Prof. Ilan Troen’s Remarks at the Alternative Panel Discussion Exposes Anti-Intellectual Boycott Movement

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Thank you for inviting me to participate in this panel as a non-member of the MLA to bring relevant evidence from the field. I am an Israeli and an American. I’ve spent most of my career at Ben-Gurion University, teaching and writing history and holding several significant administrative positions.

My contribution today is to provide information on three topics:

1) Israel’s alleged exclusion of foreigners, including Americans of Palestinian descent, from participating in the education of Palestinians..

2) Israel’s continuing engagement in ensuring the Palestinians living in Israel have access to and are integrated in the national system of higher education.

3) Israel’s onoing cooperation with Palestinian universities and Palestinian society at large.

All three have bearing on the content of the proposed boycott and on the alleged wrongs those calling for boycott are purportedly seeing to right.

My argument is this: Israeli higher education makes a large and significant contribution to the education of Palestinians and to coexistence during a protracted bitter and sometimes violent national conflict.  The proposed boycott would manifestly injure the very population the MLA panelists claim to represent.


I.  The Visa and Entry Issue

It is actually easier for an American to enter Israel and the West Bank than for Israelis to enter the United States.

In 2012, Israel denied entry to a total of 142 Americans. 626,000 entered the country. This puts the Israeli refusal rate at about 0.023% which is more or less the annual average. In 2012 the American refusal rate for Israelis who applied for “B” visas (business and pleasure) was 5.4%.  That is, an Israeli who wants to enter the United States is about 200 times more likely to be denied entry than an American who wants to enter Israel, including those who wants to enter the West Bank.[i]

Should you enter the relevant State Department website as the MLA panelists urge, you would discover that the State Department advises American citizens not to go to Gaza since it is under the control of Hamas, that is defined as a terrorist organization.  It similarly cautions against entering areas in the West Bank since Americans are likely to encounter violence from Palestinian radicals and experience Israel army closures that are made in response.

Nevertheless, the fact is that hundreds of foreign teachers successfully enter Palestine.  My own American university, Brandeis, regularly sends faculty and students to Al-Quds in the West Bank. We also have both faculty and students from Palestine at Brandeis.  The same is true for other exchange programs.

If Palestinian universities have difficulty recruiting foreign academics for permanent positions, it is not because of issues with Israeli border policies.  External research indicates problems of low salaries, poor working conditions and political pressures that limit academic freedom.[ii]


Part II. Palestinians in Israeli Higher Education:

Israeli youth, including Palestinians, have access to one of the most advanced and distinguished university systems in the Middle East and beyond.  Israeli scholars have been awarded Nobel Prizes in such areas as chemistry, economics and medically related sciences.  Israeli universities have outstanding departments in Law, the Humanities — including studies of Islam and the history and culture of Israel’s neighbors — the Social Sciences, Agriculture, Engineering and High-tech.

Israeli Arabs are not calling for BDS. On the contrary, the numbers of Israeli-Palestinian students enrolled in Israeli universities and colleges has steadily increased. There is a new Arab language college in Nazareth for which a segment of the Israeli Arab community successfully lobbied.  But the majority study at Hebrew-language institutions.

Here are some figures to consider:

At Haifa University, the institution with the largest proportion of non-Jewish Israelis, 3,000 Israeli Arabs/ Palestinians or Druze comprise 1/3 of the University’s 9,000 undergraduate students; 1,200 are enrolled in graduate and professional programs; another 3,000 are in pre-academic programs that prepare them for the university.  Thousands of other Palestinian/Israeli Arabs are enrolled in virtually all institutions of higher education throughout Israel and at all degree levels.

Israeli universities successful inclusion of the Palestinian community has occasioned a revolution. Prior to the establishment of the State in 1948, there was near universal literacy among Jews as well as perhaps the highest proportion of doctors – medical and Ph.D.s — in any population in the world.  At the same time, only 25% of the total Arab population of Palestine was literate and literacy among Palestinian women was considerably lower.  Today illiteracy has been largely erased and Arab women, including women dressed in keeping with the Islamic code, attend Israeli universities.

In Israel’s medical faculties, where places are highly prized, 22% of all medical students in Israel are now Palestinians. Please note that twenty-two percent is about the proportion of Palestinians in the general population.  More than 40% of pharmacology students are Arab.  Large numbers have also chosen the human services from education to social work. This reflects communal needs as well as employment opportunities.

My own institution – Ben-Gurion University of the Negev –attracts many Bedouins, a population that was perhaps the most in need of schooling at Israel’s founding.

More than a thousand Arabs, including some 680 Bedouins, now study at the university.  Many come through pre-collegiate enrichment programs designed to bolster success in matriculation exams.  Most are granted university scholarships.  More than half of Bedouin students are now women.  While most are undergraduates, more than 30% are in graduate or professional programs.

Years of active recruitment and programs to advance this population have made a demonstrable difference.

Arab and Bedouin scholars and researchers are an integral part of the BGU faculty. They currently chair departments of social work, electrical engineering and Middle East Studies and direct programs in education, electro-optic engineering, computer sciences, chemistry, creative writing and comparative literature, and medicine.  The first Bedouin woman M.D. has been recruited to the Faculty of Health Sciences.  Professor Alean Al-Krenawi, formerly Chair of the Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion, has been appointed president at “Achva,” a BGU-affiliated college which like other such institutions serves both Jews and Palestinians. I would add that achva is the Hebrew word for brotherhood, comradeship, amity and solidarity.

This is a record that is being replicated throughout Israel.  It probably helps explain another fact that initially seems surprising: Even leftist Israeli Arabs who identify themselves as Palestinian and who are sharply critical of the state do not include boycott of the Israeli academy in their political programs. This group includes the intellectual elite and signers of the Future Vision documents that call for the disestablishment of a Jewish state in favor of a denationalized polity. They seek more, not less, access and integration.

A significant exception is Omar Bargouti – a key MLA panelist and leader of the BDS movement.  Bargouti was born in Qatar and educated at Columbia University before coming to Tel Aviv University for graduate studies. His field is ethics.  Despite a petition signed by 184,000 individuals demanding the university rescind his degree for advocating boycott of his own institution, Tel-Aviv University’s president refused to do so in the name of academic freedom.



PART III, Israeli cooperation with Palestinians on the West Bank

Finally, we must take account of active cooperation between Israeli institutions and those in the Palestinian Authority. During the British Mandate and under Jordanian rule, the small educational institutions were often supported by foreign Christian groups.  They were transformed into public universities after 1967 under the Israeli administration and with its encouragement.

Enrollment and graduation rates have grown exponentially with about 200,000 students in the PA’s 49 recognized higher education institutions, 34 of which are in the West Bank. Higher education in the PA is growing at such a rate that it intends to capitalize on this success and convert this sector into a ‘Palestinian Export’, bringing in students from all over the region.

Jewish outreach to Palestine’s Arabs began well before Israeli’s establishment when individual Jewish physicians set up clinics to treat diseases like trachoma.  Perhaps the best-known example of Israeli inaugurated medical cooperation is the Hebrew University’s affiliated Hadassah Medical center in Jerusalem that serves the city’s Jewish and Arab populations, and well beyond.  It is an integrated institution with Arab and Jewish medical staff, patients and support workers.

There are other examples.  Specialized trilateral programs bring together Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian health professionals to target Cerebral Palsy. This largely forgotten population would not likely receive care were it not for the involvement of Israeli researchers.

Emergency Medicine is another area of cooperation.  Israel has among the most skilled personnel anywhere, due in large measure to the need to respond to terrorist attacks.  These painfully acquired skills are shared with Jordanians and Palestinians, with expenses often entirely underwritten by Israeli institutions.

From cerebral palsy and cancer to public health and drug-abuse, Israeli academics engage with Palestinian counterparts to address problems across the Green Line.  Professor Khulood Dajani, an Al Quds University Vice-President and Founding Dean of its Public Health faculty, holds a doctorate in this area from Ben-Gurion University.  Her observation, made during the last Intifada bears quoting here: “The Israeli-Palestinian experience in collaborative projects in public health has demonstrated that despite tragic hostile events and marked fluctuations in the political atmosphere cooperation could be carried on.  Thousands of people of both sides were involved and vital health services were provided to populations in need.”

Palestinians who work with colleagues at the Technion, the Weizmann Institute, Ben-Gurion and Hebrew Universities have expressed similar appreciation for what has been achieved through joint projects.

In addition to medicine, I would like to mention two other essential and active areas of cross-border collaboration.

The first is the struggle with desertification.  The inhabitants of Palestine/Israel/Jordan and Egypt share a similar arid or semi-arid climate.  The most significant place for combatting desertification – outside the American Southwest – is in the research spearheaded at Israeli universities.  Zionism has made the desert bloom.  Collaborators from China (the Gobi is larger than the Negev), across Africa and elsewhere come to Israel.  This includes Palestinians and Arabs from neighboring countries.  Jewish and Arab scientists and students work together in research and the transfer of technologies.  The list of projects they tackle is impressive: Desalination; solar energy; desert architecture; arid zone agriculture; animal husbandry; ensuring the viability of the Dead Sea (a body of water that Jordan, Palestine and Israel share) – are just some among others.

These life-sustaining projects are supported not only by the participating institutions but by the international community, especially Europe and the United States but even Arab countries such as Oman which is particularly interested in desalination.  These collaborations not only result in new technologies to afford a better life for millions who live under harsh climate conditions, but serve to promote mutual respect, shared understanding, and peaceful coexistence.

The last example is close to my own areas of interest that some members of the MLA may share: the construction of narratives.  For approximately 20 years scholars at Israeli and Palestinian universities have attempted to contribute to mutual understanding by sharing their national narratives.  We initially imagined we might construct one inclusive narrative out of the conflicting claims and interpretations of the Arab/Israeli conflict and then integrate it into Palestinian and Israeli education.  That strategy proved misguided, as Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University and the late Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University explained.  Instead of a unitary homogenized narrative, they suggested, there are parallel ones. In human discourse, as in nature, these parallel lines do not meet.  Nevertheless, Adwan and Bar-On deemed the exercise essential, for it has the potential of engendering empathy – a quality that can diminish even if it cannot eliminate conflict.

This past year. Israel Studies, an Israeli-based journal I co-edit for Indiana University Press, published a special issue on “Shared Narratives” that brought together the work of scholars from Israel and Palestine.  Our project will now be republished by a Palestinian research center for even wider distribution in the Arab world.  Such shared enterprises mitigate the prolonged conflict that has so diminished our lives.  Significantly, similar projects are taking place in many Palestinian and Israeli universities and colleges.

To conclude:

Israeli and Palestinian Jews and Arabs want and need more, not less, of Israeli science and higher education. Both within and across the border, cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian institutions and academics is ongoing and fruitful. It should not be diminished but encouraged for the benefit of all.

The dissemination of knowledge should have no boundaries.  Israel and Palestinian scholars and students, who are so vocal in so many areas, are not clamoring before the MLA or any other academic association for support of an academic boycott of Israel.

Rather, a small, politically motivated coterie is attempting to hijack this association with false slogans, incomplete data and distorted information.  The misinformed and malicious proposal before the MLA should be identified as such and rejected outright.




[i] “Border Security: Entry into Israel”. The Embassy of Israel to the United States. Israel Diplomatic Network. Consular Services. 2014. <>.

[ii] Robinson, David (Associate Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers), “The Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza,” January 2010 at http://download.ei,%20the%20West%20Bank%20and%20 Gaza.pdf; and “Session 2: Protecting and Defending Academic Freedom”. 6th International Higher Education and Research Conference. Education International. 14 November 2007. < Education and Research/Higher Education Policy Papers/2008-00037- 01-E.pdf>



Prof. Ilan Troen’s Remarks at the Alternative Panel Discussion Exposes Anti-Intellectual Boycott Movement

  • Source: Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC)b
  • Originally published on 01/09/2014
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