Resisting academic crackdowns on Palestine solidarity is a fight for collective liberation

Resisting academic crackdowns on Palestine solidarity is a fight for collective liberation
12 min read
09 Nov, 2023
From brutal attacks on Palestinians in Israeli universities, to government silencing of solidarity in the UK and academics losing jobs in US institutions, there's a global targeting of those who speak up on Israel’s crimes, writes Rebecca Ruth Gould.
This multitude of crackdowns on academic freedom from Israel to Palestine to Europe and the US shows that we are living in dangerous times, writes Rebecca Ruth Gould. [GETTY]

Since 7 October, Palestinian students in Israel have come under brutal attack. On the 28 October, thirty Palestinian students were locked in their rooms in Israel’s Netanya College, while their dormitories were stormed by Israeli students chanting “Death to Arabs.” Since then, 74 students at 25 academic institutions across Israel were facing disciplinary action merely for liking tweets and authoring posts expressing sympathy for family members in Gaza.

At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, eminent professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian faces the termination of her employment after signing a petition stating that “there is no moral justification whatsoever for continuing” the brutal war on Gaza and calling for an immediate ceasefire. In a letter that was published online on 28 October, the president and rector of the university reprimanded her. “It is most appropriate that you consider leaving your job,” he told her and threatened her with termination if she did not. The university president then took the extraordinary step of releasing the letter to the Israeli press.

''The lethal crackdown on Palestinians’ academic freedom that is taking place across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories has been mirrored across Europe and North America, albeit with a lesser intensity. As academics around the world rally in support of Palestinians, government ministers and influential donors are creating a toxic atmosphere that treats all support for Palestine as suspect and which favours the suppression of free speech.''

The result was predictable: death threats against her and her family, and fear, not just for her livelihood but for her life. In correspondence with me, Shalhoub-Kevorkian stated that, during her many decades of activism, she had grown accustomed to receiving “letters of criticism based on the university's need to protect the state and its funders.” This time, however, she perceives something different and more dangerous: “due to the painful war, and the sharing of the letter to the public, I sense danger. I am not leaving the house, knowing that settlers, soldiers or the police can attack me at any moment.”

Judith Butler and others have written to the university in support of her, and the USA Palestine Mental Health Network has called for a letter-writing campaign.

On 23 October, physics professor Imad Barghouti of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem was arrested by the Israeli military. IDF soldiers surrounded Barghouti’s house and threatened him and his family to demolish it if he did not surrender. The soldiers never informed Barghouti or his family what he had done to merit arrest. He was transferred to the Ofer Prison detention centre and still awaits his day in court.

As an Israeli academic told me, these relatively high-profile crackdowns in Israeli academic and universities in the West Bank coincide with “a wave of firings of less well-known Palestinian college teachers in Israel for fairly innocuous Facebook posts against the bombings of Gaza.” The mere expression of sympathy for the people of Gaza, including by Palestinian Israelis with family members there, is treated as a crime.

Suppressing critical voices in the UK

The lethal crackdown on Palestinians’ academic freedom that is taking place across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories has been mirrored across Europe and North America, albeit with a lesser intensity. As academics around the world rally in support of Palestinians, government ministers and influential donors are creating a toxic atmosphere that treats all support for Palestine as suspect and which favours the suppression of free speech.

In the UK, Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, wrote to the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the largest funder of research in the country, to express her outrage at the posts of two academics on their Advisory Group on equality, diversity, and inclusion. One academic, Kate Sang, had simply criticised UK-anti-terrorism legislation, calling the government’s crackdown on Hamas support “disturbing.” The second, Kamna Patel, had retweeted posts condemning violence on both sides and referencing Israel’s “genocide and apartheid.”

Donelan was outraged that these academics had been permitted to serve on the UKRI advisory group and insisted that the director “immediately close this group and undertake an urgent investigation into how this happened.” UKRI speedily complied with this request, and three days later agreed to suspend the equality, diversity, and inclusion group and to launch an investigation.

The bureaucratic response did not clarify why they thought any of the social media posts merited investigation. There was no allegation of any crime. All that was alleged was that two board members expressed concern over government policy. Considering it is an independent advisory group of an agency that is deliberately set apart from the government, this would have been par for the course under normal conditions. But in times of war, censorship becomes second nature for certain politicians.

The posts that Donelan found outrageous are entirely within the academic mainstream. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have formally described Israel as an apartheid state since 2021. As for the charge of genocide, one need look no further than the pronouncements and actions of Israeli politicians themselves.

Soon after the 7 October attacks, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant announced a complete siege on Gaza, that would cut off access to water, fuel, and food. He justified these drastic measures on the grounds that Israel was “fighting human animals.” A few days later, Netanyahu ominously stated in a now-deleted tweet that Israel’s war on Gaza was “a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle.” During an address to the Israeli people on 28 October 2023, Netanyahu drew on the language of the Old Testament to clarify Israel’s aims. Quoting 1 Samuel 15:3, he declared: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

These statements are clear declarations of genocidal intent, as over 800 scholars of international law, conflict studies, and genocide studies around the world have recognised. Genocide scholar Raz Segal has called Israeli declarations of war on Gaza “a textbook case of genocide.” Even though many Western powers contest the claim of genocide, it is also the language now used by the UN. In this context, it is disturbing that a government minister would seek to attack academics who speak truths that politicians are unwilling to utter.

Donelan doubled down on her comments in an interview with Sky News recently. She conflated criticism of government policy on terrorism with the “support for terrorism” she claims to have discerned in Sang’s expression of concern over government policy. As Donelan told the reporter, “anyone would say that if you are questioning the government’s approach to a proscribed terrorist organisation that is not only unacceptable but also extreme.” Further defending her authoritarian approach, she added: “I don’t think anyone would suggest that it is reasonable, that the promotion of terrorism is ok.”

Such incendiary rhetoric conveniently obscures from view the fact that Sang merely expressed concern over a report from The Guardian regarding instructions given by Home Secretary Suella Braverman. The article critically outlines various steps taken by the Braverman as well as the Labour Party to silence solidarity with Palestine. Sang’s comment simply reinforces its critical tone. Outside of an authoritarian police state, this is hardly ground for being targeted by a government minister.

The day after Donelan’s letter, the impetus behind her targeting of academics became clear. After she published her letter to UKRI on Twitter, right-wing UK thinktank Policy Exchange released a policy note on Palestine, entitled ‘Top Science Quango Packs new Equality Advisory Board with Anti-Israeli Academics.’ In this document, Policy Exchange noted that the new members of the UKRI Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board “have shown support for radical anti-Israeli views, whilst others have been active in promoting other controversial and politically contested views on race and gender.”

The culture war that Donelan sought to stoke and which UKRI has succumbed to has tremendous implications for researchers and academics. As the largest funder of scholarly research within the UK, it plays an outsized role in setting the research agenda of the country’s university staff. Most academics are involved in one way or another with UKRI’s activities, whether as reviewers for grants, as applicants for funding, or as a participant in one of their research-focused initiatives. By refusing to challenge a minister who targeted academics simply for criticising government policy, UKRI sets a frightening precedent for academics who want to carry out their research without fearing retribution.

Recognising the grave danger that Donelan’s letter poses for academic freedom in the UK, the University and College Union expressed their concern to UKRI that the institution had “capitulated to unwarranted pressure.” A wave of resignations by academics involved in serving on panels and reviewing grants for UKRI is underway and is likely to increase dramatically now that the union has instructed its members to formally resign from any UKRI roles.

As is so often the case  in the crackdown on Palestine solidarity by Western governments, the issue at stake is not only related to Israel. They are part of a broader effort to supress critical approaches to race and colonial histories, and even resistance to gender binaries.

This wider context shows that Donelan used the occasion of the critical posts of the UKRI Advisory Board members to undermine diversity and equality initiatives more broadly. The concluding paragraph of her letter reveals this ominous intention: “in recent years UKRI has been going beyond the requirements of equality law in ways which add burden and bureaucracy to funding requirements.” The struggle for Palestinian liberation is trapped here in a broader struggle for—and against—racial and social equality.

Targeting academic solidarity in the US

In the US, the intersection of Palestine solidarity with struggles for racial equality is even more acute. Strikingly, every one of the thirteen US representatives who called for an immediate ceasefire in Congress was a person of colour: Cori Bush of Missouri, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, André Carson of Indiana, Summer Lee of Pennsylvania, and Delia Ramirez of Illinois. Given that the majority of those who advocate on behalf of Palestine are people of colour (as well as Jewish), it is perhaps unsurprising that these minority communities are disproportionality impacted by the crackdown on Palestine solidarity

Among the first casualties of the war on free speech within the US were academics of colour, including Russell Rickford of Cornell University, Zareena Grewal of Yale University, and Joseph Massad of Columbia University. Russell Rickford came under attack when he delivered a speech at a pro-Palestine rally, during which he stated that “Hamas has punctured the illusion of invincibility […] You don’t have to be a Hamas supporter to recognise that […] Hamas has challenged the monopoly of violence.” Although Rickford also called the actions of Hamas “horrific” and criticised their targeting of civilians, this was not enough to appease his critics.

The following day, Cornell University President Martha Pollack issued a statement. Without making any reference to free speech or academic freedom, she said she was “sickened by statements glorifying the evilness of Hamas terrorism.” This was followed by another condemnation the next day from the President and the Chair of the university’s board, in which Rickford was called out by name. Rickford’s description of the Hamas attacks as “exhilarating” was decontextualised as “reprehensible” and said to demonstrate “no regard whatsoever for humanity.” The statement ended ominously with the announcement that the institution “is taking this incident seriously and is currently reviewing it consistent with our procedures.” As of this writing Rickford remains on leave.

At least one of the crackdowns on academic solidarity in the US have resulted in the termination of employment. Less than two weeks after a post on Twitter (X) that contextualised the attack by Hamas on Israel, poet and professor Laura Mullen, who served as Kenan Chair of the Humanities at Wake Forest University, announced her permanent resignation from her position. This came after a university statement condemning Mullen’s post.


At the University of Pennsylvania, as part of a backlash against the Palestine Writes Literature Festival that was hosted in September 2023, donors to the university initiated a campaign to pressure the university administration to distance themselves from the festival. As many donors pulled their funding on the grounds that the festival was excessively critical of Israel, the university administration intervened in the academic freedom of their faculty, changing curricular requirements without faculty consent and failing to support employees of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim backgrounds who faced “death threats, calls for their dismissal, and other forms of targeted harassment within and beyond the university.”

This multitude of crackdowns on academic freedom from Israel to Palestine to Europe and the US shows that we are living in dangerous times. Our struggles for freedom cannot and should not be separated from the atrocities taking place within Gaza and the West Bank. As the countless teach-ins about Gaza show, universities have a crucial role to play in educating everyone to see beyond media soundbites and politicians’ cliches that are determining not only the discourse surrounding the war, but who gets to live and who had to die.

Legal scholar and free speech advocate Peter Ramsay has explained well what universities have to offer in the current moment: “If higher education is really involved in knowing the causes of things and bettering society, then it is necessarily a public activity of sharing and disputing knowledge, and of risking our pride and our identity for the public benefit.

Government ministers and university administrators who imagine that they are doing their job by condemning academic speech that they disagree with because it challenges the basis of Israel’s war on Gaza gravely misunderstand the purpose of education. They substitute critical inquiry with uncritical support for governmental policy. In so doing, they are undermining the institutions that keep democracy alive. Through these repressive means, the question of Palestine becomes implicated in our collective liberation, and freedom for Palestinians means freedom for us all.

Rebecca Ruth Gould is a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Poetics and Global Politics, at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She is the author of numerous works at the intersection of aesthetics and politics, including Erasing Palestine (2023), Writers and Rebels (2016) and The Persian Prison Poem (2021). With Malaka Shwaikh, she is the author of Prison Hunger Strikes in Palestine (2023). Her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books, Middle East Eye, and World Policy Journal and her writing has been translated into eleven languages.

Follow her on Twitter: @rrgould

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.