A group of 120 faculty members at Ben-Gurion University sent a letter to the school’s chief administrator on Sunday, calling to withdraw its disciplinary complaint against an Arab student for using the word shahids (martyrs in Arabic) at a memorial event to mark Nakba Day about two months ago.
The student, Watan Madi, used the term while quoting an article by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, after which the university summoned her for a disciplinary hearing.
The quote relates specifically to the victims of the Nakba, the Arabic word meaning catastrophe that refers to the events of Israel's War of Independence in which more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes.
The university claims that because the word shahid usually refers to terrorists who have been killed, Madi’s remarks are to be interpreted as support for terrorism. The university also said that it “takes very seriously” the flying of Palestinian flags at the event.
In their letter to the university’s chief administrator, Mira Golomb, the faculty members said that using "the flag-waving as evidence of support for terror is absurd,” in light of the permission the university had given to fly them and the reasons university President Prof. Daniel Haimovich gave after the fact for granting permission.
“As the faculty members from the relevant fields can attest,” the meaning of the word in Arabic is martyrs or fallen and not terrorists or suicide bombers, the letter stated. “Moreover, the text that Watan Madi read relates specifically to the fallen of the Nakba.”
“We hope that the university aspires to be an academic home for all students, faculty and employees,” the letter went on to state. “Therefore, the university should relate to their cultures, identities and native languages in light of their own viewpoints – and not through the perspective of organizations that undermine the legitimacy of varied viewpoints.”
At the end of the letter, the writers stated that those of the signatories who had been present at the event could attest that Madi complied with earlier agreements regarding the event, “even in the face of provocations by some of the participants at an adjacent demonstration” of students from the university’s chapter of the right-wing group Im Tirtzu.
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The initiator of the letter, Dr. Yael Ben-Zvi, said, “It was clear to me that there was no basis for a complaint and therefore the right thing to do is withdraw it.” Ben-Zvi said she was assisted by a faculty group, Campus Against Racism, in circulating the letter but said it "was not written on behalf of the forum but only on behalf of the signatories.”
“If the disciplinary action proceeds in spite of the letter, I intend to be there, and I know of others who are also expected to come,” Ben-Zvi added.
The university's summons to Madi to appear at a disciplinary hearing was sent last week following a complaint filed by the university’s chapter of Im Tirtzu. It alleged that the student is “suspected of behavior that involves disobedience or refusal to obey the authorities' instructions.”
Golomb has not yet responded to the faculty member's letter, and as it currently stands, Madi is expected to appear before a disciplinary panel of three judges from the university on Monday.
Prof. Oren Yiftahel, another of the letter’s signatories, said, "It didn’t at all occur to [the university] to summon the dozens of students who [at the Im Tirzu counterprotest] screamed ‘death to terrorists’ in the faces of a few dozen Arab students who heaven forbid were reading from an article by Darwish about the Nakba."
“This is intimidation and silencing, and it must be fought against for the sake of academia, for the remaining democratic spaces,” he remarked.
Yiftahel is one of the founders of Campus Against Racism, which was established a little over two years ago following complaints by students of Ethiopian origin.
Last week, Madi told Haaretz that Im Tirzu “keeps going after leftists on campuses. It’s unclear how you turn a passage that closes with a call for freedom and peace into support for terrorism. It’s absurd,” she alleged.
In deliberations at the Knesset in May, Madi said the quote she presented only related to “the martyrs who fell in 1948 and were expelled from their homes.” Darwish ended the article with a reference to the need to insist on "the path of freedom and the path of uprising, until the two eternal twins meet: freedom and peace.”