The German Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and The Center for Development Studies (CDS) at Birzeit University organized a conference entitled, "Alternatives to Neo-Liberal Development in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – Critical Perspectives."
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During the first presentation on Tuesday, two lecturers from the CDS approached me within ten minutes of each other, asking me to step outside, saying that they needed to talk to me. I asked them to wait until the break, but after they asked me a third time, I stepped out of the conference hall. "Am I not allowed to be here?" I asked, half-kidding, but one of the lecturers answered that there was a problem.
When I registered at the entrance of the conference I wrote next to my name the institution I belong to, Haaretz. For the past two decades, the lecturer said, there has been a law at Birzeit stipulating that Israelis (Jewish Israelis, that is) are not allowed on the university grounds. The students manning the conference registration desk saw that I had written "Haaretz," realized I was an Israeli, and ran to tell the university authorities. The security department in turn went to the conference organizers, the lecturer said. She and her colleagues were afraid, she told me, that students would break into the conference hall in protest over my presence.
From where we were standing in the entrance hall, I didn't see a throng of students approaching in order to oust me, the representative of the 'Zionist entity.' But when friends and acquaintances (including lecturers) telephoned afterward to find out what had happened, I then understood that the rumor going around was that students had attacked me. And so, for the sake of truth, this is not what happened. What did happen was that two lecturers demanded that I leave. So I left.
One of the lecturers explained that it is important for students to have a safe space where (Jewish) Israelis are not entitled to enter; that while the law is problematic, this was not the time or place to discuss amending it; and that, just as she could ask to treat me differently as an exception to the rule, another lecturer might ask for the same preferential treatment for Yossi Beilin, Israel's former justice minister who is known as one of the architects of both the Oslo Accords and Geneva Initiative and the initiator of the Taglit Zionist project. She also told me that Professor Ilan Pappe, author of the book 'The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,' among others, had been invited to deliver a lecture at Birzeit, but owing to the law, gave the talk off campus. The other lecturer told me that if I didn't write "Haaretz" in the registration form, I would have been able to stay. Still, another faculty member who I have known for 40 years walked past and said: "This is for your own protection [from the students]." And I was at that moment reminded of the image that Israelis commonly have of Palestinians: irrational hotheads. A Palestinian citizen of Israel who came to the conference left out of disgust, in her words, at my ouster.
In the meantime, Katja Hermann, director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation's Regional Office in the Occupied Territories, was told about the complication. Despite her appreciation of the importance of preserving a safe space for Palestinian students, much like feminists have created women-only spaces, she failed to understand why it is impossible to explain to protesting students ("who I don't even see," she noted) that this puritanism misses the mark. I am regularly invited to events organized by "Rosa," as the foundation is fondly nicknamed. The shocked Hermann then said that had she known about the law at Birzeit, and the decision to exclude me from the conference's audience, she wouldn't have agreed to hold the event within the university walls.
In the past twenty years, I have entered Birzeit University dozens of times, and have been an audience member at various academic conferences there. I have also interviewed faculty members both on and off campus. A year ago, an economics lecturer refused an interview, telling me, "It's not personal. But you know what the rules are." I didn't know there was a rule against being interviewed by Haaretz.
It is well known that the university doesn't employ Israeli Jews as academic staff, even from anti-Zionist left-wing circles. In 1998, my application to an Arabic course for foreigners was rejected. (A sarcastic friend, Iyad from Gaza, said back then: "With your Gazan accent, how can they accept you?") But I was never told that there was a university law against my very presence, as an Israeli Jew, on Birzeit's campus. The claim that the law applies to me because I am representing an Israeli institution is a shaky one: Palestinian citizens of Israel who teach at Israeli universities are not subject to the same policy. If I had known about the existence of such a law, I wouldn't have come to the conference. I have other places to invest my subversive energies.
I am writing about this incident precisely because I did not take it personally. I do not take personally the fact that some faculty members were hiding behind hypothesized angry students and a law that many others seem to be unaware of. In my opinion, it would have been more dignified to tell me explicitly: We do not differentiate between those who support the occupation and those who are against it, between those who report on policies to forcibly evict the Bedouin or those who carry out that policy; for us, there is only one place for every Israeli Jew - outside.
At the final session of the conference on Wednesday, a lecturer from another department asked to discuss the fact that I had been kicked out, and the issue of banning left-wing Israeli Jews in general. The lecturer and others, who weren't present at the time of the incident, were shocked and expressed their protest, I was told. When it was announced that I was asked to leave, "for my own protection," a number of people left the hall in anger. Meanwhile, a storm erupted on Facebook. Acquaintances have since called me to apologize. The owner of my local grocery store apologized "in the name of the Palestinian people."
Meanwhile, the university published a statement Saturday saying: "The administration has nothing against the presence of the journalist Hass. The university as a national institution differentiates between friends and enemies of the Palestinian people and works with every person or institution that is against the occupation."
I understand the emotional need of Palestinians to create a safe space that is off limits to citizens of the state that denies them their rights and has been robbing them of their land. As a leftist, however, I question the anti-colonialist logic of boycotting left-wing Israeli Jewish activists. In any case, such leftists do not seek kosher certificates while opposing the occupation and striving to put an end to the Jewish regime of privileges.