Institutional silencing: reflections and a call for dialogue

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

In recent weeks, our community, our classrooms, our meetings, and even our building have become a place of political contestation. Specifically, the EUC community has engaged in lively discussions about what happened in Jerusalem and Gaza in May 2021. We believe it is a healthy sign that many of our students and staff are deeply concerned about violence raging in our globalised society. That a group of EUC students hung banners from the building and organised a protest asking for justice in Palestine shows the determination of EUC constituents to confront issues of discrimination and human rights violations.

While we commend the audacity and creativity to nudge EUC into action, we reject the suggestion that neither the EUC community nor its members care about what is happening in Israel-Palestine. The exact opposite is true. Even prior to the banner protest, this discussion had triggered lively discussions among staff. More substantially, over the past five years, we – together with others at EUC – have launched various initiatives to increase understanding of the multi-layered realities of the Middle East and North Africa. While we acknowledge that this may not yet be sufficient, or that some feel the urge for more attention to the imbalance of power in Israel-Palestine; clearly this does not amount to silencing.

At all times, our central objective has been to foster inclusion and understanding. We strive to create an atmosphere where anyone can feel comfortable sharing their thoughts without restraint. At the same time, we aim to uphold the institutional identity of EUC by contributing to the Intended Learning Outcomes ILO 11 to 14 of our programme, which exhort us to educate critical world citizens who address injustice and abuse of power in effective ways, mindful of their environment.

EUC as an incubator of change

In our interpretation, critical world citizenship requires a set of skills, if we are to transform the concept from theory into practice.

First, there is speaking out against injustice and structural violence, as reflected in EUC's intended learning outcomes. However, fostering critical world citizenship is about much more than speaking out. As educators endorsing critical thinking, we should bring in complexity where simplifications and stereotypes rule. We should facilitate dialogue and understanding wherever we see polarization. Critical world citizenship is as much about speaking out as it is about listening. This requires an open attitude and willingness to acknowledge that our own ideological background can bias our ability to detect inequality.

Second, we need to practice inclusivity and keep an open attitude towards other peoples’ viewpoints and identities. This means that we must make EUC accessible to all youngsters who aspire to deliver societal impact and become agents of social change within the society they call home – be it Israel, Palestine or somewhere else.

In this specific debate, we should bear in mind that the marginalised in our community may not only be the students and staff with Palestinian roots or affinities. The silent minorities may also be students and staff members with Israeli or Jewish roots who, out of fear, currently do not express their identity or share their opinion. This is no reason to be less outspoken about our support for the suffering of innocent victims. It should, however, make us cautious about how we express support.

Third is the skill of active listening. We do this not (only) to criticise people but rather to properly understand others, including those with whom we disagree. To achieve this ambition, we believe what is needed is not only the courage to speak truth to power. It also requires the safety for everyone, including the soft-spoken ones, to express their intuitions and their deep convictions without the fear of condemnation or stigmatisation.

De-essentialise and re-complexify

Another pitfall to avoid as constructive critics is to reduce a complex situation to an oversimplified dynamic wherein ‘all’ of Israeli society is essentialised as a culprit responsible for all Palestinian suffering and, therefore, delegitimised as an interlocutor.

In doing so, we leave very little space for alternative voices and interpretations originating from Israel. Though it might sometimes seem like these voices do not exist (in most of the media), Israeli society is at least as rich in opinions and beliefs as our own. This is manifest by the many scholars and ordinary citizens who oppose their governments’ policies. The same is true, of course, for Palestinian society where many berate their contemporary political leadership.

We believe that if we only amplify simplistic narratives casting the entire Israeli society as the offender and the entire Palestinian society as the victim, we are in danger of committing exactly the sin that Edward Said warned us for, namely: essentialising and homogenising entire communities.

Practicing what we teach

The skills associated with critical world citizenship need constant practice in real-life settings, with people who may harbour different worldviews than us. None of these skills can develop in an environment where we choose to isolate ourselves. In other words, what is needed is radical willingness to exchange thoughts and experiences with people from all stripes; even those with whom we fundamentally disagree.

However appealing it may seem to stop listening or talking to Israelis and subscribe to a worldview that reaffirms Palestinian victimhood in echo of our own sympathies, we must acknowledge that the protagonists of the long-term change we all desire are Palestinians and Israeli. Thus, if we really strive for sustainable shifts, we need not only speak out against injustice or resist the temptation to disengage from those with whom we disagree; we must also actively, yet critically, listen to what others have to say. This is how we practice what we teach.

Partners in critical thinking

We do acknowledge the severity of the Palestinian suffering in Gaza, in the Occupied West Bank, in East-Jerusalem, in Israel, and in diaspora communities. We do acknowledge that many Israeli universities have problematic ties to the defence industry and Israeli Defence Force (IDF), making these universities complicit to daily injustices many Palestinians endure.

We do acknowledge that State of Israel actively bars Palestinian scholars and students from enjoying the academic freedom we are calling for. This is disturbing policy that deserves to be addressed urgently. Not just by halting the divisive politics of Israeli authorities but also by looking, ourselves, for opportunities to make (critical) Palestinian voices heard.

We do recognise that the boycott called for by some at EUC is a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and not its individual students or staff. Yet, we are convinced that if institutional ties are severed, opportunities for exchange between individuals decrease dramatically.

Lastly, we do acknowledge that our university has its own shortcomings; it is not always as critical as many of us would like. Neither is it always as ethical as many of us desire. Nevertheless, our university remains a home to students, academics, and other critical thinkers committed to challenging the system around them and to empowering tomorrow’s agents of social change.

We have reason to believe that, despite institutional policy, Israeli universities are also home to that society’s critical thinkers – bold enough to call their institutions, politicians, and societies into action against discrimination or human rights violations. The canon of Israeli scholars who speak out against Israeli governments and expose the often-complex mechanisms through which the Israeli state harms Palestinian rights illustrates those critical voices among Israeli academics.

It is precisely the presence of these critical voices that warn us against cutting all institutional ties. Stopping dialogue with Israeli academic institutions is not the best way forward if we want to translate our sympathy for the Palestinian cause into inclusive, durable change. Thus, while we subscribe to the ideal of EUC as a community of citizens committed to address injustice, we believe that an institution like EUC cannot afford to exclude anyone, in any form. After all, would not that amount to institutional silencing?

If we refuse to listen and speak to others based on who they are or where they come from, we only contribute to further misunderstanding, polarisation, and confrontation. We would, then, be reciprocating what we are struggling against: systems of institutionalised discrimination, oppression, and exclusion. It is for these reasons that we do not participate in the boycott of academic institutions. Whether that be in Israel or elsewhere.

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