American Universities Say Yes to Apartheid
A letter from Gaza appeared on the Web dated September 24, 2010. It was from a group of Gaza academics and students and sought to publicize the fact that eight American universities have recently signed agreements with various Israeli universities to offer U.S. students free semester long programs in Israel. Among the American universities participating in this venture are Harvard, Columbia and Michigan.
The Gaza academics and students expressed shock at this turn of events. And so they might given the fact that they are sitting in an outdoor prison of Israeli making and have seen their educational institutions both starved of resources by an Israeli blockade and literally bombed to rubble by Israeli warplanes. The situation in Gaza is but the worst of a bad situation for all Palestinians, including those in the West Bank and Israel proper. When it comes to education in all of these locales apartheid policies are in place to interfere with Palestinian students and teachers and minimize the educational experience. Actually, this is part of an unspoken strategy of cultural genocide. Such policies are directly or indirectly supported by the Israeli academic institutions to which the participating American universities now want to send their students.
How can these U.S. universities do this? This is certainly a legitimate question in an age when discrimination and racism are, supposedly, no longer socially or politically acceptable. After all Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, etc. are institutions of higher learning housed in a country that prides itself on broad civil rights laws and all of them adhere to social equity rules. Yet here they are climbing into academic bed, so to speak, with a state that practices apartheid against its non-Jewish minority and is attempting to ethnically cleanse the indigenous population of the Occupied Territories.
Well, there are any number of scenarios that might lead them to this sort of hellish arrangement and here I offer only one possibility. It assumes an “Adolf Eichmann context.”
1. The realm of the bureaucrat
The people in control of American universities (and perhaps all universities) are mostly bureaucrats. Some of them are trained in the specialty field of higher education administration, some are professors who have crossed over to an administrative career line, and some are just folks hired from the general population pool to run sub-departments such as public relations and accounting. They are all trained to pay lip service to various sorts of mission statements and assessment markers, however their lives are really very insular and their goals narrow and short term. For instance, even at the highest level, say the office of the university president, there are usually but a few major goals, and the main one in this case is to raise money.
Somewhere in the organizational chart is an office of overseas programs (or some similar title). It is usually a small operation with a director and a secretary. Their job is to set up exchange programs. What they are looking for are programs at overseas schools that are roughly similar in quality to the courses their own institution offers. That way the credits can be legitimately transferred back home and stand in for some of their student’s degree requirements. The people who are arranging these exchanges usually know little or nothing of the social or political situation in the overseas institution’s country. And, they are not likely to educate themselves on these subjects beyond some assurance that the place is relatively safe for the students that will be participating in the exchange. It may be hard for those of us who are so focused on Israeli apartheid to accept this, but for most of the folks in these little offices, Israel has about the same cachet as the Czech Republic or maybe Ireland. There is a lot of ignorance at his level.
2. What else is going on?
Of course, that is not the end of the story. There are other folks out there, most of whom are indirectly associated with the university in question. These people know that there is a war going on against apartheid Israel, and they are not on our side. They want to counter the increasingly effective process of “chipping away at Israel’s legitimacy.” They also have deep pockets and lots of influence. These folks may be big donors to these universities and some of them may well sit on the institution’s board of governors/regents.
When the president or his representative goes out to raise money these donors have what appears to be innocuous conditions for their gifts. So they say to president x or y, “sure we will give you half a million dollars for that new sports complex you so covet, but in return we want you to create this exchange program with Hebrew and Haifa U.” The president thinks that this is little enough to ask for such a generous gift, and his friend on the board of governors/regents seconds the motion. A telephone call is made to the director of overseas programs who is given a contact name and number at the Israeli embassy to get things rolling. And that is how it happens.
3. What comes next?
Soon enough this arrangement becomes public. You have to figure if they know about it in Gaza, they know about in Cambridge, Ann Arbor and upper Manhattan. Given the times there will probably be some sort of public protest, but the ensuing struggle will not be easy for the following reasons:
a. The university position will almost certainly be that to shun Israel is a violation of academic freedom, free inquiry, and the essential non-political status of learning. This sort of argument is age old. The U.S. universities were making it when they were asked to divest from apartheid South Africa and stop research funded by the “Defense” Department during the Vietnam war. One can never lay this argument to rest in any final way because it represents a cherished, if somewhat unreal, ideal.
So you point out for the one thousandth time that there is an inherent contradiction when you take this position relative to Israeli universities just because they do not promote these academic ideals. They are destroyers of free thought and free inquiry as far as Palestinian rights (and particularly the right of education) are concerned. And so if the ideal of a non-political status for learning exists anywhere in the real world, it ain’t in Israel. The whole Zionist academic setup has been criticized by international as well as Israeli human rights organizations for these anti-educational activities. And finally, you try to tell the university decision makers that there is precedent for universities taking a stand against apartheid practices. At this point you notice that they have, figuratively, clicked on their I-pods and are no longer listening.
b. Next you go to the professors of the institution and try to explain the same thing. That is when you come to the stomach wrenching realization that most of them do not care. Most academics are as specialized as the bureaucrats, and live their lives in just as insular a world. They know a lot about their sub-field and very little beyond it. They are dedicated to their families and their local communities and are, on the whole, decent people, but they are not interested, nor are they going to hit the street, for oppressed people far away. This is particularly true when their local news sources have been systematically libeling those people for sixty plus years. They too will hide behind the idea of academic freedom.
It should be noted that this is not quite the same thing as Julien Benda’s “treason of the intellectuals.” There is very little spouting of national chauvinism or the racism of Islamophobia (except for the Zionists professors among them). No, it is just co-option into the system. It is just natural localism-I really just want to live my life and work in my lab or library cubicle, etc. I am reluctant to get too annoyed at my fellow academics for this attitude, because theirs is the immemorial stance of all ordinary folks everywhere.
c. So that leaves the students, and here there is a much better chance to gather a crowd and take a stand. There is always a socially conscious group among the youth who are willing to fight for a good cause and risk defying the powers that be. This is because they have yet to become ensconced in the system, bogged down with career, family, mortgage and the like. In other words, some of them have not yet shrunk into an insular world of very local interests and goals. And those are the people who will protest, if anyone will, at the ivy towers of Harvard, Columbia, Michigan and the five other schools which have willed their own corruption.
4. What are the odds of victory?
Whether anyone will listen to the protesters depends on how many there are, how loud they protest and how far they are willing to go with it. Are they willing to go into the dormitories and spread the word? Are they willing to picket not only the ordinary centers of power on campus, but also the admissions office when prospective students come to visit, or demonstrate on home-coming day and at all the football games? Are they willing to hunt for donors who might say they will not give if their institution partners with Israel? Are they willing to occupy the president’s office and thereby risk arrest? Are they willing to keep all of this up for weeks on end? It might take all of these sorts of activities to even have a chance at winning this contest.
And even so the odds are not good. Essentially, you have to create such a cost to the institution in trouble and bad publicity that it outweighs that donor’s half a million dollars and/or the anger of the fellow on the board/regents. If in the end you do not win, you have to understand that it is not wholly a defeat. After all, you have certainly raised consciousness. In other words, you have set the stage for the next battle and made that one a little easier to win. So you have to have the energy to fight again and again. It is a scenario wherein youth is a definite plus.
There is another way in which the mounting a serious protest at any of these schools must constitute a victory. And that is the fact that such a protest will demonstrate to the academics and students in Gaza and the rest of Palestine that the world has not abandoned them, that they have allies and their struggle is now a worldwide one. In the short run, that might be the most important victory of all.
Here is quote from the American academic Richard Hofstadter, “A university’s essential character is that of being a center of free inquiry and criticism-a thing not to be sacrificed for anything else.” If this so (and all the leaders of the institutions involved in these exchanges will undoubtedly agree) then why are these eight universities sending their students off to Israeli schools that cooperate with state policies that deny just these sacrosanct pursuits to persecuted Palestinians? Why are they sending their students to a country that seeks to silence, at all levels of society, any free inquiry and criticism of its racist and oppressive national ideology? Why are they cooperating with institutions that have state dictated policies (for instance, admissions policies) that would be illegal in the United States? Do they condone such behaviors? If they go through with these exchange programs the answer is, for all intents and purposes, yes, they do. Essentially, they now lend themselves to the destruction of the very educational virtues they claim to cherish.
* Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University. He is the author of numerous books, including Islamic Fundamentalism and America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood.