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Selective condemnation of state violence against students

July 3, 2009

Gaza+students+back+to+school-+the+cards+name+the+students+killed+by+Israel.jpgThe Modern Language Association, of which I am a paid graduate student member, has made a statement in which it ‘deplores’ attacks on universities in Iran. In clear and precise terms, the Association (inarguably the largest organized U.S. academic body in the humanities) expresses its disapproval with the Iranian government’s wielding of violence against students:

The Executive Council approved the following statement on 26 June 2009:

In the wake of the Iranian elections, government security forces have reportedly carried out attacks on universities, leading to large-scale arrests and student deaths. The chancellor of Shiraz University, one of Iran’s most prestigious, has resigned in protest. Violence on other campuses has been reported.

Recognizing with alarm the implications for freedom of thought and expression and in the light of its particular responsibility for the humanities in higher education, the Modern Language Association deplores the attacks on Iranian universities, which endanger students, faculty members, and staff members. We express our hope that the government of Iran will refrain from using violence or other repressive measures in these revered centers of learning and teaching.

State violence against Iranian students has been swift, brutal and ugly, from the dormitory raids in ’99 and then ’09; to the assassination of college students like music student Neda Agha Soltan, whose filmed death has also become a televirtual spectacle; to the slow death of opportunities in higher education thanks to the privatization of Irans’ universities (Rafsanjani) and the mushrooming of ‘taxi cab Ph.D.’s.’ 

But why this statement, why Iran, and why now? Is the Iranian state exceptional in its use of violence against students and young people? Is the Iranian election the only ‘current’ contemporary event demonstrative of brutal repression and attacks on education?

A search of the Executive Council’s site yielded foreseen results: the MLA has never condemned violence against Palestinian students, languishing under the longest and most violent occupation in modern history. Long trapped under the suffocating siege of Gaza or facing armed, harassing Israeli soldiers at West Bank checkpoints, are Palestinian students not worthy of statements deploring violence? Or is Israel so wholly above the law that it is never instructed to ‘refrain from using violence or other repressive measures’?

Why did the MLA never ‘deplore’ the Israeli army’s digging of 10-foot trenches around Birzeit University during the second intifada to prevent students from attending? Why did the MLA never ‘deplore’ Israel’s refusal to allow Fulbright (and other scholarship) students from leaving Gaza? Why does the MLA not ‘deplore’ the Israeli blockade of Gaza, where computers, school books, hearing aids for the deaf, and even crayons are condemned as inessential to Palestinian life?

While I do not normally distinguish between personal and political ethical rubrics, this is an exceedingly personal matter for me. My cousins and friends in Iran–the ones who have not yet fled to Canada, Japan or the U.S.–are highly educated and highly underemployed. They cross all political and religious lines of thought, have nearly all finished college or entered grad school, and universally feel impeded in their road to attaining higher ed and liveable salaries.

But as a student of U.S. universities I am also familiar with the token exceptionalism of Israel’s immoral and illegal occupation. It is not ‘safe’ to criticize Israel; people can lose their jobs for doing so.
Recall that in 2008, the Israeli blockade of Gaza had been in place for months, but what got any morsel of attention in the dominant media was the stoppage of truckloads of school materials that the Israeli government refused to allow in to Gaza in time for the September school openings.

In planning my film about the blockade, I approached a documentary production company in the U.S. for funding and support. They were interested in the ‘human life’ angle of the siege. Though they produced a weekly current events television program, they still seemed astonished–astonished–by what they saw as a double standard in Israel’s (anti-)civilizational project: scoffing Arabs as bookless heathens on the one hand, and stopping the entrance of even children’s books on the other. Or as one producer put it, ‘So a Palestinian with a Ph.D. in Gaza is going to teach his kids the alphabet by writing in the sand?’ The sustained attack on civilian life and the denial of ‘normalcy’ to Palestinians is considered by even progressive North Americans as here to stay, but the deliberate hindrance on learning especially stings as savage.

And yet. While the UK and Europe are discussing and implementing boycotts of Israeli institutions, U.S. academia deliberately ignore the Palestinian question (when not abandoning those professors and students who are bullied for daring to defend Palestinian human rights). In an essay today on Gazan scholarship students denied exit visas by Israel, Philip Weiss recalls the ‘cultural memory of the Warsaw Ghetto.’ In Gaza, ‘we saw tyranny at every hand. Control over virtually every aspect of other people’s lives–Arab people’s lives.’

This is the contact information listed on the MLA’s website. Perhaps the Executive Council should be reminded that it endangers academic freedom by perpetuating double standards.

Rosemary G. Feal, Executive director
Phone: +1 646 576 5102

(Photo taken at a school in Gaza after the 2009 Israeli attacks, where students sit next to their dead classmates’ name placards. The photo was widely circulated; I do not know the name of the photographer to properly credit.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. hans permalink
    July 4, 2009 10:46

    to the assassination of college students like music student Neda Agha Soltan,, got any proof to back this statement! I guess you do not. Stop making comments that cannot be proved!

  2. southissouth permalink
    July 4, 2009 11:11

    It’s not enough you cite, you have to Google it for them too.

    ‘Dr Hejazi said he first thought the gunshot had come from a rooftop.

    ‘Dr Hejazi said he first thought the gunshot had come from a rooftop. But later he saw protesters grab an armed man on a motorcycle. “People shouted ‘we got him, we got him’. They disarmed him and took out his identity card which showed he was a Basij member. People were furious and he was shouting, ‘I didn’t want to kill her’.’

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