Why Sayed Kashua Is Rejecting His Honorary Doctorate From Ben-Gurion University

I don't support a boycott of Israeli academia. But Ben-Gurion University's decision not to honor Breaking the Silence, an NGO whose crime is to remind people of the occupation, leaves me no choice: To decline the honorary doctorate it has offered me.

An illustration showing Sayed Kashua, in a cap and gown, standing at a podium emblazoned with David Ben-Gurion's image.
Amos Biderman

It’s a tough decision. For the past few days, I’ve been busy consulting good friends whose opinions I trust, many of them academics in Israel, others Israelis in American institutions of higher learning. About half a year ago, I was informed that Ben-Gurion University of the Negev had decided to grant me an honorary doctorate. At first I thought it was a joke, and in fact I told the person who introduced herself on the phone as the university’s president, “Forget it, my honor is beyond saving.”

When I realized it was serious, and that the BGU senate (I swear, that’s what they call it) had indeed decided to grant me the degree, I was delighted. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor – true, I never did anything about it, but that’s a different story. Once I even remember being asked in an interview – in the spirit of the writer Emile Habibi’s reply “I stayed in Haifa,” when he was asked what he would like to have engraved on his tombstone – what I would like to see inscribed on my headstone, and I replied: “He wanted to be a doctor.” And it doesn’t matter what kind. I’d even be willing to be a dentist.

And now comes the redeeming phone call and proves that there’s no need to invest years of hard, intensive work in studies and in serious quantitative and qualitative research to obtain the coveted title. An honor, for sure – as honorary as it gets. As every layman who’s learned a thing or two from our Middle East experts knows, nothing is more important for an Arab than honor. A “degree honoris causa,” a title that would allow me to make former MK Azmi Bishara and my mother-in-law green with envy simultaneously.

I began imagining myself in a black gown and, even though black is good at creating an illusion of being skinny, and the ceremony won't be until November, I launched into a brutal diet. I borrowed a mortarboard from a friend, so as to check out the most flattering angle of the cap and the best angle for the tassel.

I canceled my planned summer vacation in Israel and promised my mother and my friends that I would see them when I visited in November. And I had plans, so many plans. Besides family and friends, whom I’m longing to see, I planned at long last to visit the Israel Air Force Museum – just five minutes from Be’er Sheva. The university promised me one night at a hotel in Be’er Sheva, and a plane ticket. I already saw myself drunk from some top-of-the-line champagne in business class. And the lovely flight attendant asking, with politeness that’s reserved for the world’s hotshots, “And what brings you to Israel, sir?” while pouring me another drink that would heighten the intoxication that’s considered offensive in economy class but an achievement in the more affluent sections. “Oh, I’m going to get an honorary degree, miss,” I would reply in an accent that only enhanced my prestige.

I’d already begun trying to think up a dignified, statesmanlike opening to my speech, which would be out of character for me but appropriate for the occasion of receiving a degree on Ben-Gurion Day, the annual anniversary of the prime minister’s death. I came up with an opener like “If Ben-Gurion were alive today ...,” but I couldn’t think of how to continue the sentence.

I tried going back to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, as is the custom of the sane left, ignoring its references to the state’s Jewishness, and finding some light in the promise of equality for the country’s subjects. But that also failed to produce a worthy result. I’d have figured something out – after all, “walking between the drops,” as the expression goes in Hebrew, was always my path, until the drops became bombs.

But I realized that I would not be able to accept the degree when I read about the decision by the university’s president this week to cancel a prize that the Middle Eastern Studies Department had decided to award to the Breaking the Silence organization. The agonizing was not over the issue of whether to make do with a polite letter to the university, stating that for family reasons (my wife has a conference on the suffering of Arab women on the same day as the ceremony) or that, because of fear of flying or of heights, I would be prevented from accepting the degree. Nor was it over the question of whether to assert that my refusal was an act of protest at crass, dangerous and threatening behavior against what remains of the pockets of resistance that stand for academic integrity.

“If you reject the degree and no one knows why – you might as well accept it,” a friend from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told me.

“But we had a date for a drink,” a friend from Tel Aviv University protested, and advised me, “Come to Israel, we’ll go out for drinks, and you’ll go the ceremony and decline the degree there. I want to see you so much!”

“What you're going to do,” a linguist from the University of Chicago explained, “is go to the ceremony and give the speech of your life, so they’ll be sorry they invited you in the first place.”

“But that’s deranged,” my wife told him.

“Why? Who do you think you married?” he retorted.

No, my agonizing was generated by fear of the mantra about the Arabs who bite the hand that feeds them, the hand that made them, that pays their salaries. The hand of Ben-Gurion outstretched toward peace as part of an agreement involving unconditional surrender, as per the spirit of the consensus.

Because of those good friends, and because of my teachers, I am for the time being not supporting a sweeping academic boycott of Israel. But the way Israeli academia is falling into line with the dictates of the nationalist dialogue leaves few arguments – which in any case are weak to begin with – against such a boycott.

Well aware of pressure by student organizations that are a product of the violent discourse in their country, by government elements, by various organizations whose goal is political persecution, and by donors with a Zionist agenda – I decided that it was necessary to defend academic freedom in Israel. In particular at a time when lecturers encounter persecution for expressing an opinion, for inviting a guest speaker who isn’t to the taste of the students or the administration, for declaring sorrow at the plight of innocent Palestinian victims, or for choosing to honor an NGO whose whole crime is to remind people that there exists an occupation, which, by its nature, is ugly and cruel.

As long as the BGU administration doesn’t change its decision about canceling the prize for Breaking the Silence, I have no choice but to take the hard road. This week I registered for M.A. studies at the Open University. If all goes according to schedule, in another seven years I will get to wear the black robe.