Although Menahem Milson’s career path and mine have been on a collision course, we have never met. In 1976, I joined Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank as a junior instructor in sociology. The same year, Milson, a professor of Arabic language and literature at the Hebrew University, became “adviser on Arab affairs” in the Israeli Government.
By 1981, when the academic community I was part of was struggling under the crushing yoke of Israeli punishments, he was appointed head of the military administration in the West Bank. One of the highlights of his tenure was the notorious “Village Leagues” scheme, a failed experiment in promoting a class of Palestinian collaborators to mediate Israeli rule.
Milson’s service fits into the classic paradigm of a colonial regime enlisting scholars to assist in ruling the “natives”. He told an American Jewish publication in 1995 that to “serve an Arab population responsibly, one needs to know language and civilisation. That is why so many professors have been called to do this”. Indeed, the list of Israeli academics who have served government agencies and the occupation regime is impressive.
Today, that list includes demographers, psychologists and a host of strategic analysts.
What is most significant for those of us who argue for a boycott of the Israeli academy is that these academics, instead of facing censure and opprobrium from their peers for their complicity in oppression, are rewarded with the highest privileges. The toleration of racism and bigotry under the guise of scholarship is also remarkable; the legitimacy and normalcy of the discourse of “the demographic threat” is a striking example.
Opponents of an academic boycott complain that it violates academic freedom by restricting Israeli scholars’ access to international academic networks.
They also claim that since Israeli universities are generally “liberal”, the action punishes those who are least in agreement with the policies of their Government. These complaints betray a striking disregard for the indivisibility of academic freedom (the academic freedom of Palestinians being of no concern) and misrepresent the reality of the Israeli academy and Israeli academics.
When I arrived at Birzeit, the first institution of higher education established by Palestinians in the occupied territories, the university president had been deported by the Israeli Army. He was accused of “inciting” students against the occupation. He lived in exile for 19 years until he was allowed to return in 1993. As resistance to the occupation escalated in the 1980s, universities were treated to a constant diet of “closure orders” as punishment for student demonstrations.
As soon as a military closure order was issued, we young faculty would go into top gear and fire off appeals to Western consulates, the media and human rights organisations. Because arrests invariably followed closure orders, we also fell into a routine of preparing for students’ encounters with the system of military “justice”. We attended trials in seedy military courtrooms where some of the prosecutors and judges were academics on reserve duty. I can still remember watching those colourless individuals as they assiduously avoided the eyes of the Palestinian academic observers on the benches.
Later, and after we had organised makeshift lectures and laboratories scattered throughout Ramallah and Jerusalem, we would evade Army patrols bent on criminalising our efforts to rescue the semester or the entire academic year. I remember teaching a seminar on the Iranian revolution in the kitchen of an empty apartment in Ramallah, just as I recall travelling to Gaza to help a graduating student being held under house arrest finish his matriculation requirements (this trip, as the one to Jerusalem, is no longer conceivable, and we no longer have students from Gaza).
So where have Israeli academics been during the long siege of Palestinian higher education? Aside from a handful of progressive academics, the Israeli academy has remained silent. Business as usual has been the order of the day for nearly four decades. Virtually all Israeli academics have continued to serve in the Army’s reserve forces and, as such, have been perpetrators of, or witnesses to, the many crimes committed by their military.
What is there left to do? Global centres of power have stood firmly by Israel as it has wreaked havoc with the lives and futures of Palestinians.
Our only hope is pressure from international civil society. And that includes academics. We want our colleagues abroad to know that, with every conference they attend at an Israeli university, with every review they write for an Israeli institution, they are unwittingly helping to maintain the system of injustice.
The academic boycott aims to make Israelis realise that there is a price to be paid for complicity, complacency and silence. Milson may have retired, but his successors continue to enjoy the fruits of academic freedom in the Israeli academy. The rest do not care.
Lisa Taraki is associate professor of sociology at Birzeit University.