The Gaza War... on North American Campuses

Students and professors organize on behalf of both Palestinians and Israelis, renewing debates over why some international conflicts get more attention than others.
January 12, 2009

The military conflict that's likely to spark campus protests in the coming weeks doesn't involve U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. Rather, Israeli attacks on Hamas forces in Gaza have stirred sleeping campuses, and rallies and petition drives may gain momentum as more colleges resume full operations. The efforts, involving students and professors, supporters of Palestinians and Israelis, raise sensitive issues about whether academics are too quick or too slow to question Israel, what methods are appropriate for expressing opposition to another government's actions, and why Israel's actions are more likely to generate protests than outrages committed by other countries.

In perhaps the most widely reported academic response to events in Gaza to date, the president of an Ontario union representing provincial university employees, including teaching assistants, has apologized for comparing Israel’s bombing of Islamic University of Gaza to a Nazi act. But Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario is moving forward with controversial plans to introduce a resolution banning local universities’ involvement with Israeli academics "unless they explicitly condemn the university bombing and the assault on Gaza in general,” as President Sid Ryan said in a statement last Monday.

Beyond this high-profile call for a boycott, many scholars have been weighing in, writing letters and collecting signatures.

“At this point I would be hesitant to guess how many different petitions there are," says Cary Nelson, a professor of English at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the American Association of University Professors. AAUP is opposed to academic boycotts; for the sake of perspective, however, Nelson points out that the movement in Ontario involves a relatively small number of academics and that the major faculty union in Canada is opposed to such tactics.

In the United States, likewise, he's only heard talk of boycotts from small constituencies. Most of what he's hearing and seeing, Nelson says, are academics calling for a much more urgent solution -- a ceasefire.

“I’ve seen several petitions urging a ceasefire. The petitions vary about the level and specificity of criticism that they’re willing to make about countries in the Middle East. There are petitions that condemn Israel for the bombing and there are petitions that don’t emphasize condemnation except for the violence in general.

"I assume diplomats are doing something else. One would hope so, anyway," says Nelson (who, while associated with left-wing causes, has sought middle-of-the-road compromises on issues of Middle Eastern politics at the last two Modern Language Association Delegate Assembly meetings -- in December proposing a resolution expressing solidarity with scholars of Israeli and Palestinian literature as an alternative to a proposed resolution supporting only the latter. Amid signs condemning Israel's attacks -- “Gaza burns, MLA contemplates" -- Nelson lost the late December battle for a more neutral stance, although the association's executive council retains the power to review and possibly reject the assembly vote).

Meanwhile, although many students are still away on winter break, the conflict is already attracting organized student concern as well, with those most deeply invested in this fight bracing for an uptick in both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activity on campus -- barring a ceasefire.

“We already know of a lot of activity taking place on both sides of the fence, on behalf of students who are ardent supporters of Israel and those who are deeply opposed to the defense of Israel that is going on right now,” says David A. Harris, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (which is affiliated with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life). Harris cites, as an example, a Thursday rally at University of California at Irvine (a campus that has been rocked by conflict over Israel in recent years).

Irvine’s Muslim Student Union held the lunchtime rally on campus Thursday "to condemn massacre in Gaza" and "to demand an immediate cease-fire to the Israeli aggression inflicted on the Palestinian people of Gaza." A university spokeswoman confirms that about 300 students participated, with some Jewish students offering alternative perspectives. Cathy Lawhon adds that members of the Muslim Student Union and Anteaters for Israel (anteaters being Irvine’s mascot) are planting white flags outside the administration building each morning to represent those who have died.

On Thursday, Harris, of Israel on Campus, was on a conference call with about 70 Jewish campus professionals, most of whom come from colleges that are reopening this week or next. Many are planning solidarity and advocacy campaigns to promote Israel’s stance.

Harris also describes examples of Muslim and Jewish students coming together to observe moments of silence, "to express their shared concern for the loss of lives on both sides." But, he continues, “We’ve unfortunately seen too many examples in the last few years, at a time that’s removed from conflict, when things should be calmer – we’ve seen too many examples of heated and vitriolic rhetoric from people who are not supportive of Israel. My concern is when emotions are heightened, and the images of loss of life on both sides during a very difficult time just further ramp up emotions, that rhetoric from those who are not supporters of Israel may turn more and more vitriolic. It’s absolutely a concern.”

Attacks on Education

Some faculty groups say attacks on educational facilities in Gaza – most notably Islamic University -- are prompting them to take a stand in this latest iteration of an old conflict. Israeli officials have described Islamic University as a legitimate military target, a base of sorts for Hamas military activity. The Jerusalem Post reported on December 28 that two university laboratories used as research and development sites were targeted. “The development of explosives was done under the auspices of university professors," states the article.

On the other side of the border, the president of Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev recently wrote an op-ed in Jerusalem Post about the university being in range of Hamas attacks. Rivka Carmi writes that missiles are falling around them, with two rockets having hit an empty kindergarten and school.

"These were years in which we wanted to believe that we were out of range of the Hamas missiles that had terrorized Sderot and the communities around the Gaza Strip for so long; years in which we offered ongoing assistance to our colleagues and the students of Sapir College (which has suffered repeated missile attacks), confident that this would never happen to us. The lesson here, of course, is that this can happen to anyone," Carmi writes.

The largest faculty union in Canada, Canadian Association of University Teachers, has rejected CUPE Ontario’s calls for a boycott of Israeli professors. But in a statement, the group describes Israel's actions as disproportionate to the threat it faces from Hamas. And CAUT criticizes Israel's attacks on educational facilities at length.

According to the group’s statement: “CAUT is especially concerned about the destruction of civilian infrastructure within Gaza – including educational facilities. On 27 December, Human Rights Watch reported that an Israeli air-to-ground missile struck a group of students leaving the Gaza Training College, adjacent to the headquarters of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in downtown Gaza City, killing eight students and wounding 19 others. Two days later, on 29 December 2008, Israel bombed the Islamic University of Gaza, destroying the science laboratory block and destroying or damaging other blocks of buildings, including the library. Although Israel has claimed that the science laboratory facilities were used as 'a research and development center for Hamas weapons,' this claim has been denied by officials of the Islamic University, and according to the New York Times of January 1, 2009, Israel has not produced any evidence for its claim. On January 3, the Israeli air force destroyed the American International School, and, on January 6, 30 people were killed and 55 injured when Israeli artillery shells landed outside a United Nations-run school in Gaza.”

The CAUT statement also addresses Israel's earlier restrictions on the movements of Palestinian students and scholars, including Fulbright scholars. "A lot of us as individuals speak out on various issues or conflicts in the world. And there are dozens and dozens of them and we could spend our whole time issuing statements about what the government of Myanmar or the government of whatever is doing," says James Turk, CAUT’s executive director. "The attack on educational facilities and academics becomes a way of deciding which areas we [CAUT] speak out on and which ones we don't."

Meanwhile, Simona Sawhney, an associate professor in the department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota, co-founded a new group, Teachers Against Occupation, which will also focus, in part, on supporting Palestinian education. Teachers Against Occupation is collecting signatures on a letter to President-Elect Barack Obama written by David Lloyd, an English professor at University of Southern California, asking Obama "to hold Israel accountable for its criminal violence and its illegal acts."

The goals of the new group, Sawhney explains, include “sharing educational resources on the Middle East, the occupation of Palestine, and other occupations elsewhere," “helping to rebuild Palestinian educational institutions, with material support, educational supplies, and exchange programs,” and “facilitating an open conversation across US campuses on the question of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.”

"Right now, our aim is to put it on the table" as an option, she says of academic boycotts. British faculty unions have pushed, but dropped, the boycott approach in recent years. While advocated as a form of collective international censure (and pressure), boycotts are criticized by most academic groups as counter to the values of academic freedom and exchange, and as an unfair and even counterproductive form of punishment (imagine, for instance, holding American academics responsible for the actions of President Bush, which many have actively opposed).

Richard L. Cravatts, who directs a professional education program in publishing at Boston University, criticizes what he describes as the singling out of Israel for criticism. "The most insidious thing about it is, why wouldn't you bar Sudanese professors or Iranian professors? Why Israel?"

Cravatts has written a proposal for and several chapters of a book about the demonization of Israel on college campuses.

“They’re holding Israel to an impossibly high standard and apologizing for the terror of Hamas," he says (speaking generally and not of the Teachers Against Occupation group in particular).

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East has issued a statement supporting "Israel's right to self defense against Hamas," stating that, amid nearly 6,000 rocket attacks in two years, "Israel has been remarkably patient and restrained, with the understanding of trying to avoid civilian casualties."

In a sign that the Israeli government is actively trying to spread its message to American academics, the Department of Academic Affairs at the Israeli Consulate held a conference call for professors on Thursday to provide updated information on the conflict and answer questions.

Student Action

In California, where many colleges are back in session, the UC Gaza Solidarity Coalition was formed the night of the first attacks.

“There’s no real formality to the coalition other than we’re a group of concerned students across the UC system who want to do something about the crisis,” says Bernice Julie Shaw, a senior at the University of California at Los Angeles. Shaw co-authored a resolution, which she hopes will come up for a student council vote at each UC campus, calling “for the immediate end to the recent humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

At UCLA, the Undergraduate Students Association Council approved the resolution last week by an eight-to-two vote, with two abstentions. More than 30 other student groups had endorsed the resolution.

Bruins for Israel was not among the student groups that signed on. “We did not feel that it was a constructive measure to appropriately address the conflict,” says Shirley Eshaghian, a UCLA senior and president of Bruins for Israel. “Although we do agree with many of the things stipulated in the resolution, we do not believe that it was fair. We do not believe it was the best use of our student funds or our energy, even. And if we were to pass a resolution, it should be a joint resolution between Bruins for Israel and the UC Gaza Solidarity Coalition -- [we should] come up with something together rather than amend something that was completely one-sided and biased that they had written.”

Eshaghian notes, for instance, a parallel concern for the humanitarian situation in southern Israel.

Homaira Hosseini, the undergraduate student body president, says there were about 100 students at the meeting, “all concerned about the matter and it is important for student governments to take stances and speak out about issues that are not only concerning their campus, here I call it the ‘Westwood bubble.’ ”

“The authors of the resolution also amended the resolution once they heard some perspectives of Israeli proponents and were very accommodating to what [an] interpretation may have suggested even if they all were facts,” Hosseini continues, in an e-mail. "The authors were well prepared with not only a PowerPoint talking about the issue and facts but a 20 page citation of every line in the resolution…. Although not every single person will be happy with every resolution, our administrators said that they have seen students come around this issue many times and this is the best behavior they have seen yet.”


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