Academic, community leader, author and journalist Na’eem Jeenah has been the latest academic to face detention by Israeli authorities. In his capacity as director AMEC: the Afro Middle East Centre, Jeenah was en route to Palestine to participate in research meetings. AMEC is a South African based think-tank which aims to maintain public discussion and shape public discourse on issues related to the Middle East. At its inception AMEC was headed by Waddah Khanfar, the present General Manager of the Al Jazeera network. AMEC has since established itself as a credible commentator in South Africa on Middle East issues.
This Tuesday, some hours after Mr Jeenah was first detained at Ben Gurion airport, AMEC staff received news of his detention via the South African Ambassador to Israel, H.E Ismail Coovadia. They were also informed about his pending deportation to Istanbul. On Tuesday evening, Israeli authorities were repeatedly refusing to disclose information about Mr Jeena’s location.
By Wednesday, Mr Jeenah was deported to Istanbul after ten hours of interrogation. According to Ambassador Coovadia, “his treatment (by Israeli officials) has been extremely bad”. Jeenah’s passport and personal possessions were not returned.
Na’eem is the latest casualty in the long list of influential personalities who have been denied access to Palestine. In 2008 Professor Richard Falk , the UN Special Rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territory was deported to Switzeland after a nightlong detention by Israeli authorities. Professor Falk was to collect information to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council. Israeli authorities reasoned that he was denied access because of his description of Israel’s blockade on the Gaza territory as being a “Holocaust in the making”.
In 2008 Archbishop Desmond Tutu was named as the head of a fact-finding mission to the Gaza strip. He subsequently cancelled this trip after his travel clearance was declined by Israeli officials, fearing that the report would cast a negative shadow over Israel.
A less unexpected refusal of entry was that of academic Norman Finkelstein in May 2008. Finkelstein has been an outspoken critic of Israeli policies and accuses Israel of misrepresenting the Holocaust towards furthering its nationalistic aims.
Another critic of Israeli policy is renowned linguist, Professor Noam Chomsky who was barred from accessing the West Bank in May 2010. Israeli authorities tried to brush this incident off as a logistical error, suggesting that if Mr. Chomsky attempted to re-enter, he would succeed.
With Freedom of Speech being a tenant of democracy ,this pattern of denying academics and dissenting voices access to Palestinian territories seems incongruous with Israel’s claim to being the only true democracy in the Middle East.
Academic tensions between South Africa and Israel have previously come under the spotlight in march this year with the landmark decision by the University of Johannesburg to sever ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion university. In September 2010 a set of criteria were issued for BGU to comply with, within the following 6 months. BGU failed to meet these conditions which ‘ included a requirement that a Palestinian university must be included in the research relationship’.
Evidence was presented to the UJ Senate (one of its highest decision making bodies)
‘showing clearly BGU’s active restriction and violation of political and academic freedom; its direct and deliberate collaboration with the Israeli Defence Force (an occupying military force in flagrant violation of international law); and its maintenance of policies and practices that further entrench the discriminatory policies of the Israeli state.’
BGU spokesperson Faye Bittker said ‘cancelling this agreement, which was designed to solve real problems of water contamination in a reservoir near Johannesburg, will only hurt the residents of South Africa.’ This was in reference to the joint project between UJ and BGU exploring efforts to reduce water contamination. IOL news quoted Palestine Solidarity Campaign spokesman Salim Vally’s response: ‘As UJ’s deputy vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, has pointed out, ensuring clean water in South Africa has nothing to do with Israeli research and assistance, and has everything to do with the South African government’s investment.’
This academic boycott by UJ of BGU was a pioneering move hailing an important victory for the International Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. The moral relevance of this call being made by a South African University is important considering the previous international pressure (including academic pressure) applied on institutions complicit in supporting apartheid structures.
The academic boycott of BGU and Na’eems deportation are some examples of the struggle against occupation being played out on the academic field. Na’eem Jeenah returned to South Africa this morning. In a statement issued on Wednesday afternoon, Na’eem’s wife Melissa expressed appreciation to family, friends and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, the Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim and the Ambassador to Tel Aviv, HE Ambassador Ismail Coovadia for their ongoing support.
Ayesha Jacub is a freelance writer and medical Doctor from South Africa now living in Doha.