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Al-Quds controversy highlights international complicity in the ongoing suffering in Palestine

Last month, the Palestinian movement Islamic Jihad staged a protest at Al-Quds University that sparked an international controversy, leading two American universities to take the decision to sever ties with the Palestinian university in occupied East Jerusalem.


While the protest, which was staged on 5 November, was indeed problematic for a number of reasons, the universities’ response was not only disproportionate and unjust, but also a perfect allegory for why the international community, and particularly those of us in the West, are complicit in the ongoing occupation of Palestine by placing the Jewish narrative of suffering above all other narratives of suffering, especially Palestinian.

The protest at the heart of the controversy featured Palestinians in military uniforms demonstrating against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Rather than questioning the appropriateness of a military style protest on a university campus, an action which ought to raise serious concerns that when interrogated would have ultimately led to an honest discussion of the ongoing occupation of Palestine, sustained in part by the mass presence of Israeli soldiers, weapons, and tanks on Palestinian lands, instead the two universities in question framed the protest as an anti-Semitic, even pro-Nazi, expression of hatred.

First, let us look at the two American universities that decided to cut ties with Al-Quds.

The first to caste Al-Quds into the cold was Brandeis University, a private institution in Waltham, Massachusetts that was founded in 1948 as a safe haven for Jews in particular, but which refused to institute quotas and was thus open to all “regardless of race, colour or creed”. One of the university’s founders was Israel Goldstein, an American-born Israeli rabbi, author and Zionist leader. During his lifetime Goldstein served as the head of the World Zionist Organisation, as well as the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organisation that has played a primary role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine throughout the last century.

As Dan Leon pointed out in the Palestine-Israel Journal, the British Hope Simpson report in 1930 found that Palestinians were “gradually being driven off the soil by Jewish land purchases and by the JNF not allowing Arab employment on Jewish tracts.” Since then, the JNF has played a key role in the establishment of Israeli parks on Palestinian lands. Today, Moriel Rothman, an American Israeli writer for the Huffington Post, describes how the JNF is leading “the campaign to demolish Bedouin villages in the Negev, [and] has recently been exposed as seeking to evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem.”

It is also important to note that Brandeis was originally meant to carry the name of Nobel laureate Albert Einstein, however he refused to lend his name to the university, and one of the reasons cited was his objection to Zionism. Indeed on 4 December 1948, Einstein, Hannah Arendt and 26 other Jewish intellectuals published a letter in the New York Times denouncing the Deir Yassin massacre on 9 April of that same year, describing how “terrorist bands attacked this peaceful village, which was not a military objective in the fighting, [killing] most of its [Palestinian] inhabitants,” including women and children.

The letter also warned that the Herut party in Israel, led by Menachem Begin, was “closely akin in its organisation, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” The letter continued, “It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr Begin’s political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents.” Of course Begin later became Prime Minister of Israel from 1977 to 1983. And in 1988, the Herut party merged with Likud, the party currently sharing power in Israel today.

The second university to denounce Al-Quds was Syracuse University in central New York, where I earned my doctorate. As I have previously reported for MEMO, Syracuse University has a partnership with the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) located at the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel. The partnership seeks to provide a new conceptual framework for the rules of war that legitimises the right of powerful states, including the US and Israel, to illegally invade and occupy Muslim and Arab lands by equating the resulting struggle for liberation with terrorism.

According to the university’s student-run newspaper, Kevin Quinn, the university’s senior vice president for public affairs, commented that: “We are very disappointed and saddened to have learned of these recent events at Al-Quds University. Syracuse University does not condone hatred or intolerance in any way.” But if that is really the case, then why is the university legitimising occupation and invasion through its research programme with ICT?

Simulations of violence versus actual violence

Now, let us consider the Islamic Jihad protest at the centre of the current controversy.

The protest featured young Palestinians, possibly students of Al-Quds University, dressed in black military uniforms and carrying mock assault weapons. The protesters trod on hand drawn Israeli flags and raised their hands in what was perceived to be a Nazi-style salute.

The Boston Globe described the protest as reeking of “anti-Semitic bloodlust”.

Such a protest, in an ideal world, certainly does not belong on any university campus, a supposedly pluralist space, and thus ought to be condemned. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and Palestinians are arguably living in Hell, as every day they must endure a brutal military occupation that seeks to make life so unbearable for them that they leave.

For example, less than two weeks after the Islamic Jihad protest, which merely simulated violence, Israeli occupation forces raided the Abu Dis campus of Al-Quds University in a real world expression of violence. According to one American student from the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution in Philadelphia, the assault lasted for around two hours, with Israeli soldiers possibly firing live ammunition. Clarissa O’Connor describes how during the raid, “Israeli soldiers even went right up to the closed gates of the university to shoot directly inside.” She adds that, “Walking back into campus after it was over, the shattered glass of the main doors showed where some of these canisters had hit.”

When Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds, cited this incident, the Zionist media dismissed it as a fabrication, in the same way that they deny that Israel is occupying Palestine. But with the evidence clearly suggesting otherwise, how is it that the international community continues to ignore the reality on the ground in favour of Zionist myths?

Narratives of suffering

In a recent satirical blog post for the Electronic Intifada, Arab American scholar Steven Salaita warns us that almost every colour is anti-Semitic because they all played a role in the Holocaust. He was responding to the Israeli foreign ministry’s suggestion that the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s decision to tag Israeli products with yellow stickers urging consumers to boycott them was a deliberate act of racism and incitement, because Nazis had forced Jews to wear yellow badges to identify themselves as Jewish.

While yellow may have been a particularly poor choice for the Irish protest, Salaita is raising an important point. When the world is being viewed through an exclusively Western, European and/or Jewish, rather than an inclusively human, lens, both the colour yellow and the hand salute must reference Nazism, because that is where all narratives start and end. It does not occur to us that the selection of yellow stickers was merely a coincidence for any given number of reasons, or that the hand salute could mean something else altogether.

As a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad told the Associated Press: “although similar, there is no connection between Islamic Jihad’s salute and that of the Nazis. The raised arm pointing towards the sky symbolizes a desire to reach holy Jerusalem, currently under Israeli control.” Considering that the group defines itself as an Islamic resistance movement, and that the status of East Jerusalem is, in fact, occupied according to international law, why is it impossible for us to imagine that this explanation could be a possibility?

Zionism and the impulse to create a Jewish state were clearly a response to the extreme anti-Semitism that plagued Europe and the colonies throughout much of Western history, which was horrifically realized in the mid-twentieth century during the Holocaust, resulting in some of the most egregious crimes against humanity that the world has ever witnessed. However we must also remember that the world did not commit these sins. Europeans did. And yet it is the Palestinians – Muslims and Christians alike – who are forced to assume the political consequences of this historical legacy of Western anti-Semitism, which I must add is still, quite tragically, not a relic of the past.

While human relations entangle our lives and histories in complex ways, and the role of anti-Semitism in Western thought and history ought to be universally recognised and categorically rejected, all humans do not equally share the burden of this history. People in the West do. Furthermore, there are many other histories of suffering and oppression that must also be universally recognised. Unfortunately, the international response to the Al-Quds University protest clearly shows that Western publics are still not ready to do so.

For example, when covering the controversy, the Associated Press reported that, “The military wing of Islamic Jihad is a violent militant group committed to Israel’s destruction. It has killed scores of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks.” And yet the wire service failed to mention directly that Palestine is occupied, or that Israel is an occupying power.

This is standard in the mainstream Western media and political discourse. Groups resisting occupation are always qualified with terrorist designations and diabolical intentions, whereas Israel is almost never mentioned as a settler colonial state or an occupying power.

Western complicity in the suffering of Palestinians

Is the problem that we in the West cannot recognise Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine? Or are we looking the other way to make ourselves feel less guilty about our own shameful history of anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Holocaust?

Ever since the hateful atrocities that were committed during World War II, systematic crimes that attempted to annihilate the existence of entire peoples, Jewish narratives of suffering have become privileged, even though Adolf Hitler also attempted to exterminate Slavs, the Roma people, communists and many others.

When Israel decided to try Adolf Eichmann, one of the major figures who orchestrated the Holocaust, Arendt attended the trial in Jerusalem. As Jewish American scholar Judith Butler has noted: “By writing about Eichmann, Arendt was trying to understand what was unprecedented in the Nazi genocide – not in order to establish the exceptional case for Israel, but in order to understand a crime against humanity, one that would acknowledge the destruction of Jews, Gypsies, gay people, communists, the disabled and the ill. Just as the failure to think was a failure to take into account the necessity and value that makes thinking possible [what Arendt referred to as the banality of evil], so the destruction and displacement of whole populations was an attack not only on those specific groups, but on humanity itself.” Indeed, ethnic cleansing is always a crime against humanity, full stop.

And this is why “Arendt objected to a specific nation-state conducting a trial of Eichmann exclusively in the name of its own population.” But perhaps one of the reasons why Israel tried Eichmann in the name of the Jewish population was because the international community, led by Western states, had failed to do so in the name of humanity. And if that is indeed the case, then this is a historical legacy that Western states and publics should be seeking to redress, not repeat, by ignoring the ongoing suffering of Palestinians.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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