Red Alert: Academic freedom in the struggle for freedom: Israel today, Palestine and apartheid South Africa
By Cde Blade Nzimande (Dr)
Wednesday, 06 August 2014, University of Johannesburg
Professor Farid Esack,
Professor Ilan Pappe,
Professor Pappe, let me acknowledge your outstanding role and contribution in combating the Zionist myth that in creating the State of Israel, the settlers were taking a "Land without people for a people without land";
Organisers of the event, the University of Johannesburg Palestine Solidarity Forum; Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions South Africa; Muslim View newspaper;
Academics, university staff, students and members of various communities and organisations here present;
Formations of the Progressive Youth Alliance, African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), Congress of South African Students (COSAS), South African Student Congress (SASCO) and the Young Communist League of South Africa (YCLSA),
First of all I would like to greet, all who are here present on behalf of all those South Africans who value democracy and hate oppression. I would also like to thank the organisers for inviting our distinguished guests, Professor Ilan Pappe, our own Professor Farid Esack, and most importantly for arranging this gathering so that we can hear in detail and engage about the restrictions on academic freedom in the State of Israel compared to the South Africa of the past.
Today, we express our solidarity with the oppressed people of Palestine. We are outraged, in particular at the continuing vicious campaign waged by the State of Israel on the Palestinian people, who have clearly been massacred for the crime of demanding the return of their land and self-determination. This genocidal campaign must be condemned in the strongest terms possible.
Since the beginning of July this year, Israel has killed over 1 400 Palestinians through bombardment from air, sea and land. More than 4 000 Palestinians have been injured, many of them are in critical condition and will never live normal lives again. Hundreds have required amputations in order to save their lives. More than 2 000 Palestinian homes have been demolished or severely damaged. Schools, hospitals and health centres have also been destroyed. Electricity, water and sanitation infrastructure has been smashed, affecting over 95% of the population in the Gaza Strip. Two United Nations refugee centres have been bombed in this state terror, and over 180 000 people have been displaced.
As we condemn these actions, we should keep in mind that this latest bombing of, and incursion into Gaza is only the latest of many outrages that have marked the past seventy years of violent and cruel oppression of the Palestinian people. In this period, the State of Israel has killed many thousands of Palestinians and chased hundreds of thousands if not millions from their land.
We should keep in mind also that the dispossession continues as more and more land continues to be colonised by Jewish Israeli settlers. One gets the strong impression that despite Israel's apparent acceptance of a two-state solution, their actual aim is to make such a settlement of the conflict impossible by creating a fait accompli in which it has effectively taken over all the land on which Palestinians live.
This conflict in the Middle East is often portrayed as a religious conflict. But a more careful examination of the conflict and the history surrounding it shows that this is not so. Muslims and Jews have spent most of the last thousand years living together in peace. In fact until the mid-twentieth century, most conflicts among followers of the great religions were between Christians and Jews. In Christian Europe, Jews were persecuted through the Middle Ages and into the modern period. Jews living under Muslim rule, for example in the Ottoman Empire, lived under far more tolerant regimes. It should not be surprising to hear this. After all, the pogroms in Tsarist Russia and the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s were not perpetuated by Muslims, but by Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic Christians.
The truth is that the conflict in the Middle East is the result of western imperialism in partnership with Zionism. It is a form of settler colonialism as was the case in African countries such as Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa. The suppression of the indigenous Palestinians, their physical segregation into ghettos and the restriction on their movement and of their political, social, economic and cultural rights, is clearly reminiscent of apartheid. There are differences of course between Zionist Israel and apartheid South Africa, owing to differing histories and contexts, but fundamentally they are undoubtedly very similar.
It is in the context of this State terror that academic freedom has been severely restricted. Professor Pappe, in your recent book Out of the frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel (2010), you succinctly reflect on ‘The battle for the historiography of 1948'. This describes a painful personal account of the way in which you and others were blocked from convening a conference ‘to present recent developments both in Israeli and Palestinian historiography on the 1948 war and the Nakbah' - that is the Palestinian catastrophe during which over 700 000 people were evicted from their homeland. We feel great anguish at the persecution of those who were simply attempting to arrive at the truth through the exercise of academic freedom.
We are aware any attempt to seriously investigate the ethnic origins of either modern day Jews or of Palestinians in Israel is consistently opposed. We are aware, for example, that the theory pointing to much of the ancestry of European Jewry being derived from the Khazars, a Turkic speaking people who converted to Judaism in the 8th century CE, is vehemently denied without research. The fact that Palestinians are the descendants of all the people who have inhabited that land, including the ancient Jews, is denied any extensive research.
This is reminiscent of the way in which the colonial and apartheid authorities in South Africa sought to justify their occupation of our land. As one of our leading intellectuals and struggle heroes Michael Harmel (A. Lerumo) reminds us in his book Fifty Fighting Years by quoting from the South African Communist Party (SACP) Programme (1962), ‘The Road to South African Freedom':
‘The White ruling classes, and especially the leaders of the Nationalist Party have manufactured a version of the past and present of this country which they systematically attempt to impose everywhere, from the schoolroom to international opinion. According to this picture the early White settlers penetrated peacefully into a virtually unoccupied country. The African population, who are depicted as savage barbarians without culture, achievements or history, are represented as relative newcomers who entered the country at about the same time as the Whites, and conducted aggressive wars and raids against them. The impression is given that African occupation was always more or less confined to the present Reserves - the 'Bantu Homelands'. This version of South Africa's past is entirely false.'
Similar versions behind the establishment of the State of Israel in Palestine have been manufactured. The view that the white settlers in South Africa entered a largely empty land is disproved and by archaeologists at Mapungubwe and elsewhere, as well as many eminent social scientists and historians such as Monica Wilson and Shula Marks.
Michael Harmel was one of the many white South Africans including academics and whole families who opposed colonialism and apartheid, David Ivon Jones, Bram Fischer, Jack Simons, Ray Alexander, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Bettie du Toit, SP Bunting, Brian Bunting, David Webster, Beyers Naude, Helen Joseph, Nadine Gordimer, Denis Goldberg, Derek Hanekom and Jeremy Cronin, to mention but a few. These and many other heroes of our struggle for freedom put aside the advantages and privileges of being white in South Africa, and challenged the very oppressive system which guaranteed those advantages and privileges. Professor Pappe, despite the fact that you are an Israeli Jew, your activism not only for academic freedom, but also in the struggle for the freedom of the Palestinians, places you in the same ranks as our white heroes - many of whom were jailed, tortured, forced into exile or even killed. We hope that many other Israelis will take their cue from your example.
The episode you experienced surrounding your work on the historiography of 1948, particularly how your conference on this subject was supressed for reasons which were ‘ideological, not administrative' (Pappe 2010, p.126), highlights the way that ideological forms of repression and indoctrination are used to complement and justify the violence with which the Palestinian people have been expropriated. The totality of the measures adopted by the State of Israel against the Palestinians is similar to, or even worse than, what happened in South Africa during the colonial and apartheid era. We cannot agree with you more when you say that:
‘The episode illustrated forcefully why the boycott of Israeli academia by university staff abroad was justified, not only as part of the overall pressure on the Jewish state to end its brutal occupation, but also as a warning to the academic community in Israel that protracted moral cowardice had a price tag on it. As long as Israeli academia continued to exercise intimidation and tyranny on its own campuses and was silent about the destruction of academic life in the Occupied Territories, it could not be part of the enlightened and progressive world to which it wanted so eagerly to belong' (Pappe 2010, p.130).
The University of Johannesburg became the first university in South Africa and the world to terminate academic relations with an Israeli institution of learning, Ben-Gurion University. Due to our own history, it did not come as a surprise that the struggle for academic freedom and the academic boycott of Israel intensified in South Africa before any other country. The University of Johannesburg had the support of an overwhelming number of students, academics, struggle icons, community, non-governmental and workers organisations.
The decision by the university is an inspiration first to the Palestinians and then to progressive Israeli academics, institutions of higher learning and progressive organisations across the world. Subsequent to this decision, various university structures across the world are beginning to adopt "Boycott Israel" resolutions. This includes some structures in U.S. universities. The American Studies Association endorsed a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Student bodies on various campuses of the University of California adopted divestment resolutions on Israel. The African Literature Association has also adopted boycott and divestment resolutions. In my capacity as Minister of Higher Education and Training, I strongly urge other South African universities to review their ties with Israel and seriously consider joining the "Boycott Israel" campaign. Some South African institutions boast about their opposition to apartheid; let them now demonstrate that they are also opposed to the oppression of the Palestinian people. For those institutions that supported and propped up the apartheid system, this is the opportunity to redeem themselves. Internationally, such campaigns are usually led by academic and non-academic staff and by students. Perhaps in this instance they should take the initiative in South Africa as well.
As the South African experience of the 16 June 1976 student uprising shows, struggles over matters of curriculum, which include academic freedom, language policy and the content of learning and teaching, are not isolated phenomena, they are not independent from the struggles on the broader economic, social and political conditions. The content of learning and teaching in both schools and universities in South Africa, the research agenda and other discourses in academia were in general supportive of the system of racial oppression and segregation.
Just as security officials were unleashed to terminate your conference, Professor Pappe, on the historiography of 1948 at the University of Haifa in Israel, here in South Africa similar things happened to suppress academic freedom. In schools, inspectors were dispatched to detect any deviation from the apartheid official line. Heads of schools and higher education institutions were expected to play the role of ideological police, and many did so with various degrees of willingness. There are parallels to this in Israel and Palestine - with the Israeli regime constantly trying to suppress ideas they find unpalatable.
However, progressive academics and students in apartheid South Africa as well as in Israel and Palestine provided intellectual support to the cause of liberation, often at risk to their own safety: some were banned, others were imprisoned and some, like Abram Tiro and Rick Turner, were gunned down by murderers dispatched by the regime. Today, when there are no political restrictions with regard to the curriculum, I feel, it is incumbent on our academics to infuse their curricula with a liberatory content and to tell their students about the injustices perpetuated in other parts of the world such as Palestine.
The struggle for academic freedom should not be seen to be isolated from the other freedoms which in South Africa are enshrined in the Bill of Rights which is based on the ‘Freedom Charter'. Academic freedom is inextricably intertwined with other rights and freedoms: the right to life is supreme; citizenship; freedoms of expression, association, movement, religion, belief and opinion; political rights, assembly, picketing and demonstration, to mention but a few. The Palestinians are denied access to these rights and freedoms. As happened to progressive whites in South Africa who supported the struggle for freedom, those Israelis who support Palestinian freedom are denied many of these rights too.
Another challenge facing academic freedom is the imposition in institutions of learning of a one-sided worldview based on a very limited concept of freedom. This is a concept of freedom based on neo-liberalism that emphasises the freedom to exploit workers and to move capital around the world at will, the freedom of rich countries and rich classes to dominate economies and to shape the world in their own interests. This unfortunately is the worldview that is still dominant in our university social and humanities curricula. This kind of freedom is directly in opposition to the freedom of the majority of the world's people.
Distinguished guests and all here present,
According to latest reports (Tuesday, 5 August) the Israeli government announced the withdrawal of troops from Gaza. This must be seen as a response to the pressure from the rest of the world in support of the freedom of the Palestinians and in opposition to the terror that the State of Israel unleashed. The role of academic boycott as part of this general pressure should not be underestimated.
Lastly, let us all work to make the Boycott Israel campaign effective - not only in the form of an academic boycott. Let us use people's sanctions against Israel as effectively as the international anti-apartheid movement did so against apartheid South Africa. The Palestinians will resist oppression in any way that they can. However, it is the duty of democratic forces across the world to support them in any way that we can. Let us campaign to persuade South Africans not to buy Israeli consumer goods and South African businesses not to import Israeli products of any kind. Let us research ways in which the Israeli economy can be compromised through legal means. We should cooperate with anti-Zionist forces in all countries to get international financial, trade and cultural sanctions against Israel.
Together, and in an increasingly organised manner, the world's democratic forces can defeat the forces of Zionism and imperialism in the Middle East.
Perhaps to concretize our solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, our progressive university communities, should consider establishing a centre of Middle East Studies, with the Palestinian struggle as its anchor. As a Department we would be amenable to discussions in this regard. This is so that South African scholars in particular and our students could research, teach about and deepen their knowledge about the just struggles of the Palestinian people. Perhaps this could be done in partnership with a Palestinian university and the broader Palestinian diaspora, including progressive Jews like Professor Pappe.
Thank you once more.
Cde Blade Nzimande (Dr) is SACP General Secretary and also Minster of Higher Education and Training.
This item first appeared in Umsebenzi Online, the SACP's online journal.
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