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The Silence of Israeli Academics

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Palestinian geographer Khalil Tufakji (C) is detained as Israeli security forces carry out a police order to close his mapping office in East Jerusalem, March 14, 2017.
Palestinian geographer Khalil Tufakji (C) is detained as Israeli security forces carry out a police order to close his mapping office in East Jerusalem, March 14, 2017.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

A few days ago, the police raided a geographic research institute in East Jerusalem that investigates issues of land, settlements and Israel’s encroachment onto Palestinian areas in the occupied territories, as reported by Haaretz. The head of the institute, cartographer Khalil Tufakji, was arrested, and academic, cartographic and technological materials were confiscated.

According to the report, many Israelis, probably Israeli geographers too, know Tufakji and have met with him over the years while negotiating with the Palestinians over borders. Sadly, this acquaintance hasn’t inspired Israeli geographers to protest this outrageous move against academia. The Israeli Geographical Association didn’t make a sound neither did other professional organizations such as the planners association.

The Israeli geographers fail to cry out in the face of numerous wrongs linked to their vocation. Why would they lose sleep over the shutdown of a research institute and the arrest of a Palestinian colleague?

The geographers are no different than other academics and researchers in Israel. This story is part of a bigger story that Israeli academics tell themselves as they nestle in their safe, protected ivory towers. From university presidents to fledgling researchers, they choose to believe they’re operating in a democratic, modern, Western system that respects academic freedom. Most of them prefer not to look at the state of their Palestinian colleagues who don’t enjoy the privileges that Israeli academics take for granted.

Soldiers have invaded campuses, fired tear gas grenades, arrested lecturers and students, and restricted movement; any number of misdeeds have gone down at universities a short drive from the manicured offices and libraries of universities in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. But none of this has cost Israeli academics sleep for many years now.

Recently a handful of Israeli academics joined a new organization, Academia for Equality, which aspires to make academics stop ignoring the oppression of their Palestinian colleagues. These activists, some of whom are very young and don’t have jobs or tenure yet, have protested in public, sent letters to the authorities and organized solidarity visits at the university in Tul Karm, which has been repeatedly hassled by the army. These connections, which aim to strengthen solidarity on both sides in the fight against the occupation and oppression, are a ray of light in the darkness of the silence by most academics in Israel.

Israeli academics, however, are getting nervous amid their rising concerns about international boycotts against Israeli institutions and researchers. The main argument against the boycott is that the right of academic freedom trumps the moves by the boycotters. But what about the academic freedom of Palestinian universities? What about the academic freedom of our researcher colleagues there and their students?

How could anyone do nothing when a geographer colleague is arrested because of his research, when the cartographic research institute he runs is shuttered and important materials are seized? And all this happened a few minutes’ drive from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And you can’t talk about academic ethics and professional solidarity ending at the roadblock because East Jerusalem is part of the state, not beyond any roadblocks.

During the 1980s, moves to close universities and soldiers invading West Bank campuses stirred public protests, evinced in part by the establishment of the Committee for Solidarity with Bir Zeit. Today it seems oppression and the egregious violation of the freedom of Palestinian academics produce mainly yawns.

Although Palestinian academics are refusing to cooperate, their Israeli colleagues should fight loudly against the oppression, just one of whose aspects is the restriction of academic freedom in Palestine. Academia for Equality’s efforts are an important act of solidarity that could lead to a joint battle by academics from both peoples; it could break the silence of Israeli academics.

Israeli academics bear a great responsibility. They must act in solidarity and courage not out of fear they might be boycotted and suffer international sanctions, but because hunkering down in the ivory tower and reveling in academic freedom is unethical and undemocratic if this academic freedom doesn’t apply to everyone.

The battle against the occupation’s evils must no longer be left to civilian groups, even if many academics are involved. Organizations made up of university staff, professional and academic unions and student groups should take clear, unambiguous stands in the spirit of the academic principles accepted in well-run countries. This is the only way to stop the arrest of researchers for political reasons and the closure of their institutions.

Chen Misgav is a geographer, urban planner and board member of Planners for Planning Rights.

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