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October 6, 2016 2:00 pm

Mideast Scholars: Anti-Israel Professors in US Ignoring Violent Suppression of Academic Freedom on Palestinian Campuses

avatar by Rachel Frommer

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A class at Birzeit University near Ramallah, in the PA. Photo: Wikipedia.

A class at Birzeit University near Ramallah, in the PA. Photo: Wikipedia.

Academic freedom on campuses in Palestinian Authority (PA) controlled areas is suppressed by a surrounding societal culture of intimidation and violence — something that anti-Israel professors in the United States have been ignoring, two scholars told The Algemeiner this week.

Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) — who recently penned an article about the radicalization of Palestinian students — and Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), said that aggressive, sometimes life-threatening tactics are employed on West Bank campuses to stifle thinkers who may question or contradict the mainstream Palestinian narrative.

Nelson said Palestinian students are “weaponized” by terrorist groups to intimidate academics into conforming to a strict Islamist ideology; Romirowsky claimed Palestinian education culture is one that uses the cover of academic freedom  to “perpetuate hate.”

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Nelson recounted a conversation he had with a Palestinian faculty member, who described West Bank campuses as filled with “gangs of young students trained by Hamas, the terrorist organization that rules Gaza, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction to threaten staff, burn cars, kill and beat” and bemoaned the fate of fellow academics who would like to engage in genuine scholarship, but face a “crazed level of intimidation.”

“Most Palestinian academics are not honest about what’s happening in the pedagogy of Palestinian children,” Romirowsky said. “A majority of the society is a product of the one-sided UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] system that glorifies martyrdom” and promotes “group-think about historical narratives.”

According to Romirowsky, Hamas and Fatah know “academia is an agent of influence,” and they use the education system to dictate what Palestinian students think about Israel and Jews, and shape how Westerners view the Middle East conflict.

Romirowsky specifically criticized Palestinian Holocaust education, in which, he said, “The Jewish experience is not only equated directly to the Nakba [Arabic for ‘catastrophe,’ as Palestinians refer to the 1948 Israeli War of Independence], but Jews are Nazis.” He added that a popular Palestinian academic view is that “the Holocaust is the entire reason for Israel’s establishment, and therefore led to the Nakba.” According to Romirowsky, this paradigm “promotes the Arab-Palestinian narrative of diminishing the Holocaust,” and delegitimizes Jewish suffering. Any attempt to disrupt the furthering of this account is violently suppressed, he said.

Pointing to a passage in Nelson’s article — about the assassination attempt against former al-Quds University political science professor Mohammed Dajani, after he took a group of his students to Poland to tour Auschwitz — Romirowsky said Dajani “tried to break the Palestinian group-think mentality about the Holocaust and understand the Jewish experience. That’s not allowed.”

He said incidents like this “should raise eyebrows” in the West, but don’t.

Another problem, Nelson said, is that though many faculty and administrators at universities in the PA appreciate a Western concept of academic freedom,”They don’t understand it perfectly, and therefore are not teaching their students what it is.”

Nelson and Romirowsky also bemoaned the lack of knowledge about this phenomenon on the part of American academics who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movements (BDS).

“When Western scholars see images of Israeli forces storming Palestinian campuses where there are active terror strongholds, they buy the baseless claim that Israel is responsible for constraining Palestinian academic freedom,” Nelson said, adding that American professors who want to stand up for academic freedom should know their real enemy is not Israel, but the perpetrators of terror who silence scholarship on Palestinian campuses.

His explanation for why “rational scholars embrace the loud and irrational BDS movement” was that they are “ignorant [about the Middle East] and eager to adopt an anti-Israel stance rather than learn more, thinking they are standing up for truth and social justice.”

“Most Americans don’t understand that the West Bank isn’t Kansas,” Nelson said. “US universities may be volatile, but students attending them aren’t threatening to kill faculty members.”

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