Dozens of students attended a Nakba Day memorial at Be’er Sheva’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Monday and waved Palestinian flags. The students, most of them Israeli Palestinians, had every right to do so. This was also the finest hour of the university, which enabled what ought to be taken from granted: respecting students’ right to wave any flag, and certainly the one they view as the flag of their people, on a day they view as their national memorial day.
But Israel being Israel, a campaign of incitement and condemnation with fascist overtones was immediately launched against the students and the university. The first to condemn was Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich, himself a former student political activist at Ben-Gurion University – which, incidentally, had prohibited his activism. In a letter to the university administration, Danilovich wrote that it had shown “weakness” when it permitted the ceremony and the flags, and that he felt “shock and shame.”
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton was quick to follow his lead, with a repulsive demonstration of gagging students’ opinions. “The pictures we saw are unacceptable,” she told the university’s president, adding that she was consulting the Council for Higher Education’s legal adviser “about the students who participated in incitement, violence or undermining state symbols.” Outdoing them all was Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who, as in the most benighted of regimes, ordered the treasury to look into stripping the university of some of its funding over the ceremony.
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Palestinian citizens of Israel account for an increasing proportion of the student body at the country’s universities. The state should encourage this trend of integration into society, but at the same time these students should not have to lose their identity or erase their heritage. Their people is the Palestinian people, and their memory is the Nakba. This must be respected.
After all, what flag should they wave on Nakba Day? The flag of Israel, their state, which perpetrated the Nakba? And how should they commemorate the date chosen to mark their national catastrophe, during which most of their people fled or were expelled from their land and lost their homes and villages forever? By singing “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem? By saluting the Israel Defense Forces? The university administration was right to say, in a statement that it released, “We are proud of our students on both sides of the divide.” That is the spirit that should prevail throughout the state, and not the rising ill wind of fascism.