Reportage. Faculty and students are facing suspensions, threats, complaints going from campuses to police stations, and attacks like the one in late October, with hundreds of Israeli extremists attempting to set fire to the Palestinian student dormitory in Netanya.

Everyone shut up: In Israel, universities put a gag on dissent

The alarm bells were already ringing, but few heard them. It was the spring of 2021 and the movement to defend the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah had spread like wildfire, going from East Jerusalem to fire up the West Bank and the streets of Israeli cities, after years of quiet.

The Palestinians of ’48 rose up, and Israeli extremism responded in turn: settlers and right-wing groups came armed and clashes took place at night in Led, Ramle, Tel Aviv, Haifa. “At that moment, we realized that something was changing inside Israel.”

Matan Kaminer is an anthropologist and one of the representatives of Academia for Equality, an association founded a decade ago. It has about 850 members, committed to the struggle for democratization and against discrimination inside Israeli academic institutions.

“In 2021 we witnessed a first major crackdown on university campuses. Now we are in crisis mode. In the first two months after October 7, everything fell apart: Palestinians were not allowed to open their mouths, to say anything. What was new in that? We discovered that leftist Jews were also not allowed to open their mouths.”

Faculty and students are facing suspensions, threats, complaints going from campuses to police stations, and attacks like the one in late October, with hundreds of Israeli extremists attempting to set fire to the Palestinian student dormitory in Netanya. All over a Facebook or Instagram post or public statement that “says no to war or points out that there are civilians in Gaza.”

The hundreds of “targeted” students and faculty were subjected to the same process, according to the Adalah Law Center: complaints filed by the Israeli Students Union and other right-wing student organizations directed at the university leadership, which, on the basis of a “zero tolerance” policy, initiated disciplinary proceedings and involved the police.

The orders were issued by the minister of education, Yoav Kisch, and the disciplinary committees went on to flout their own internal statutes, asserting authority they do not have. There was no action taken for the opposite crime: incitement and violence against Palestinians and leftist Israelis.

In the first two months, 113 Palestinian students were suspended, 79% women and 21% men. In 47% of the cases, according to Adalah, the suspension was immediate, without any internal due process. The students were expelled in eight cases. To date, about 160 students have ended up before disciplinary committees at 34 different academic institutions.

Sawsan Zaher is the legal advisor to the Emergency Coalition, which was set up with great foresight in late 2022 when the new ultra-right government took office. Zaher represents a number of students suspended for posts on social media: “Immediately after October 7, some Facebook pages started following the accounts of students, ordinary citizens, activists, Palestinian influencers. They were taking screenshots of posts and sending them to workplaces and universities.”

This is what happened to one of his clients: he had just finished law school, then October 7 came. On that morning, he posted on social media one of the photos that had gone viral at the time: an Israeli tank inside Gaza, surrounded by people.

The next day he found that his post was being shared in WhatsApp groups that included other students in his class, eliciting very worrying reactions: “terrorist,” “we’ll kill you,” “kill him.”

“A few days later, he was suspended,” Zaher recounts. “He had already finished his studies, but they didn’t want to give him his diploma.” He is now enrolled in a master’s degree program at Haifa University, but nothing has changed: he is terrified by threats from his new colleagues over that social media post, and he has yet to attend classes. “Even worse: Haifa University turned to the police. They arrested him for 12 days on charges of incitement. He is now free, but the investigation continues.”

Another student told a similar story: she was arrested at 3 a.m. in mid-November, taken away in her pajamas. She remained in jail for a week. “She was freed in the exchange between Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners during the ceasefire at the end of November,” Zaher continues. “The Israeli authorities did not consult us. Putting her on that list means branding her forever. Israel’s goal is political: to push the idea that all Palestinians are Hamas, that your fellow student is too. The damage is compounded by the authorities’ lies: she was released as part of the exchange, but the investigation continues and she can still be convicted of incitement.” Meanwhile, her college has kicked her out: they don’t want to deal with a “terrorist.”

And then there are the teachers: six have been suspended, including Israeli Uri Horesh and Palestinian Warda Sada, and many publicly condemned (with unofficial calls for their resignation), including such well-known names as the Israeli Nurit Peled and the Palestinian Nader Shalhoub-Kevorkian, “guilty” of putting their signature to calls for a ceasefire.

“For the first time, even Israeli Jews were afraid to speak out,” Kaminer pointed out. “The first two months were very hard. Campuses were empty, classes suspended. This, combined with the bans on taking to the streets, pushed many to keep quiet. With the reopening of campuses in January, repression has become ‘institutionalized.’ But it is only an appearance: what is concerning is the air of McCarthyism in the universities. Students and right-wing student movements are denouncing colleagues and professors.”

Kaminer recounts the cases of Israeli professors and deans being targeted for their political views: threats from students forced them to step down. How can one continue one’s work in such conditions?

“The pressure is twofold, from above and from below,” Kaminer stresses. “For the Palestinians, it is effective: many have stopped coming to class, there is a significant drop in their attendance. The universities used to be the only real place of meeting and debate in Israel between Jews and Palestinians, otherwise we’re living separate lives. There used to be a shared public space on the campuses. This is why the right wing wants to destroy it, as they’re saying openly.”

And many people are forcibly emigrating. The phenomenon is growing, and the post-October 7 period has only amplified it: Israeli intellectuals are going out in search of more freedom.

Kaminer would have liked to stay, but left Hebrew University for Queen Mary in London: “No one will ever tell you it’s hard to find a position because of your political views. But there is little space in the universities for left-wing, or even just liberal voices.”

One of those leaving is A. C., a professor of political science of Palestinian origin that had returned after years abroad. A few weeks later, the war began. He couldn’t get a job. “The university is not a neutral place,” he tells us. “They even go after researchers who have been in Israeli institutions for years. I thought I would be in a privileged position, after years of teaching in Europe. Instead, I have no opportunities.”

“Before, the discrimination was invisible. Consider, for instance, the lack of recognition of the Palestinian universities in the Occupied Territories. People who graduate from Al Quds, Birzeit or An-Najah in Nablus are not recognized by Israeli institutions. They can work anywhere in the world, but not in Israel. East Jerusalem’s Al-Quds started the latest registration process 15 years ago – still no response. Nevertheless, it is globally recognized. Israel doesn’t want Palestinian cultural institutions in East Jerusalem and is hoping to push Palestinians to study in the West Bank and then stay there and work.”

Here, at the universities in the Occupied Territories, the situation is no better. The problem is money and freedom of movement. “Lectures conducted remotely, faculty with their salaries halved,” continues A. C., “and students whose enrollment is suspended because their parents, being jobless, have no money to pay their tuition.”

Obay is studying at Al Quds. Every day he has to go through a checkpoint to get to campus. With the closures imposed since October 7, an already-difficult journey has turned downright surreal. “There’s also a Jerusalem art history course In my curriculum. We’re supposed to take tours of the city. We are doing them remotely, pretending we’re going through the Old City.”

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