Academic Freedom and the Bar-Ilan Conference: An Open Letter to a Palestinian Colleague

I believe there are a number of serious problems associated with this conference and I was hoping to draw your attention to these problems. These problems have nothing to do with you personally, but they do affect our struggle in the UK for peace and justice in Israel-Palestine and our academic solidarity work in the West in support of Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian universities, in particular.

First: this conference is a total PR political project for Bar Ilan University; I believe the conference planners (and I am sure this has nothing to do with you personally) are hoping to cover up for the disgraceful record of Bar Ilan University; we all know the university is still closely associated with Israeli colonial policies in the West Bank; in fact, some of its leading lecturers actually live in illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Furthermore Bar Ilan University (working with successive Likud governments) has created and financed the infamous “Ariel College”, located in one of the largest settlements which the Israeli government is planning to annex in violation of international law and countless UN resolutions on Israel-Palestine. “Ariel College” has now been recognized by the Israeli government, again in violation of international law and UN resolutions; some of Bar Ilan lecturers are currently teaching for “Ariel College” and the connections between Bar Ilan and Ariel College are very intimate.

As you know Bar Ilan University has always been a strong-hold for Gush Emunim and other fanatical settlers in the West Bank; even Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, was a third year law student at Bar-Ilan University. In February 1996 the Israeli media reported the fund-raising group “American Friends of Bar-Ilan University” used promotional material in New York featuring pictures of the confessed killer, Amir. Bar-Ilan University President Moshe Kaveh was reported as saying the brochure had been prepared wholly by “American Friends of Bar Ilan” and that the inclusion of Amir’s photo was “an egregious error of oversight, not an act of intent or malice”. But the whole Amir episode is hardly surprising: in the early 1980s the Bar Ilan campus Rabbi wrote an article in the campus organ (Bat Kol), entitled: mitzvat hagenocide batorah [literally translates: “The Genocide Commandment of the Torah]. Of course this is not about the Torah but about the Rabbi himself and his fundamentalist views, in effect advocating some sort of genocide against the Palestinians. The article was condemned by several liberal Israelis (including one of the speakers at the Bar Ilan conference), but the episode highlighted the state of mind among some of the key employees of Bar Ilan. Generally-speaking Bar Ilan University is one of the worst Israeli universities in terms of “academic freedom of the Palestinians”—both Palestinian students from Israel and Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Second: I noticed, (from the conference programme) you are the only Palestinian speaker listed; of course this is not your fault; and I, myself, think highly of you; but the conference programme gives the impression of an extraordinary spectacle of a conference on “academic freedom in Israel”—with so many leading Zionist academics from the West—but does not include those Palestinian academics whose academic freedom is seriously curtailed by the Israeli occupation and Israeli apartheid policies in the West Bank.

Of course I know the last thing you would want is to be associated with a PR conference at Bar Ilan University. But I believe this political conference reflects the myopic politics which characterizes Israeli policies towards the Palestinians generally and the position of so many Israeli academics. This myopia/complicity of Bar Ilan University in maintaining and consolidating the brutal occupation is symbolically reflected in the absence of Palestinians in significant numbers at this event.

Third: Professor Alan Dershowitz: also crucially, the Keynote speech is given by Alan Dershowitz, Professor of Law at Harvard University. Dershowitz has a widely-known and appalling record of defending Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories (see his statement below); typically, for years he has attacked Palestinian academics in the US; more crucially in recent years he wanted to put Yasser Arafat on trial on the charge of terrorism. He wrote: “Yasser Arafat is a cold-blooded, premeditated murderer. It would seem to follow that he should be brought to trial (Alan M. Dershowitz, “Put Arafat on trial” http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0902/dershowitz1.asp)—rehashing Israeli allegations and propaganda; more recently he tried to get the University of California Press to ban a new book by Professor Norman Finkelstein—a well-known American-Jewish academic and an activist for the human rights of the Palestinians under occupation. Consequently Dershowitz is best known in academic circles in the West now for his failed attempts to attack the “academic freedom” of a leading academic publisher in the US. Is Bar Ilan University seeking to reward Dershowitz for his campaign to ban books in the US he does not like as part of its “academic freedom campaign”? Dershowitz had this to say in a recent interview: http://www.democracynow.org/static/dershowitzFin.shtml:) I argue in the book [his book: The Case of Israel] that no country in history faced with comparable threats both external and internal has ever tried so hard to comply with the rule of law. I compare Israel favorably to the United States. In this regard: its court intervened actively in support of Palestinian rights. Even during fighting in war time during the Jenin events [2002] the Israeli courts enjoined the Israeli military from engaging in certain actions which in its view violated the rule of law, The Israeli Supreme Court had banned the kind of rough interrogation techniques that are now being employed by the United Nations [he means: United States] in Guantanamo Bay. Israel is the only country in modern history that has never deliberately and explicitly retaliated against those who attack its civilian targets. The cover of The Case of Israel features pictures of Yasser Arafat and Usama bin Laden—Arafat being one the two main faces of terrorism in Dershowitz’s world. Earlier after September 2001 Dershowitz had outraged supporters of human rights in the US for suggesting that “torture” should be legally sanctioned and warranted by the US courts—an argument which he also puts forward in his book “Why Terrorism Works” (Will Youmans, “The Professor of Torture”, CounterPunch, 10 September 2002, at: http://www.counterpunch.org/youmans0910.html)

Fourth: “Campus Watch”/Dershowitz, the hounding of pro-human rights academics in the US, and the “charge of Anti-Semitism”: Dershowitz and some of the other academics invited to speak at the Bar Ilan conference, especially Prof. Martin Kramer (of Tel Aviv University, an American Jewish professor) are closely associated with “Campus Watch”—a pro-Likud lobby which has been targeting academics in the US—academics who speak out against the longest military occupation in history and Israeli settler colonialism in the West Bank. Dershowitz and “Campus Watch” have targeted Professor Finkelstein—but they failed to ban his books. However there were other victims of Desrhowitz and Campus Watch, including the late Edward Said, Professor Joseph Massad, of Colombia University, and Professor Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair at Colombia (both Khalidi and Massad are top Palestinian scholars). Dershowitz had this to say about Edward Said: “He himself not only encouraged and incited violence, but he engaged in violence. He threw rocks along with his sons at Israeli soldiers. He lied about his own background and biography” (31 March 2005 at: http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_article=875&x_context=2) Other leading academics in the US, including Professor Joan Cole, a leading Middle East scholar—who used to edit the most important journal in the field, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies—were targeted by “Campus Watch”. In fact there are tens of names of academics in the US placed on the black lists of Campus Watch—an organization which is also closely associated with the neo-cons of the Bush administration. Often academics critical of Israeli policies are described by the likes of Dershowitz and ‘Campus Watch’ as anti-Semitic. A new book called: The Politics of Anti-Semitism, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, shows how the slur of "anti-Semite" has been used by Dershowitz and others to intimidate critics of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and suppress academic freedom in the West. The book includes essays by Uri Avnery and the late Edward Said (among others). Some of the speakers invited to the Bar Ilan conference (including Kramer, Dershowitz and others) have been involved in serious attacks on academic freedom in the US. These individuals are exactly the same people who are intimidating academics in the West who criticize Israeli policies. Indeed one of the British participants (Dr Jon Pike, of the Open University) has been attacking us in the UK as anti-Semitic—a typical charge designed to intimidate people and stifle “academic freedom” in the UK (see article in Haartez, “Know the boundaries” by David Hirsh and Jon Pike, 24 January 2005.

I realize that there are some good names associated with the Bar Ilan conference such as philosopher Assa Kasher, of Tel Aviv University; but the event cannot be judged on the basis of including Profrssor Kasher. I think, on the whole, this is really a PR conference for Bar Ilan University: an attempt to improve the image and reputation of the University in the West and to cover up for the fact that the university is still closely associated with Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid in the West Bank. Five: Bar Ilan University and the British AUT boycott motion: We know that the Bar Ilan conference is a PR event coming especially after the British AUT boycott motion earlier this year—a motion which singled out Bar Ilan University in connection with its parenting links with “Ariel College” in violation of international law on Occupied Territories. The AUT reversal of its earlier decision was illustrative of the political power that the so-called “pro-Israel lobby” wields in Europe and the US. People and organizations critical of Bar Ilan and Israeli policies are facing an onslaught from the likes of Dershowitz, Pike, Kramer and accusations of “anti-Semitism”. I have always been against racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular—the latter phenomenon has originated in Europe, but more recently has been imported into the Middle East by some Islamic fundamentalists. But abusing the concept of “anti-Semitism” in order to cover up for the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians has often been done by some of the participants of the Bar Ilan event, before, during and after the AUT motion. However despite the reversal, the case against Bar-Ilan University remains very strong. The University has remained one of the many driving forces behind the illegal settlement of occupied Palestinian territories since 1967, and the university is still complicit is supervising courses in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where Palestinians are subjected to ongoing confiscation of their land and daily disruption of their lives and their academic freedom.

I realize this is a sensitive subject for you. But this is also a personal plea from a Palestinian academic working in the West—to reconsider your participation in the Bar Ilan conference. Having one Palestinian academic taking part in this conference will have negative effects on our human rights campaign in the West. Of course I know the last thing you would wish is to be associated with Dershowitz and Co. Especially because you have got a good reputation among Palestinian academics both at home and in the West.