/ 11 June 2024

Israeli academe have joined the assault on free speech and academic freedom

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Pro-Israel protestors and pro-Palestine protestors gather during a rally against the Baruch College Hillel campus organisation at Baruch College on June 05, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

As protests by students and faculty in support of Palestinian rights spread rapidly across the US, a cacophony of claims that these protests are replete with antisemitism has been used to attempt to suppress rising disgust with the genocidal actions of the Israeli state

These claims have been made despite overwhelming evidence that encampments have been largely peaceful, that the messaging at the protests has condemned antisemitic statements by “isolated individuals or intentional provocateurs”, that the protesters have included Jewish students and faculty and that there have been documented provocations inflicted on the encampments from outsiders

Students and faculty have also been brutally assaulted by police and, in the case of the UCLA encampment, by pro-Israeli protesters. As pointed out by observers, the few instances of Islamophobia and antisemitism among protesters, counter-protesters and bystanders have been the exception and “the overwhelming majority of students protesting have been modelling the peaceful coexistence of religious expression”.

Fact checking by news agencies such as USA Today and AP News of claims that genocidal rhetoric was used in the protests have found these complaints false and that critics of the protests misrepresented slogans and images on social media in their accusations.   

No doubt, pro-Zionist Jewish students and faculty at US universities have felt uncomfortable about being challenged to think differently about an Israeli state that they have hitherto held up as a democratic homeland for all Jews but which is now exposed as a regime plausibly waging genocide on a captive population in Gaza. 

Such a realisation is painful, but, as confirmed by a US Jewish studies scholar, “calls for Palestinian equality, … even when they upset Zionist identities” are not antisemitic.

 Indeed, there is a long history of Jewish opposition to Zionism, not just from the Haredi and other orthodox religious Jewish groups, but also in criticism of Zionist treatment of Palestinians from secular intellectuals, including Hannah Arend and Albert Einstein, both refugees from European antisemitism in the 1940s. 

Arend and Einstein were signatories to an open letter to The New York Times at the time of Israel’s creation in 1948, that decried the terror of Zionist groups, including the massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, at the instigation of the Freedom Party, which they described a “political party closely akin in its organisation, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties” that was “formed out of … the Irgun, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organisation”. 

The Freedom Party was the forerunner of the current Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu.That the Israeli state is intent on exterminating civilians in Gaza is now increasingly hard to deny following recent comments by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich calling for the “total annihilation” of Rafah and other refugee camps in Gaza, as part of the injunction to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” without “half-measures”.

The ongoing killings of non-combatants, women and children, including the most recent air strikes on a Rafah tent camp that led to “scenes of horror” involving “charred bodies and screams”, leave little doubt that the Israeli state has not heeded the directives of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to prevent civilian fatalities in the execution of its war in Gaza.

Yet, it is pro-Zionist groups on US campuses who have sought to portray themselves as victims, invoking the spectre of antisemitism whenever Israel is challenged. 

This has been a targeted strategy in the US to protect US support for the Israeli war on Gaza from public sentiment that might undermine the US administration’s blind support for a war that is already deemed a plausible genocide by the ICJ and that seems likely to spawn a set of International Criminal Court hearings for war crimes committed by senior Israeli leaders. 

Indeed, the explosion of spontaneous protests against Israeli actions and US complicity across US campuses, reminiscent of protests against the Vietnam War, so alarmed the Israeli authorities that, on 24 April, Benjamin Netanyahu released a video labelling “what’s happening on American college campuses” as “horrific” because “antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities. They call for the annihilation of Israel. They attack Jewish students. They attack Jewish faculty … It has to be stopped …”

Given the court findings of a US judge about Brown University protests that “this is a reflection of what non-violent and peaceful resistance, frankly, is supposed to look like”, Netanyahu’s attempt to characterise the spontaneous and largely peaceful protests as violent and antisemitic would be absurd, would the consequences not be so deadly. 

They are deadly in the sense that it has provided the pretext to suppress peaceful legitimate protest intended to halt the US arming Israel in its ongoing attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in Gaza, attacks which the ICJ deemed a plausible genocide more than four months ago. 

In the US, the targets of brutal violence have been pro-ceasefire demonstrators, a college professor filming arrests at Washington University in Missouri, whose assault at the hands of the police breaking up the rally have left him with multiple broken ribs and a fractured hand. 

But it has also been fatal to the project of democracy, now a victim of “trumped-up” legislation in the US House which seeks to demonise criticism of Zionism and the state of Israel as antisemitism. Netanyahu has not directed his theatrics to Germany or the United Kingdom where compliant governments have also suppressed legitimate protests on the basis of combating antisemitism, but concentrated on the US, precisely because that is where his support base is so essential for the continuation of his murderous war.

But the most concerning aspect of this assault of academic freedom and freedom of speech has been the role of the Israeli academe. While it is recognised that Israeli universities enjoy close ties to the Israeli military forces and that their suppression of anti-Zionist views in Israeli universities has led to dismissal of numerous academics, harassment, suspension and expulsion of students and the arrest by security forces of both staff and students, with the collusion of universities, less obvious has been the role of Israeli universities in actively intervening in efforts to curtail legitimate criticism of Israel in the US.

VERA, the association of Israeli research university Presidents, Rectors and Director Generals, was established in the 1960s to deal with policy issues common to all universities in Israel, such as salaries for academic staff, tuition, research budgets and policies for accepting students. 

Over subsequent decades, as Israeli public politics moved to the right, VERA gradually became less independent and more willing to bend to government policies. Despite initial resistance to the recognition of Arial University, because it was operating illegally on Palestinian territory, VERA admitted Ariel to its council in 2022, following concerted pressure on VERA from multiple right-wing sources, including the then Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. 

After the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October 2023, VERA intervened twice in the US House Committee kangaroo court hearings into supposed protection of Jewish students on US campuses from antisemitic speech. The hearings led ultimately to the resignation of two US university presidents over their handling of questions in the hearings and their rather timorous defence of freedom of speech. 

VERA’s statements played an important role in casting the university presidents as failing to protect Jewish students as a minority. The hearings, of course, paid no attention to the fact that anti-Zionist protesting students, including Jewish students, had been subject to various forms of harassment for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, nor did VERA seek to protect these Jewish student’s rights. 

Harassment included the banning of student Jewish organisations, being attacked with noxious chemical spray, doxing, suspension and eviction from residence, death threats, arrest, deprivation of access to medicine during arrest and being subjected to police brutality.

More recently, after Netanyahu’s strategic intervention releasing a video casting all the encampment protests as Nazi vilification strategies, VERA promptly followed up with another statement two days later directed to US lawmakers, castigating US university presidents for failing to reign in “the recent surge of severe violence, antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment” which VERA claimed was organised by Palestinian groups including “terrorist organisations”. 

VERA repeated the notion that it was Israeli and Jewish students and faculty members living in fear, for whom Vera could speak. Within a week, the US House adopted legislation doing exactly what Netanyahu sought — measures to clamp down on the university protests, and VERA has dutifully served its master. 

The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities joined the fray on 22 May by releasing a call “to all academic institutions abroad to fight boycotts” which they associated with “antisemitism”.  The academy saw fit to protest boycotts against Israel as threats to “the very principles of academic freedom and international collaboration, which are the bedrock of scientific progress” but continue to turn a blind eye to the scholasticide unfolding in Gaza, with the total destruction of every university in the territory. 

Israeli universities are deeply embedded in the Israeli military project. Many have specialised military units and collaborate closely with the Israeli Defence Forces. 

Not one Israeli university has raised any qualms about the horrendous death toll in Gaza nor any concern over the utter and complete destruction of the institutions of scholarship in Gaza. Constant assaults on academic freedom of Palestinian students and academics on the West Bank are routinely ignored by Israeli universities.  The leadership of Israeli academe dutifully assisted Netanyahu’s efforts to bludgeon free speech in the US and suppress a rising tide of popular opposition to US support for a genocidal war in Gaza. They are part of a war on democracy.

Professor Leslie London is Chair of Public Health Medicine in the School of Public Health at the University of Cape Town and head of the Health and Human Rights Programme in the School. He serves on the steering committee of the People’s Health Movement, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.