An Open Letter to Our American Colleagues in the Midst of the Massacre in Gaza

On December 28th, Israel bombed the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), with American-made F-16s, ten times destroying six buildings including research laboratories and a female dormitory. IUG, like all Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has no political affiliation. Like the rest of the society, the faculty and students are a composite of various political factions ranging from Communist to Islamist. IUG is a flagship university, one with connections to the United States; Americans have taught at the university as Fulbrighters, and professors from the university have been Fulbrighters in the US.

One engineering student, Heba El-Sakka, responded to this military bombardment of her university stating, “My graduation project, the fruit of five years of hard study, vanished in a blink on an eye. It can’t be. It feels like the missiles took away a piece of me.” Anas, a science major, asked, “How can a book be the target of a military missile? I ask the Western world, isn’t that what you call ‘barbarity?'”

This current bombing–which comes after an eighteen-month air, land, and sea blockade–began mid-morning the previous day, December 27th, at the precise time when children walk home from school. Thus, the first bombs killed a number of school children. They were killed by US-made bombs and dropped by US-made F-16s.

So far, Israel has bombed several schools—including those UNRWA schools where Palestinians fled to escape the bombing–the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education, a control room for Palestine Telecommunications Company, two animal farms, three charities, the fishing port, six ambulances, eight mosques, pharmacies, ambulances, a mental health center, the main prison, police stations (killing 120 civilian police officers) and homes throughout Gaza.

At this writing, there are over 434 Palestinians who have been killed (21% women and children) and over 2,300 Palestinians who are injured (57% women and children), many of whom will likely die as a result of a severe shortage of medicine and medical equipment. Moreover, unlike other wars–such as the Israeli assault of Lebanon in 2006–Palestinians in Gaza have nowhere to flee; they are locked in a prison controlled by Israel via air, land, and sea.

This is not the first time that Palestinians have been besieged by Israel in Gaza or elsewhere in Palestine or in refugee camps in the region. This is merely the latest siege in a sixty-one year history of massacres and ethnic cleansing.

Although Israel’s violations of the Geneva Convention have been highlighted in some international media—such as blocking fuel, medicine, food, and water from entering Gaza or preventing medical patients from seeking treatment outside Gaza—other aspects of the siege are largely ignored, particularly in the United States. Since June 2007, the Israeli-imposed blockade has held the people of Gaza hostage as it imposes its policy of collective punishment, which was escalated rhetorically as a shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust) by Matan Vilnai, Israel’s deputy defense minister in February 2008. Palestinians in Gaza, approximately half of whom are children, are held captive to the onslaught of Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Israel’s attack on education

The siege has not only drastically reduced the availability of medicine, fuel, and food, but also of educational materials. The Israeli government has obstructed educational accessibility in Gaza and prohibited students from leaving to attend university in the West Bank or abroad. Last fall, Khaled Al-Mudallal was one of those students trapped inside Gaza and prevented from returning to Bradford University; his case symbolizes the struggle for Palestinians’ right to education. The “Let Khaled Study Campaign,” which emerged from student organizations at Bradford, organized various petitions on his behalf; he finally returned to England last fall. However, hundreds of other university students remain trapped in Gaza.

It is this context of Palestinians being denied their right to education by Israel that must be brought to bear in discussions about the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Israel’s practice of infringing upon the right to education coincided with the founding of the first Palestinian university, Birzeit, in 1975. In addition to curricular materials being subjected to Israeli censors—both intellectual material produced internally and imported— Palestinian students, faculty, and academic institutions have been in a noose. In the West Bank, the educational suffocation began when Birzeit’s founding president, Dr. Hanna Nasir, was arrested and deported to Lebanon in 1974. It continued with the closing of all Palestinian universities, schools, and kindergartens in the West Bank and Gaza, during the first intifada in 1987, ostensibly rendering Palestinian education illegal. Between 1988 and 1992, all universities remained closed, and Palestinian education was forced to go underground into people’s homes, mosques, churches, and community centers, which were repeatedly raided and during which people were arrested. Since 1992, when universities were allowed to reopen, Palestinians found themselves struggling to arrive at their schools as a result of curfews, closures, checkpoints. Since the start of the second intifada, Palestinian academic institutions have been military targets as eight universities and over three hundred schools have been shelled, shot at or raided by the Israeli army.

This brief history provides a crucial backdrop that led to the academic boycott’s genesis. But while progress has been made in Canada and England in building support for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS), in the United States advocates of BDS have been met with charges of censorship and anti-Semitism. PACBI asks for solidarity among global organizations to support Palestinians by boycotting Israeli academic institutions, and calling for sanctions and divestment using a strategy similar to that of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Part of its initial 2004 statement asks us to “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions” as well as promote divestment from Israel at our universities. The Canadian Union of Public Employees agreed to support the boycott in 2006. Significantly, in 2005 England’s Association of University Teachers (AUT) was the first to adopt the academic boycott, reversing itself after thirty-four days. A year later, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education supported the boycott in theory; after it merged with the AUT to form the University and College Union (UCU), the UCU endorsed a pro-boycott motion in 2007. Last year the UCU congress voted overwhelmingly to support the boycott process, albeit sans the word boycott.

Is Israel an apartheid state?

We know from South Africa that apartheid, in essence, means separation; separate, and most definitely unequal. Legal experts and leading human-rights figures including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the current United Nations General Assembly President, Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, and UN human rights experts have used this term to describe Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. Even a former Israeli Attorney General, Michael Ben-Yair, recognized it as such when he wrote in 2002, “In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture. That regime exists to this day.” Other Israelis agree, including Amos Schocken, the publisher of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Zehava Gal-On, a Knesset member with the Meretz-Yachad party, and Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe.

It has been sixty-one years of Israeli apartheid and we believe the time has come for Americans to join the academic boycott of Israel. We supported an academic boycott of South Africa. The situation now, in the occupied Palestinian territories, is by far worse according to numerous South Africans who have experienced both, chief among them Tutu.

Israeli professor of history, Ilan Pappe, calls on his academic colleagues to support the academic boycott of Israel. He argues that change will not come from within, and that external pressure is essential for Israel to change. If Israeli academics were working for change, he explained, then the boycott might be seen as counterproductive. His writings on the subject make it clear that Israeli academic institutions are complicit. Indeed, the knowledge that upholds the system of apartheid and the current siege on Gaza is produced in Israeli universities. Further, Israeli professors and students alike, as a result of their compulsory, life-long military service are called up for reserve duty every year.

Support for the boycott also came from a handful of academics in Israel, some Israeli academics working abroad, and a significant number of Jewish academics. But there are many American academics who don’t support an academic boycott because they believe in the free exchange of ideas. We wonder why this value of speech seems to be more important than the lives, which we value, of those Palestinians and Lebanese whose lives and rights are regularly violated by Israel; moreover, as educators one of our fundamental axioms must be: justice and human rights. Dialogue has been attempted over the last sixty-one years and failed miserably. The argument that Israeli academics would be punished is equally misguided; these are not human rights, they are privileges. Access to research funds or travel to conferences is nothing when compared to the casualties suffered by Palestinian people and civilian infrastructure like its schools and universities. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says nothing about academics having a right to academic freedom, but it is clear about one’s right to access education, a right that Palestinians do not have. Furthermore, in sixty-one years not one Israeli academic body or institution has ever issued a statement condemning the ethnic cleansing and occupation that continues to affect Palestinians’ daily lives.

What American Academics can do about Israeli Apartheid

Thus, in the midst of this carnage in Gaza, in solidarity with Palestinian civil society organizations that have called on the international community to support their call for BDS we urge our fellow American academics to work towards this end on their university campuses. In the midst of this latest massacre—the bloodiest massacre since 1967–the Palestinian Association of University Teachers issued a statement calling for those in the international community to “immediately impose boycotts, sanctions, and divestments on the Apartheid Israeli state,” and to demand the enforcement of all United Nations resolutions, particularly UN Resolution 194 calling for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, and to demand that Israel comply with the Fourth Geneva Convention and international humanitarian law.

Likewise, the Palestinian National Boycott Committee, of which PACBI is a part, issued a renewed call to action this week:

While the US government has consistently sponsored, bankrolled and protected from international censure Israel’s apartheid and colonial policies against the indigenous people of Palestine, the EU was able in the past to advocate a semblance of respect for international law and universal human rights. That distinction effectively ended on December 9th, when the EU Council decided unanimously to reward Israel’s criminal disregard of international law by upgrading the EU-Israel Association Agreement. Israel clearly understood from this decision that the EU condones its actions against the Palestinians under its occupation. Palestinian civil society also got the message: the EU governments have become no less complicit in Israel’s war crimes than their US counterpart.

The large majority of world governments, particularly in the global south, share part of the blame, as well. By continuing business as usual with Israel, in trade agreements, arms deals, academic and cultural ties, diplomatic openings, they have provided the necessary background for the complicity of world powers and, consequentially, for Israel’s impunity. Furthermore, their inaction within the United Nations is inexcusable.

Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, President of the UN General Assembly prescribed in a recent address before the Assembly the only moral way forward for the world’s nations in dealing with Israel:

More than twenty years ago we in the United Nations took the lead from civil society when we agreed that sanctions were required to provide a nonviolent means of pressuring South Africa to end its violations. Today, perhaps we in the United Nations should consider following the lead of a new generation of civil society, who are calling for a similar non-violent campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to end its violations.

Now, more than ever, the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee, BNC, calls upon international civil society not just to protest and condemn in diverse forms Israel’s massacre in Gaza, but also to join and intensify the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel to end its impunity and to hold it accountable for its persistent violation of international law and Palestinian rights. Without sustained, effective pressure by people of conscience the world over, Israel will continue with its gradual, rolling acts of genocide against the Palestinians, burying any prospects for a just peace under the blood and rubble of Gaza, Nablus and Jerusalem.

We urge our fellow academics to not only support this statement in theory, but also in practice by pushing for academic boycott on your campuses as you return to classes this week. Supporting the human rights of Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; it is about human rights: Palestinian human rights. If this were any other captive population besieged for seven days with US-made materiel, we would be outraged and acting. So we are asking you to act now. It is our tax dollars at work that enables this massacre to take place. Let us work for justice, for consistency. Let us make apartheid, in all its forms, only present in history books.

Rania Masri and Marcy Newman are American professors teaching in the Middle East. Rania Masri, from North Carolina, is Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Balamand, Lebanon. Marcy Newman, from California, is Associate Professor of English at An Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine. Read other articles by Marcy Newman, or visit Marcy Newman's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Deadbeat said on January 10th, 2009 at 6:10pm #

    The authors should write an open letter to the all-time great academic Noam Chomsky who last year in Boston countered Rev. Desmond Tutu contention that Israel is an apartheid state. Perhaps the authors can “educate” Chomsky about Israel.

  2. brian said on January 10th, 2009 at 10:57pm #

    Israel can bomb a palestinian university…yet the west is NOT allowed to boycot israeli universities….maybe they should just bomb them!

  3. brian said on January 10th, 2009 at 11:00pm #

    shouldnt this issue be raised in US congress, by the few congress people not bought by israel?

  4. bozh said on January 11th, 2009 at 7:13am #

    germans and anglosaxons were one people ca. 2-3td yrs ago and were also christians. they fought two very serious wars with much hatred and rancour.
    austrian catholics fought italian catholics in ’14-18 war.
    england and france waged two one-hundred-year wars, and so on.
    in iraq-iran war, iraq had been aided by US; while israelis were watching the slaughter with gusto. thnx

  5. marcy newman said on January 11th, 2009 at 3:33pm #

    fyi for our readers: there are updated statistics since this was written and rania’s blog carries that data:

    it is worth noting that we wanted to publish this in the chronicle of higher education but were ignored.

    marcy newman

  6. Chris said on January 11th, 2009 at 5:51pm #

    I think you mistaken Brian in your interpretation of what Chomsky said about apartheid in Palestine. I’ve read Chomsky say that the situation for Palestinians is worse than South Africa because bantustans had more power.

  7. bozh said on January 12th, 2009 at 10:35am #

    i, too, have read what chosky had said while comparing bantustans with occupied palestine. however, i’m not sure what he said but only think that he considered fragmentaion of palestine worse case than bantustan. thnx
    he might have changed his mind, tho. he definitely recommended amers vote for the same evil; renaming it “lesser evil”, a mere prestidigitation. thnx