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Israel and Palestine: Settler colonialism and academic freedom

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In the last ten years, an old scholarly paradigm that was used for the historical analysis of European settler movements in various parts of the worlds, and in different periods, resurfaced in the USA and Australia as part of the new wish to understand the modern histories of these countries. Leading historians from all around the world reshaped the paradigm of settler colonialism to include all the places where European immigrants colonised non-European lands, at first with the help of Colonial Empires, and then struggling against the Empire and the local indigenous population.

All the countries in North, Central and South America are settler colonial countries. As are Australia, New Zealand, Algeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa. By this, we mean they either have a settler colonial history or still are engaged in struggle against the native indigenous population.

In many cases, the settler movement genocided the indigenous people (in the Americas and Australia) and in other places such as Algeria it was involved in a long and bloody war of liberation and in South Africa and Zimbabwe the settler movement imposed an Apartheid system, accompanied by operations of ethnic cleansing.

The histories of all these countries, including the unpleasant chapters, are analysed freely by the world academic institutions and this has helped considerably the process of reconciliation and social harmony.  Depicting a country as having a settler colonial past or present is not undermining its legitimacy and is not an ideological crusade. This is now an accepted truism around the academic world.

Within this exciting new scholarly development, quite a few scholars, including from Israel, wished to examine whether this academic paradigm apply to Israel and Palestine. The Journal of Settler Colonial Studies devoted two special volumes to the topic and the prestigious post-colonial studies journal, Interventions, is going to publish a special issue on this.  Dozens of post-graduate students around the world, including in Germany are working on applying this paradigm to the case of Israel and Palestine: it raises questions not just about Israel in the past, but also about  the Palestinian struggle and strategy in the present and in the future.  More importantly than anything else it sheds new light on the possibility for peace and reconciliation after decades of a failed peace process (this what academia is there for).

The application of the paradigm triggered some concern which was successfully satisfied. At the University of Berkley in the US, after concerns were voiced about a course dealing with  settler colonialism in Israel/Palestine, the university probed into the apprehensions and ruled that the topic was valid and purely academic.  Similar concerns were voiced when the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom convened a conference of settler colonialism in Palestine. A very fruitful dialogue with the Anglo-Jewish community showed that this cannot only be understood as  a legitimate conference topic but also as an important contribution for furthering the research on Israel and Palestine.

To silence anyone for teaching about settler colonialism or ethnic cleansing in Israel and Palestine, or further researching about it, is a grave violation of academic freedom and free speech. It de-legitimizes the vast majority of scholars who work today on Israel and Palestine around the world, many of whom are employing these paradigms to understand the past and the present realities.  To fire someone or stop employing someone on the basis of such intellectual curiosity in Germany is an insult to the past and successful efforts to build a free and democratic society there.

Unfortunately this is what is happening currently in Germany. I´d like to mention particularly the cases of Eleonora Roldán Mendívil and Farid Esack here.

Eleonora Roldán Mendivíl is a young academic teaching a course called “Racism in capitalism” at the Otto-Suhr-Institute of the Free University of Berlin. After obscure right-wing zionist bloggers claimed that her assessment of Israel as a colonial project and Apartheid state constitute anti-Semitic statements, a claim that was taken up by the right-wing populist newspaper Jerusalem Post and a pro-Israel student group at the Free University, her further employment with the Otto-Suhr-Institute for next semester was cancelled. It is important to mention that her assessment of Israel were made in activist contexts, not in her class. Her work is in the process of being evaluated with regards to the above-mentioned claims and with all due respect towards our colleague Prof. Dr. Benz who conducts it, I hope that this is done in the spirit of science outlined above. As far as matters of my expertise are relevant, I´m happy to contribute to this assessment.

Prof. Farid Esack is a muslim liberation theologist, former leading anti-apartheid fighter and head of BDS South Africa. Until recently he held a position as visiting professor at the University of Hamburg´s Academy of World Religions. He too was smeared as anti-Semite, terror-backer, holocaust denier. The German press was happy to speak about Mr Esack -and repeat whatever groundless accusation was flung at him- but, for very few exceptions, incapable of communicating with him directly. Hamburg´s largest opposition party, CDU, is to bring a draft of a resolution to the to the state Parliament („Bürgerschaft“) of the Federal State of Hamburg which – if endorsed by it – would pronounce BDS anti-Semitic.

The Academy of World Religions has by now distanced itself from offering Esack the position of a guest lecturer; this despite the fact, according to their very own statement, that he enjoys a brilliant academic reputation and has done nothing to diminish this in any shape or form. What the attackers find unbearable is the fact that Prof. Esack frequently compares the conduct of the state of Israel to that of the former Apartheid state of South Africa and to the definition of Apartheid under International Law. The consequences he derives from that is his commitment to the boycott movement issued by the Palestinian civil society, namely BDS. BDS enjoys very broad support of the South African population and politicians.

Again, it seems as if basic scientific principles were abandoned as soon as the anti-Semitism smear is flung: apparently it must be stressed towards the German public and media that this is not a religious question with sacrosanct doctrines, but much rather the question whether Israel is an Apartheid state and/or -as I myself have stated in recent publications- a settler colonial state committing multiple crimes under International law, most notably the crime of ethnic cleansing, can very well be discussed and determined inside a scientific framework and public debate. The Palestinians are doomed to invisibility by this kind of hateful discourse: behind the smoke screen of anti-Semitism smears the actual reality on the ground and the 70 years of suffering are successfully buried- that is, if we allow the agitators to have their will.

Therefore I call upon the German public and media to treat individuals who challenge zionist belief systems fairly, not only but especially within the academia. This entails the space to express their views and to engage in public debate without fearing to be smeared and degraded. Debate is not an obstacle to scientific progress but rather one of its main ingredients.

I´d like to express my heart-felt solidarity with the colleagues in question -Eleonora Roldán Mendivíl and Prof. Farid Esack- and everyone else being attacked in a similar manner. I intend to follow the future course of events in Germany intently and sincerely hope that scientific inquiry and reason prevail.

Ilan Pappé

This statement was first published on a German pro-boycott website

Ilan Pappe
About Ilan Pappé

Professor Ilan Pappé is the Director of the European Center for Palestine Studies in University of Exeter and the author of 15 books among them The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2007), A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples (2006), The War on Gaza (with Noam Chomsky) (2010) and his latest book in 2014 The Idea of Israel.

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10 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson on March 1, 2017, 12:53 pm

    RE: “To silence anyone for teaching about settler colonialism or ethnic cleansing in Israel and Palestine, or further researching about it, is a grave violation of academic freedom and free speech… To fire someone or stop employing someone on the basis of such intellectual curiosity in Germany is an insult to the past and successful efforts to build a free and democratic society there. Unfortunately this is what is happening currently in Germany.” ~ Ilan Pappé

    MY COMMENT: German guilt!*

    * SEE: “Israeli diplomat in Berlin: Maintaining German guilt about Holocaust helps Israel” | By Nir Gontarz | | Jun. 25, 2015

    [EXCERPT] A spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy in Berlin recently told Israeli journalists it was in the country’s interest to maintain German guilt about the Holocaust, and that it isn’t seeking full normalization of relations between the governments.

    Embassy spokeswoman Adi Farjon made the comments in a closed briefing session with journalists at the embassy.

    “We were all in shock,” said a female journalist present at the briefing. “The spokeswoman clearly said it was an Israeli interest to maintain German guilt feelings. She even said that without them, we’d be just another country as far as they’re concerned.”

    Others present at the event confirmed the journalist’s account.

    Some added that the Israeli ambassador himself, Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, was present for some of the briefing, as were other embassy workers who don’t speak Hebrew. Another journalist commented, “It was so awkward. We couldn’t believe our ears. We’re sitting there eating peanuts, and behind the spokeswoman there are two German women sitting there who don’t understand a word of Hebrew – and the embassy staff is telling us they’re working to preserve the German guilt feelings and that Israel has no interest in normalization of relations between the two countries.”

    “I don’t remember saying that,” Farjon told Haaretz in response. “I can’t vouch for any particular quote, she added. “It was an off-the-record conversation, a briefing talk. The way I speak with Israeli journalists is a little different. These things aren’t intended to get out. I can’t reveal the principles I work by. For example, I don’t say who I go to in order to get good stories out here, or who I pay for things like that.” . . .


  2. Stephen Shenfield
    Stephen Shenfield on March 1, 2017, 8:36 pm

    The Zionists will not be able for much longer to exploit Germans’ feelings of guilt for what their ancestors did before most Germans now alive were even born because an increasing proportion of young Germans are rejecting this crap.

    The same principle of inherited guilt, when applied to the Jews, is always (and rightly) regarded as anti-Semitic.

  3. Boris
    Boris on March 1, 2017, 9:18 pm

    I am outraged!!!

    How dare those Zionists not letting anti-Israel “scholars” into Israel!!!


    • jon s
      jon s on March 2, 2017, 2:00 am

      It is indeed outrageous to bar entry on the basis of political views.

      On the other hand, Prof. Pappe supports bds but is outraged by blacklisting of anti-Zionists. How does that work?

    • diasp0ra
      diasp0ra on March 2, 2017, 4:46 am


      Uhh, Boris?

      You might want to read the article before you comment.

      But thank you anyway, for showing how many begin to smear before knowing what the argument is about.

    • eljay
      eljay on March 2, 2017, 8:11 am

      || Boris: I am outraged!!! How dare those Zionists not letting anti-Israel “scholars” into Israel!!! Outrageous!!! ||

      I agree with you that Israel is a supremacist and colonialist state and that it therefore makes no sense for its supremacist and colonialist leaders to allow into Israel people who advocate an end to supremacism and colonialism. Can’t have these people sullying the purity!

    • Talkback
      Talkback on March 2, 2017, 8:40 am

      I really don’t understand why Boris is outraged. Isn’t it normal for fascists and their societies to prevent dissence by any means?

  4. traintosiberia
    traintosiberia on March 2, 2017, 12:15 pm

    Academic ,political and non political spaces and languages-both have become the new victims of the Zionism long after the disagreeing elements or the dissenting inhabitants been cleared out of the land,language department,political centers ,non governmental entities . By the very nature of their reasons to be there in the first place, these organizations will now and then address what is wrong or if there is anything even in the place that claims to be perfect moral and exemplary. This is now bringing Zionism in conflict with other face of the reality . Until now has been the area where Iran , Salman Rushdie Jihadist and Cahrlei Hedbo or Flemming Ross have been interred . Engraved corpses lie in the permanent state in the memory of the Hall of Freedom for ritualistic views by the domesticated minds and doleful eyes .

    Zionist will say “we dont kill or burn them ” We say because you get much better result by destroying through non violent but equally illegal externally imposed and destructive means .

  5. Elizabeth Block
    Elizabeth Block on March 2, 2017, 2:02 pm

    Farid Esack spoke in Toronto, several years ago. Lovely man. I included this in the Toronto Quaker meeting’s monthly newsletter:

    Arrival is God’s business. Getting onto the bus is ours.

    [Yes, there are Jewish Quakers. I’ve heard that there are so many Jews in Brooklyn who attend Quaker meeting that the local rabbi has said that some of his best Jews are Friends.]

  6. JWalters
    JWalters on March 2, 2017, 8:45 pm

    At some point one (or more) of these academics falsely accused of anti-Semitism will sue, a big court case will occur, and the bogus use of anti-Semitism accusations will be revealed to the world for the criminal cover-up that it is. e.g. “Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smears Backfire”

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