Israel Under Fire Over 'Restrictions' on Palestinian Academics — But What Is Truth?

MLA and ASA Resolutions Bash Jewish State

Noam’s Drama: Linguist Noam Chomsky was turned away by Israeli border guards when he tried to teach at a Palestinian university. How common is his experience?
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Noam’s Drama: Linguist Noam Chomsky was turned away by Israeli border guards when he tried to teach at a Palestinian university. How common is his experience?

By Hody Nemes

Published January 17, 2014.
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Bill Van Esveld, Human Rights Watch’s Israel representative, said foreigners of Palestinian descent — including academics — have faced the largest obstacles to entering the West Bank. “None of this is specific to academics,” he said. “But it does apply to academics of Palestinian background as it would to anyone.” Israel particularly restricts entry of ethnic Palestinian visitors because of fears that they will join activist groups in the West Bank or seek to settle permanently in the area, he said.

At the MLA’s Delegate Assembly, critics of the group’s Israel resolution passed out leaflets arguing that Israeli restrictions on foreign academics are actually quite rare. The leaflet cited figures on the Israeli Embassy’s website showing that only 142 out of about 626,000 Americans were denied entry to Israel in 2012, a rejection rate of about .023%. By contrast, the United States refused 5.4% of Israeli applications for comparable “B” tourist visas in 2012, leading the critics to conclude, “The United States has a much more restrictive practice than Israel in this regard.”

That’s “nonsensical and invalid,” said Charles Shamas, a Jerusalem-based human rights lawyer, referring to the .023% figure, as it does not break out how many of these visitors, like Chomsky, sought to enter the West Bank. Shamas, who helped assemble the Right To Enter report cited by the resolution’s backers, believes the rate of entry denials to the West Bank to be much higher. Additionally, “the 142 acknowledged cases involving U.S. citizens are part of a much larger number of cases involving foreign nationals,” Shamas said. (The MLA resolution, however, specifically condemns the treatment of academics from the United States.)

The Right To Enter report focused particular criticism on Israel’s practice of granting tourist visas for three months or less to visitors to the West Bank, including foreign academics. After three months the academics must reapply for a visa, which sometimes requires leaving and re-entering the country, and no guarantee that they will be allowed to return. Israeli entry policies are opaque and are often interpreted arbitrarily by border officials, according to Shamas and the report.

“You can’t imagine the psychological destruction that comes from leaving every three months and the expense that comes with it,” Roger Heacock, a history professor at Birzeit University, told Right To Enter. “We’ve been here 30 years, my family and me, but it’s been terrible. Really, it’s worn us down.”

According to Shamas, some academics know ahead of time that Israel will not renew their visas, so they simply depart the country, and might not be counted in the 142 people actually denied entry.

Critics of the MLA resolution argue that the renewal issue is blown far out of proportion. More than 90% of foreign academics’ renewal applications are approved, according to data posted on the Israeli Embassy’s website.

Shamas said that the renewal process — which he called “stressful and even Kafkaesque” — can deter academics from accepting positions in the West Bank in the first place. “They can’t tell if they will be permitted to complete their teaching contracts or their research,” Shamas said. “All of this makes it very difficult to recruit faculty, to plan academic terms.”

Palestinian University administrators interviewed by Right To Enter bemoaned the lack of foreign academics among their faculties. They say their schools need more foreign scholars to end dire teacher shortages, set up advanced degree programs and import cutting-edge teaching methods from abroad.

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