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An Israeli flag waves in the foreground in a photo of Columbia University’s campus.

An Israeli flag flies on the campus of Columbia University, site of large-scale pro-Palestinian protests, on April 29.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

In the summer of 2019, a few days after I left Israel to begin my history doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, I had a conversation with one of my new department’s professors. I had just finished my master’s in Middle East studies back in Israel and, walking through UT’s campus and admiring the incredible facilities, I felt like the sky was the limit, intellectually speaking.

A few minutes into the conversation, right as we wrapped the all-American mandatory small talk and as I began unfolding my vision for a prospective dissertation project that would cover the history of the Great Depression in the Middle East, the professor stopped me. “Listen,” she sighed, in a tone that, after several years in academia, I recognized as skepticism mixed with a hint of intellectual superiority, “I’m sure the project you have in mind is great. And I’m sure you can pull it off, professionally speaking. Should you decide to go for it, I’ll back you up and mentor you as best as possible. However, I highly recommend you reconsider. Not only the focus of your dissertation, but also your professional trajectory in academia. There is no easy way to say this, but if you are thinking about pursuing an academic career in the U.S., know this: You are an Israeli man who studies the Middle East. YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET ANY MIDDLE EAST-RELATED JOB. The politics of it all are too obvious, and I would be dishonest to advise you otherwise.”

At first, I refused to accept this advice. Was all this a façade? Did the merit-based system of academic achievements exist only inside my head? Should I not expect my intellectual contribution to count toward getting the professional career I wanted? And, should I decide to follow the professor’s advice, was I not becoming complicit with a system that reduced me to my nationality, my country of origin, and my gender?

That conversation stayed in my mind in the following years. Eventually, I decided to take the middle road. Professionally, I positioned myself as a historian of agriculture and the environment whose empirical work primarily concerns the Middle East region. When the time came to begin presenting my scholarship at conferences, I looked for those focused on environmental history and agricultural history. I was more drawn to conversations with people working on topics like perceptions of nature in Sri Lanka or how the Wardian case—an early terrarium used for the shipping of plants—shaped the history of British colonialism. The Middle East Studies Association’s annual conference, by comparison, seemed less relevant. I truly believed I was navigating choppy waters in a way that still allowed me to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. Rather than let people in my field define my place for me, I looked for places in academia where I believed my identity as an Israeli was irrelevant.

As it turns out, the new professional space I worked so hard to sculpt was an illusion. On the morning of October 7, Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel’s southern border, killing more than 1,000 civilians and soldiers, and kidnapping hundreds more. In the aftermath of these atrocities and the ongoing war that ensued, I was reluctantly pushed back into my place. A shared sense of fear arose in my conversations with Israeli friends and peers. While we all mourned the deaths of loved ones and were worried about our families back home, many of us also felt like academia—as an institution, a workplace and a community—was being taken away from us.

First, we observed the hesitant statements from university leaders who refused to condemn the Hamas terrorists, signaling to Israelis who attend American universities that they should handle the tragedy on their own. In the wake of pro-Palestinian protests across campuses, many felt unsafe in their workplaces. And while writers like Natasha Lennard have pointed out that we should not confuse fear with actual unsafety, they also ignore the inherent violence of common protest phrases like “from the river to the sea.” In writing that “Fear … does not make a protest against Israel, even a protest against its maintenance as a Jewish ethnostate, a protest against Jews,” Lennard was not accounting for the massive ethnic violence, displacement and suffering that breaking down this state implies.

As the war waged on, our pain as Israelis has been pushed aside, making a place for the genuine tragedy of Palestinians living in Gaza. Worse, both catastrophes have been framed in dichotomous terms, as if acknowledging Israeli suffering even somewhat depreciates that of Palestinians. This cycle of sorrow has now culminated in a completely different conversation—one not about grief, but justice, one in which Israel and Israelis, writ large, have been marked as the ultimate evil. How can I sustain any professional comradery with colleagues who view my entire history, culture and identity as one defined by oppression? How can I pursue an intellectually pollinating debate with people who apply complex analysis for a living, yet refuse to acknowledge the complexities of my country of birth?

Israelis are, obviously, not alone in feeling under siege. In January, attendees at a pro-Palestinian student rally at Columbia University reported being attacked with a chemical weapon. Many Arab and Palestinian students and staff have felt unsafe on campus, especially after the shooting of three American college students of Palestinian descent—Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad—in Vermont last November. Many people of Palestinian descent went through a personal tragedy similar to the one I had to endure as their families fled their homes, suffered from hunger, or worse. And on my home campus of UT Austin just last week, university leadership requested the deployment of Texas state troopers to break up a Pro-Palestinian protest, and 57 protesters were arrested; another 79 protesters were arrested on Monday. No wonder that Palestinians and Arab Americans, too, feel betrayed by academia.

How did we get here? How can both sides of the conflict feel their space is diminishing?

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that the conflict became a zero-sum game. For a brief moment during the 1990s, it seemed like the two-state solution was finally here. The space between the river and the sea was, for a minute, a land of endless possibilities in which both Israelis and Palestinians could live side-by-side. But then the dream became a nightmare, fueled by radicals on both flanks. With the acceleration of the conflict in recent months—as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iranian leaders repeat their intention to destroy “the Zionist regime,” and as an Israeli minister says dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza is an option—no wonder that both sides feel as though “winning” the debate over space is conditioned by the other side’s deprivation.

Palestinians and Israelis everywhere feel as though the walls are closing in but, in academia, things are even more dire. Whereas academic institutions stress their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, people like me are expected to shed a big chunk of our identities or risk being ostracized and banned. Forced to choose between my culture and my career, I have decided to leave academia and abandon my decade-long dream of becoming a university professor. I will finish my Ph.D., but I feel like this is a matter of inertia rather than of motivation; I simply made it too far in my studies to stop now. I don’t know what I’ll do next. I do know that, paradoxically enough, my decision will make academia a less diverse, equal and inclusive place.

During the pandemic, which felt like the end of the world at first, we soon realized that we could be anywhere, anytime, all at once. Borderless academic research, virtual teaching and global collegiality were tough to maintain, but at least they provided hope and clarity amidst the chaos unleashed outside. Our perception of space became so flexible that our physical space and where we came from seemed almost meaningless. But October 7 and its aftermath, the second immense tragedy that ended up shaping my graduate school years, fostered the opposite effect. Suddenly, place became everything. I became bound to the place I was born, marked by the history of a nation I never chose (though of which I feel incredibly proud), evaluated by the color of my passport and not by the quality of my work. Like the space of so many of my friends and peers, my space in academia slowly diminished. I doubt it can ever be restored.    

Atar David is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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