As part of Tel Aviv’s centenary celebration, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London hosted a Tel Aviv University Special Lecture Series from January to March 2009. Taking place in the midst of Israel’s war on Gaza — which had already mobilized SOAS students to organize a number of activities in solidarity with Gaza, including the first student occupation in the UK — students and a number of lecturers expressed their opposition to the lecture series.
The student union overwhelmingly passed a motion criticizing the lecture series’ attempt to whitewash Tel Aviv’s colonial past and present and called for the end of SOAS’s collaboration with Tel Aviv University (TAU) in hosting the series on the grounds of its role in giving key legal, technological and strategic support for maintaining and expanding Israel’s colonial occupation. The School’s Director, Professor Paul Webley, opposed the cancellation and defended the continuation of the lecture series by invoking a prerogative of freedom of speech and citing the pedagogic value of diversities of opinion. Conspicuously absent in the Director’s defense was any engagement with the nature and scope of TAU’s research portfolio.
In response to the director’s failure to acknowledge the serious implications of collaboration with TAU that undermined the reputation, integrity and fundamental ethical principles of SOAS, the SOAS Palestine Society prepared a briefing paper for him and the Governing Body outlining TAU’s intensive, purposive and open institutional contributions to the Israeli military. While the signatories of the briefing paper recognized the importance of freedom of speech, they were also keenly aware of the need to uphold the rights of the oppressed and expressed that no right reigns absolute over the fundamental right to life. It is precisely therefore that it is wholly untenable that partnerships with institutions facilitating, advocating and justifying ongoing war crimes can be legitimized with recourse to an ideal of academic freedom.
The briefing paper presented irrefutable evidence of TAU’s deep investment in the facilitation and prosecution (at both the material and conceptual level) of what amount to war crimes. Along with many other examples of expansive institutional culpability, it identified the leading role played by TAU in developing an explicit military doctrine of “disproportionality” calling for the targeting of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians and civilian infrastructures. All of the data assembled and clearly sourced in the briefing paper is publicly available and widely known both at TAU and to the wider Israeli public. Indeed, TAU’s valorization of its contributions to the military is an emphatic feature of its domestic public image, repeatedly underlined by university president Zvi Galil and celebrated in public relations campaigns. It is in part for this reason that demonstrating the complicity of TAU in the commissioning and enabling of ongoing war crimes is a relatively straightforward task. At the same time, this transparency discloses the extent to which the institution’s overt roles in illegal and oppressive military programs go unchallenged, which reflects troubling patterns of acquiescence across Israeli academia and reveals the degree of mobilization obtaining in wider Israeli society.
When the SOAS director and the Governing Body of the school were confronted with the evidence in the briefing paper and the repeated demand to cancel the lecture series was made once again, the school’s response was that:
“[N]either SOAS as an institution nor the governors as a group have decided to take a stand on the issue of continuing to work with TAU and … it is unlikely that they would do so. Whatever the sympathies of individual governors may be, it would be virtually impossible and inappropriate for SOAS to take a political stand of this nature with regard to an individual academic institution or group of institutions in a particular country. This would go against the basic principles of academic freedom to which SOAS is legally and constitutionally bound.”
This response utterly — and most likely willfully — ignored the evidence implicating TAU’s role in death, destruction and oppression and stands testimony to the abject failure of educational institutions such as SOAS to place even minimal pressure on TAU to dissociate itself from oppression, illegality, and war-craft. Yet even this failure of omission, casting a shadow on the ethical integrity of scores of academic institutions such as SOAS, is translated into a far more serious failure of commission when universities offer themselves (their institutional reputations along with those of their faculty and studentship) as partners in the production and projection of an occlusive image of TAU as an unproblematic center of higher learning. This failure cannot be glossed over by recourse to notions of academic freedom or assertions about the pedagogic value of diversities of opinion unless these principles are elevated to an absolute status, absolving academia itself from an entire field of ethical responsibility.
SOAS has previously lived up to such ethical responsibilities when challenged to do so. In 2005, the institution responded to revelations about its holdings in weapons industries on the part of the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) by immediately divesting from these companies. In doing so, SOAS implicitly recognized the need to fully dissociate itself from institutions profiting from war and producing its technologies. TAU’s overt privileging of military research and development, its institutional primacy in the authoring and propagation of illegal military doctrines and its celebratory self-definition as a “front line institution” in the production of Israel’s “military and technological edge” makes its embrace at SOAS a betrayal of the ethical principles upheld in 2005.
Undoubtedly, SOAS’s collaboration in the production of a celebratory public image of TAU and the oppressive and criminal activities fostered, facilitated and celebrated by that institution signals a profound disregard for the consequences of such institutional partnerships on SOAS’s integrity and ethical reputation as an institution. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise given that the restructuring of universities into profit-orientated organizations in much of the western world, and in the UK in particular, means that university managements perform and conform with the interests of the powers that be more than ever before. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that is gaining rapid support across many campuses in the UK remains the only effective tool to confront collaborating universities and demand the boycott of Israeli academic institutions involved in the perpetration of war crimes.