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

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

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

“Academics in Israel are striving for peace — maybe more than any other part of the Israel community,” Prof. Ran Barkai, who teaches prehistoric archeology at Tel Aviv University, said in an interview Wednesday from Israel.

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

“Good relations should be kept with them because they are the centre of sanity of Israel — if sanity can be reached it’s through people in universities … decreasing relations with Israel universities would only harm chances for peace.”

To the McGill and Concordia University branches of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, which are among the organizers of an encampment erected Saturday on the McGill campus, Israeli universities are complicit in the war and there is nothing to be gained through dialogue with them. They say the encampment will remain until their schools “cut all academic ties with Israeli institutions.”

Leo Corry, president of The Open University of Israel, is clear about the responsibility of academics in his country with regard to the conflict with the Palestinians. Professors, he said, like most other Israeli citizens, pay taxes and take part in the military — the state requires male citizens over 18 to serve in the defence forces for at least 32 months and women for at least 24 months.

“In a way we are all part of what happens 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’s pernicious and misleading and problematic.”

Israeli scientists, he said, and other academics have taken part in producing some of Israel’s defence weapons, like the Iron Dome, which was credited with helping to prevent serious damage or casualties from an unprecedented attack in April by Iran involving hundreds of drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

“Fortunately 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 any other place in the United States or Canada, you can shout or scream, but you’re not going to come to defend us when we need it, right? So we need to defend ourselves — but that doesn’t mean that whatever the army does, what the government or certain parts of society supports, is considered by me to be the correct thing to do.”

If Canadian scholars cut ties with Israeli universities, Barkai said, then academics in Canada lose the ability to influence Israeli intellectuals. International researchers can gain from the insight 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 Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a deadly attack on southern Israel, the country was wracked for months by civil unrest against Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox political allies, who were pressing ahead with plans to pass contentious changes to Israel’s judicial system.

Barkai said he and his colleagues were regular participants in those protests, adding that he is certain the government would have turned to weakening Israeli universities after it was done with the judiciary. Harming universities in Israel, including by isolating them from the international community, would only harm the most important forces that are acting against Netanyahu’s “regime” and attempting to replace it, he said.

“If there is a chance at change it comes within academia,” he said.

At the McGill protest encampment, protesters are vowing to stay despite the university’s decision to ask police to remove them. Daniel Schwartz, a McGill professor in Russian and German cinema, said he supports the encampment and the call for universities to cut links to Israeli research institutions.

There are a number of research collaborations with Israeli universities used for military purposes, he said, adding, “the end result of innocent people dying is something I can’t support.” Schwartz, who is Jewish, said Israeli universities deny Palestinian history, “which furthers dehumanization. And I feel a lot of these universities censor their own academics and undermine critical discourse.”

The Israel-Hamas war was sparked by the unprecedented Oct. 7 raid into southern Israel in which militants killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250 hostages. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to local health officials, and the war has driven around 80 per cent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million from their homes, caused vast destruction in several towns and cities and pushed 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

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press

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