Over the last two days, scholars from all over the world have met in London to take part in the conference ‘Remembering Jerusalem’; the conference was held in the beautiful surroundings of King’s College London and organised by the Imagining Jerusalem project. I heard fascinating and innovative papers on a very wide variety of topics.
Three examples will demonstrate the diversity of materials discussed: Nabil Matar (Minnesota) gave a subtle and detailed account, in his plenary lecture, of Islamic traditions concerning the Cradle of Jesus and Oratory of Mary at the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif); he repudiated the use of the word ‘Crusade’, preferring instead the term ‘Frankish invasion.’ Malka Greenberg Raanan (Hebrew University) presented her important, and timely work, tracking the routes women take through contemporary Jerusalem; using interviews, maps, and GPS, Greenberg Raanan was able to show how women from across Jerusalem are both corralled by, and sometimes able to subvert, their complex and segregated urban landscape. Shimrit Shriki (Hebrew University) gave a highly insightful paper about the post-World War Two secularisation of Calvary monuments in Austria, including one in which Lenin appeared as one of Christ’s persecutors.
I was honoured to have been invited to give one of three plenary lectures (for those interested, my PowerPoint presentation can be viewed here). However, in the days before the conference, when I sat down to compose my thoughts, I found it hard to concentrate, because of a piece of exceptionally distressing news: the East Jerusalem home of one delegate to the conference, Dr Mutasem Adileh (Al Quds University), had been demolished on 29 September, as part of a programme of house demolitions in the area. Dr Adileh had therefore been forced to withdraw from the conference.
The horror of having one’s home arbitrarily demolished, without due process, is hard to conceive. The Israeli policy and programme of house demolitions is unjust, cruel, short-sighted, probably illegal, and certainly unethical. The hugely informative website of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions gives a lot more information in this regard; an article today in the London Daily Telegraph puts the demolition of houses in East Jerusalem into its wider national and political contexts; the issue of house demolitions in Jerusalem is the subject of an even-handed piece in The Economist last week, warning that Israel’s actions are feeding the ‘resentful segregation’ of Jerusalem’s inhabitants.
These are large questions, and outside my academic expertise. Yet this is the second time this year that Palestinian speakers at conferences I have attended have been unable to present their work due to the actions of the State of Israel: at a conference in Jerusalem in July, delegates from around the world were able to gather, but, due to roadblocks and curfews, a respected Palestinian historian from East Jerusalem was not able to travel a couple of kilometres to give a plenary lecture about his own city. The dire situation in Jerusalem thus has a significant bearing on the academic community and the ability of Palestinian scholars to participate in their scholarly world. Despite much heated talk about academic boycotts of Israel, the scholars who seem to be losing out are not Israelis, but Palestinians.
The International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom (IAB) at Bar-Ilan University is an Israeli anti-boycott organisation; its website contains various noble statements, for instance:
As required from any academic institution, Universities should not be subject to government interference. The university system must be based upon the premise of academic freedom, research and critical thinking, in which staff and students enjoy a platform that not only enables, but systematically encourages freedom of thought and expression.
Who could disagree? The IAB talks about the ‘unfortunate and anti-democratic tendency’ of the boycott movement, but unfortunately its website doesn’t seem to extend its critique to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, including Palestinian academics. The IAB says that it ‘refrains from politics and addresses only matters of academic freedom and additional academic principles’, but, as the cases I have described show, ‘matters of academic freedom’ are inextricably linked to ‘politics.’ The conceptual sophistication with which the idea of a boycott is treated seems starkly opposed to the brutality of having one’s house demolished.
The IAB website does include a letter from Dr Sari Nusseibeh (president of Al Quds University), in which Nusseibeh argues against academic boycotts: he writes,
an international academic boycott of Israel, on pro Palestinian grounds, is self-defeating: it would only succeed in weakening that strategically important bridge through which the state of war between Israelis and Palestinians could be ended, and Palestinian rights could therefore be restored. Instead of burning that bridge the international academy should do everything within its power to strengthen it, including, foremost, through its own collaborative intervention.
The organisers of the London conference had thoughtfully assembled a diverse range of scholars, from Israel, Palestine, and many other countries: ‘collaborative intervention’ at work. But such collaboration was, in this case, prevented, as our Palestinian colleague was unable to attend the conference.
It is important that we acknowledge the ways in which the imbalance of power in Israel and Palestine has an effect on the constitution of our academic community. If you would like to show your support for some of the many organisations working to uphold the rule of law and human rights in Israel and Palestine, an online donation can be made to the relevant organisations by following these links:
Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (UK): http://uk.icahd.org/support.asp?menu=7&submenu=2
Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel: http://adalah.org/eng/category/100/Donate/1/0/0/