Amid the war in Gaza, academic institutions and student organisations, are perpetrating a dangerous witch hunt against Palestinian students and those opposing the war. Members of Socialist Struggle Movement (SSM — ISA in Israel-Palestine) on campus initiated, together with the organisation Academia for Equality, a protest letter against the persecution on behalf of students and teaching staff, and are calling for an organised struggle against it, and stop the war.
By AV, TK
(Originally published on socialism.org.il)
The war crisis — from the horrifying massacre in the south of the country, to the bombings in Gaza and the threat of overall military escalation in the region — spurred shock, grief, and fear, and critically deepened the national divide within the 1948 territories. This is illustrated on social media, which is flooded with nationalist incitement.
In this context, the managements of academic institutions, as well as heads of various student unions, are now playing a destructive role propelling a nationalist witch hunt campaign. Out of their political support for the military operations led by the government, they are cynically and demagogically excusing aggressive persecution on the basis of nationality or opposition to the war and national oppression, presenting it as ‘fighting terrorism’.
So far, hundreds of students and lecturers have been added to McCarthyist watchlists that demand — first and foremost, of the Arab-Palestinian community — to avoid any criticism of the reality of national oppression and government-led vengeance, an offensive that killed a record number in the Gaza Strip, including hundreds of children and babies. The war-mongering witch hunt organisers are working — based on their political agenda — to stir up a national ‘divide and rule’, and, at the end of the day, perpetuate the root causes of the war.
As early as the second day of the war and the shocking massacre in Southern Israel, the Rector of Haifa University, Gur Alroey — who previously announced his political refusal to serve as a reservist as a protest against a “government that is making Israel into an undemocratic country” — launched a letter to four Palestinian students, and later to another two, in which they were informed of their immediate suspension without a hearing, as well as their eviction from the university’s student dorms. This followed his conclusion that they “published posts that expressed clear support for the terrorism of Hamas and the murder of innocents”.
In response, 25 senior lecturers attacked this decision, calling it arbitrary and lacking in authority, and wondered: “which process of fact-finding did you manage to apply in the short time before enacting the aggressive step of suspension and eviction, when, as far as we know, the suspended students weren’t even given the right to tell their version of events”.
The Rector’s action added fuel to the fire and encouraged initiatives from extreme nationalist students across different campuses, who started watchlists against students who, according to them, ‘supported the enemy’ on social media. They even applied pressure on student unions and the management of academic institutions to formally head the political witch hunt campaign. University administrators accepted this demand, and published letters motivating students to monitor the social media activity of their peers, and to report any expression of ‘supporting the enemy’.
Student union leaders supporting persecution
The leadership of the national student union, headed by right-wing activist Elhanan Fellheimer, who worked against the democratic protest movement, and abandoned the students at the height of a grave economic crisis, is playing an active yet cynical role in this political persecution campaign.
One post, published by the union with the aim of encouraging the persecution, and which was shared thousands of times, featured five examples of social media posts that the right considers as ‘supporting terrorism’. None of these expressed a concrete backing of a terror attack, or given support for harming civilians — in fact, some of the posts included an objection to harm caused to babies and other innocent civilians, with one post apparently marked only because it showed a Palestinian flag.
As a matter of fact, Haifa University’s student union publicly admitted this: “the bar is lower than ever, and we condemn any behaviour that can be interpreted as one that encourages the Palestinian nation and supports terrorism. Freedom of expression, in our opinion, is dwarfed in this period!”. In other words, the right is looking for any excuse for a nationalist witch hunt, aiming to silence any criticism of the war and even stifle any basic empathy with the suffering of the besieged masses in Gaza as they are bombarded by the Israeli state.
It is particularly severe that the local and national student unions — that are allegedly meant to represent students and protect their rights — take an active part in leading this political persecution campaign, and encourage students to report on their peers. The witch hunt is first and foremost directed at Palestinian students, with Jewish right-wing activists promoting a demand to place Palestinian students under ‘loyalty’ tests for the government’s actions: if they don’t actively support the war in Gaza, they are classified as ‘terrorist supporters’.
Meanwhile, some Jewish students have been calling to ‘flatten Gaza,’ the home of more than 2 million people. This is essentially a call for state terrorist actions, including collective punishment and mass slaughter — but no academic institutions or student unions have taken any steps against these inciting voices online.
At Ben-Gurion University, management is actively renouncing any responsibility for dealing with racist incitement on university Facebook groups — as exposed by political activist of “Hadash/al-Jabha” and municipal candidate in Arraba, Wattan Madi. She suffered incitement from right-wing activists who claimed she was a terrorist supporter — in response to a post she published from a Hadash election assembly, prior to the war. Last year, Madi was targeted and forced through a disciplinary procedure stemming from far-right pressure, only because she read out a poem by respected Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, at a Nakba memorial service.
Thus, the witch hunt campaign follows years of political persecution against Palestinian students. Madi’s case is only one example of harassment and incitement against Nakba memorial ceremonies at academic institutions. Even routine activities on campus have been attacked: in the previous academic year, an Arabic book fair was cancelled by Tel Aviv University management.
For years, academic institutions have been allowing racist and far-right elements on campus with a free hand. This is now giving right-wing activists the push to lead a far-reaching political persecution campaign, whose goal is to whip up panic and fear, and create an atmosphere of surveillance and silencing. The policy of suspension without an enquiry spells a presumption of guilt unless proven otherwise, which also encourages right-wing activists to report old posts and even fake posts to make up ‘evidence’ for their complaint out of thin air.
Academic managements are conducting themselves in a hypocritical and racist manner. It’s also clear that the witch hunt doesn’t stop with students. For example, Likud Youth in Haifa vilified and published the names of the senior staff members who criticised the Rector, calling for their dismissal. This phenomenon doesn’t stop at academia: just this week, the Israeli Minister of Communications, Shlomo Karhi, announced that he is promoting some emergency regulations that will enable him to imprison civilians whose posts “hurt national morale”, and has promoted the banning of Al Jazeera.
Organising against ‘divide and rule’ and for an end to the war
Political persecution on campus is only going to deepen incidents of racism and discrimination, increase the lack of personal safety and security of students who are forced to study under a McCarthyist eye, and weaken the freedom of expression that is necessary for academic activity. Even the “Alliance of Academics for Israel Democracy”, an organisation of the Israeli democratic protest movement which has taken a sharp turn to the right in face of the developments, recognised this and published a declaration against social media tracking and surveillance of students. Against the backdrop of the horrors of the war, it is particularly important students and staff take a clear stance against racism and the witch hunt, as well as insist they have the right to criticise the government, together with the right to oppose the war.
As a first step, members of SSM on campus have initiated a protest letter against political persecution that was signed by hundreds and sent out on Monday (16.10), to the Council for Higher Education in Israel. This was done in collaboration with Academia for Equality, an organisation representing around 800 members of staff, which, together with Adalah Legal Centre, also set up a helpline for students who have been politically persecuted or racially discriminated against.
Only a few hours after the letter was circulated, we received a response from the head of the national student union, who’s a member of the Council for Higher Education. Fellheimer, who consistently chooses to invest union funds into silencing anti-government positions, cynically used the memory of the victims of the horrific massacre in Southern Israel in his letter to evade answering arguments that refute the examples of ‘support for terrorism’ that the union issued.
In his response, he claimed that freedom of expression “cannot transform into freedom of incitement”, and of course, failed to mention the racist and nationalist incitement on social media published by Jewish-Israelis, including the comments posted in response to the union’s announcement on social media.
In addition, Fellheimer committed to promoting the ban on using the Palestinian flag. This ban was vehemently opposed by the managements of academic institutions during the mass movement against the judicial reform, as it was seen as an “attempt to make university management into police officers, judges, and even executioners for transgressions that have nothing to do with academia”.
To oppose this, it is crucial for students, teaching and research staff, and campus workers, to organise against political persecution and the war. For this purpose, we must hold meetings to discuss concretely the next steps of the struggle, including applying a concentrated pressure on the unions to demand an end to the witch hunt, and an appeal for unions of academic staff to protect their members and other workers and students, also specifically against nationalist political persecution.
In the face of the witch hunt, the far-right, and the exploitation of the horrors of war to promote a repressive political agenda, those who object to the war and political persecution must clearly and vocally organise against it.