8:33am #

    Hey, it’s the Palestinian’s war. Or I should say Hamas’ war. They started it. They can end it to.

  7. Jonathan said on March 4th, 2008 at 3:21pm #

    I would sincerely like to believe that what you have written is just an extremely sick joke but I sense that that desire is merely a naive fantasy. Our shared membership to the human race makes me ashamed of the title homo sapiens.
    I don’t know if there is any sense entering into a discourse with you as you display no evidence of capability for rational thought but nonetheless I would like to point out that by definition war is a conflict involving at least two sides. Furthermore, Hamas is a movement which started in response to Israeli occupation so neither did they start the war nor is it solely theirs. It may also be known to you that Hamas has made several attempts at dialogue but has been repeatedly denied any constructive diplomatic discourse.

  8. maryb said on March 4th, 2008 at 5:15pm #

    Our litle troll friend (that’s my mental picture) is incorrect in his assertion that the UK is a Jewish state. They are working at it but are not quite there! Most of the judiciary are Jewish, as are politicians in national and local government (there are Friends of Israel lobby groups in the three main parties). Of course, the media and entertainment are well represented as is big business where the money lies and banking and finance. As globalisation develops, their links grow stronger so perhaps their plan for world domination might succeed. However there are good men and women true who will stand up against this power for the freedom of our children and theirs to come just as we stood up to the Third Reich. We have no intention of being subsumed by a Fourth Reich of whatever makeup. It is a war as you are showing us in Gaza and you will stop at nothing. Iraq and Afghanistan already know what it’s like. Who’s next ? Iran, because you need the oil and that’s what upsets you. Put that in your pointy hat and smoke it. I have tried hard not to dislike you but you take the biscuit.

  9. jaime said on March 4th, 2008 at 5:32pm #

    Jonathon wrote:

    “Hamas has made several attempts at dialogue but has been repeatedly denied any constructive diplomatic discourse.”

    No they didn’t. They’ve offered “ceasefires” and talked of “truces”, but only when getting beaten up, or looking for a chance to re-load or reorganize for another attack.

    And there’s no reason to believe that they were sincere gestures.

    The Hamas still hasn’t rescinded their charter, which explicitly calls for genocidal bloodshed.

    They’re fanatics. It’s a bad situation.

  10. Ray Ralph said on March 4th, 2008 at 5:55pm #

    The IDF is currently committing genocide in Gaza and the ridiculous and hypocritical little Ziofascist fanatic Jaime complains that Hamas has not rescinded their charter which he falsely claims “calls for genocidal bloodshed.” I guess “calling for it” is worse than committing it. “They’re fanatics,” bleats Jaime with typical obtuseness. I guess it takes on to know one.

  11. jaime said on March 4th, 2008 at 6:11pm #

    What genocide?

  12. Ray Ralph said on March 4th, 2008 at 6:22pm #

    What genocide?” bleats the Ziofascist fanatic. I guess he has been rereading the Hamas Charter and cannot find it mentioned there, contrary to his earlier dishonest claim that is. I can’t find it mentioned there either.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain said on March 4th, 2008 at 8:22pm #

    The sheer racist brutality of the Zionists towards those putatively citizens of their odious state, can come as no surprise. No surprise as the evidence of the third-class nature of Arab ‘citizenship’ in Israel is voluminous. Ben-Gurion was reportedly furious that the ethnic cleansing of 1948 had not been fully implemented, despite numerous massacres and countless random killings. After all the Israelis only wanted at little lebensraum for their Herrenvolk, is that too much to ask, particularly when those being dispossessed are mere ‘human dust’.
    The presence of Raphael Israeli in the list of Israeli racists has echoes here. This, in my opinion, detestable creature was invited here last year, whereupon he commenced peddling hate against Moslems, attacking local Moslems and even going so far as to attempt to incite fear and hatred of Indonesia, our nearest neighbour and world’s largest Moslem nation. Even for a country where any criticism of any Zionist activity is met with a screaming chorus of ‘anti-Semite’, this was too much. Israeli was forced to make a grudging retraction.
    In the local Jewish community the reaction was different. Israeli was immediately invited to make even more talks to Jewish groups, and he was interviewed in sycophantic manner on the ABC’s ‘Religion Report’, a local Zionist enterprise specialising in Islamophobia and philo-Semitism. The importation of Islamophobic hatemongers is a regular little cottage industry amongst sections of the local Jewish community, but Moslems of any ilk but the likes of Ayaan Hirshi Ali, face difficulties obtaining visas, and political and media harassment and vilification. The degree and depth of media bias towards Israel and against Moslems is as great here as anywhere else in the Zionist Empire.

  14. Jonathan said on March 5th, 2008 at 12:37pm #

    Jaime – J’aime – I love. It really is a sick joke.
    I am sorry but I cannot accept your rebuke as it does not to my mind offer any constructively rational counterargument to what I put forward. In addition it smacks of highly unpleasant jingoism.
    Good luck.

  15. maryb said on March 5th, 2008 at 1:36pm #

    Jonathan you’re stealing my script there!. This is what I wrote on this website to our friend on February 4th. I have decided that he/she, if not fictional, is one of these Megaphone people

    Then I was obviously replying to the usual vitriolic comment. Lately I don’t rise to it because it just gives him an opportunity to continue the rant.

    maryb said on February 4th, 2008 at 11:32 am #

    j’aime = I love

    I don’t think you love anybody. You are misnamed because you are so full of hate and vitriol for the oppressed Palestinian people whose land was taken from them illegally by the Israelis.

    Any death which is unnatural or non-accidental must of course be regretted but please bear in mind that the mainstream media fed by the Zionist lobbies report events unevenly. Here in the UK all day on radio and TV broadcasts the BBC has given this awful incident a lot of prominence. However they rarely mention the daily raids on Gaza by Israeli aircraft, shelling, the use of thermo-baric missiles and illegal munitions and other incursions with the same emphasis. What is the difference between a suicide attack and a bomb dropped by an Israeli aircraft? The result(s) of both are the deaths of loved ones and the grief of those who live on.

  16. Jonathan said on March 6th, 2008 at 1:52pm #

    maryb, I am sorry if my comment seems like blatant plagiarism – I honestly did not see your comment of feb. 4th.

  17. maryb said on March 9th, 2008 at 1:14pm #

    Jonathan – I was not criticizing you in any way – just commenting that we had both thought the name Jaime was inappropriate especially when loosely translated into French. Just want to compliment you on your articles and books and for being a much-needed voice for Palestine. I saw you on a video interview the other day which was very interesting, and noticed that you had left Buckinghamshire for Nazareth. Here I am in the UK, but previously from Buckinghamshire too, writing to you in Nazareth on an American website! Respect as you say. PS You are often mentioned on medialens incl.your recent letter to the Guardian.

  18. steve smith said on January 13th, 2009 at 7:02am #

    Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so! really nice post.