Campus protests: Israeli academics say their universities are ‘best chance’ for peace

One of the demands of pro-Palestinian activists who have set up protest camps on university campuses in Canada and the United States is the severing of ties with Israeli universities.

Tel Aviv University and other Israeli research institutions are accused of being complicit in that country’s war in Gaza and its occupation of Palestinian territories. But some prominent Israeli academics argue that their universities are also home to prominent voices for peace and have been at the forefront of the domestic protest movement against the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Academics in Israel are fighting for peace, perhaps more than any other part of the Israeli community,” Professor Ran Barkai, a professor of prehistoric archeology at Tel Aviv University, said in an interview from Israel on Wednesday.

Israeli universities should be empowered, he added, because they are home to the main forces pushing for reconciliation with the Palestinians.

“You must maintain good relations with them because they are the center of Israel’s sanity; if sanity can be achieved it is through people in universities… diminishing relations with Israel’s universities would only harm the chances of peace” .

For the branches of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights at McGill University and Concordia, which were among the organizers of a camp set up on Saturday on the McGill campus, Israeli universities are complicit in the war and nothing is gained by engaging in dialogue with them. they. They say the camp will remain until its schools “cut all academic ties with Israeli institutions.”

Leo Corry, president of the Open University of Israel, is clear about the responsibility of his country’s academics regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. Teachers, he said, like most Israeli citizens, pay taxes and participate in the military: the state requires male citizens over 18 to serve in the defense forces for at least 32 months and women for at least 24. months.

“In a way, we’re all part of what’s happening here,” Corry said in an interview from the Tel Aviv area. “Part of the problem that I and others have is the way (the conflict) is presented as black and white, and I think that is harmful, misleading and problematic.”

Israeli scientists, he said, and other academics have been involved in the production of some of Israel’s defense weapons, such as the Iron Dome, which is credited with helping prevent serious damage or casualties from an unprecedented attack in April. by Iran that involved hundreds of ballistic drones. missiles and cruise missiles.

“Luckily for us we have that. Imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t,” Corry said.

“We live in a very difficult part of the world. And if you are at McGill or anywhere else in the United States or Canada, you can yell or scream, but you won’t come to defend us when we need you, right? So we have to defend ourselves, but “That doesn’t mean that whatever the military does, whatever the government or certain sectors of society support, is what I consider right.”

If Canadian academics cut ties with Israeli universities, Barkai said, then Canada’s academics will lose the ability to influence Israeli intellectuals. International researchers can benefit from knowledge and innovation in Israel, but “these connections work both ways,” he said.

Israeli academics, he added, learn a lot from their international colleagues. “They get a better perspective of how we are seen in the world. It makes us understand how we should behave, what we should do better.”

Before October 7, when Hamas launched a deadly attack on southern Israel, the country was wracked for months by civil unrest against Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox political allies, who were pressing ahead with plans to approve controversial changes to the judicial system. From Israel. .

Barkai said he and his colleagues regularly participated in such protests, adding that he is sure the government would have resorted to weakening Israeli universities after ending the judiciary. Harming universities in Israel, even by isolating them from the international community, would only harm the larger forces that are acting against Netanyahu’s “regime” and trying to replace it, he said.

“If there is a possibility of change, it occurs within the academic world,” he said.

At the McGill protest camp, protesters vow to stay despite the university’s decision to ask police to remove them. Daniel Schwartz, a McGill professor of Russian and German cinema, said he supports the camp and the call for universities to cut ties with Israeli research institutions.

There are a number of research collaborations with Israeli universities used for military purposes, he said, adding that “the end result of the death of innocent people is something I cannot support.” Schwartz, who is Jewish, said Israeli universities deny Palestinian history, “which promotes dehumanization. And I think many of these universities censor their own academics and undermine critical discourse.”

The war between Israel and Hamas was sparked by the unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel, in which militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped about 250 hostages. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to local health officials, and the war has forced around 80 percent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million to flee their homes, caused widespread destruction in several towns and cities and has brought northern Gaza to the brink of famine. .

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2024.

— With files from The Associated Press

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