A few days before Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), spoke at the demonstration for Palestine earlier this month, my colleagues and I – the Israeli and Jewish studies staff at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) – put out a statement that expressed our shock at the attack on the Islamic University of Gaza and mourned the terrible loss of life. But, unlike Hunt, we asked another question: “Why has the union been silent for many years about the assault on Sapir College in Sderot, inside Israel, whose campus has become a firing range for Hamas units in Gaza?”
In February 2008, a student, Roni Yechiah, a father of four, was killed in a bombardment of Sderot. The helipad of Barzilai hospital, ferrying the injured from Sderot to casualty wards, was similarly hit. The enrolment in recent years at Sapir College has dramatically decreased. Yet the silence from the UCU has been deafening.
The union seems to be unaware that the range of the missiles fired from Gaza has increased fivefold since 2001. The firing has been continuous throughout the evacuation of the Jewish settlements in Gaza, before the election of Hamas and before the imposition of sanctions on Gaza. Even during ceasefires, Hamas refused to corral groups such as Islamic Jihad to prevent them launching missiles.
During the last two years, their sophistication and payload has increased. Even the lethal flying pipe-bombs have had their range extended. Longer-range Grad missiles have been smuggled into southern Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. Now Ben-Gurion University at Beer Sheva, some 40km distant, is a target. Classes have been abandoned and university life is at a standstill. Yet the UCU resolution on the crisis states that the Hamas missiles are a mere “pretext for the invasion”.
While the Palestinians interpret disproportionality in terms of the powerful Israeli military machine pitted against the highly trained, 15,000-strong Hamas militias, the Israelis understand disproportionality in terms of the potential threat to their unarmed civilians from bigger missiles. Will proportionality only be achieved if a rocket hits an Israeli university building filled with students?
We were shocked at the images coming out of Gaza, but outrage through Hunt’s eyes is selective. Yet this negates any pretence at serious examination of a problem – the core of our educational raison d’etre.
As our statement concluded: “As teachers of Israeli and Jewish studies to Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims at Soas, we cannot bury our heads in the sand in the belief that this issue is one-sided. We are a small minority at Soas, but our academic training tells us to look at narratives beyond our own opinions. This is why we have chosen to speak out and not to remain silent.”
Guardian 13 January 2009