Palestinian students facing increased harassment on Israeli campuses

Tel Aviv University - Al-Nakba ceremony organized by Palestinian students (File)

Jessica Buxbaum

Mondoweiss  /  July 20, 2022

For Palestinians attending Israeli universities, freedom of expression is often met with racism and violence from neo-fascist Zionist groups.

University life is designed to champion diverse thought and opinion, but for Palestinian students attending Israeli universities, freedom of expression is often met with violence. 

Aleen Nassra, a first-year student at Tel Aviv University, felt this acutely following a ceremony held near campus commemorating the Nakba (in Arabic, “the Catastrophe”), referring to the Zionist campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine before and during the establishment of the State of Israel. 

After the May 15 demonstration, Nassra opened her Instagram account and was bombarded with messages telling her to go live in Gaza, calling her a whore, and flooding her pictures with Israeli flags. The users also posted on their Instagram profile stories for others to join them in harassing Nassra. One of the commenters was her classmate. 

Nassra’s Instagram feed was inundated with hate for two days. 

While Nassra wasn’t physically assaulted, the Nakba event itself was marked by violence. Students Ahmad Jabbarin, Nimr Abu Ahmad, and Rami Khatib were arrested for attacking police officers, according to the Israel Police, but which Nassra denies. Jabbarin was detained for three days. 

“His three-day detention appears to have been politically motivated, as police sought to intimidate and silence students commemorating the 74th anniversary of the Nakba and flying Palestinian flags,” the Middle East Studies Association Committee on Academic Freedom said in a letter to Israeli Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev, Police Chief Yaacov ‘Kobi’ Shabtai, and university heads. 

According to Nassra, counter-demonstrators from the Zionist Im Tirtzu movement, which has branches at 20 Israeli universities, disrupted the ceremony by shouting “the Nakba is a lie,” and attacking a student activist. No Im Tirtzu students were arrested.

Nassra temporarily locked her Instagram profile, but the harassment quickly escalated after she spoke about her university experience during a May 23 Knesset Committee on Education, Culture, and Sports session. 

Im Tirtzu quickly called for her expulsion from Tel Aviv University, citing her Facebook post in which she advocated for a boycott of Jewish and settlement businesses and to buy Palestinian products during Israel’s May 2021 assault on Gaza and occupied East Jerusalem. Nassra said she misspoke, and meant to emphasize the importance of supporting the Palestinian economy during this time. Im Tirtzu is also actively calling for the expulsion of Khatib

Nassra described how she was afraid to walk the seven minutes home from school. “I’m under the microscope now,” Nassra said. “I would go to the library to study and see people look at me as if I’m the bad and violent person.”

Escalating attacks

Incidents like these have become commonplace at Israeli universities. On May 10, an Israeli student was caught on camera verbally assaulting a Palestinian student at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. In the video, the student is seen telling his Palestinian classmate he doesn’t have a right to be here and study with Jewish students, and accusing him of supporting terrorism. 

On May 12, an undercover special unit of the Israeli police arrested Ben Gurion University students Maryam Abu Qwaider and Hitaf al-Huzayyil during a vigil honoring Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli snipers during a military raid in Jenin in May. Al-Huzayyil was released but Abu Qwaider remains under house arrest for her Facebook posts. Im Tirtzu is also demanding she be expelled from Ben Gurion University. 

Like Nassra, Watan Madi, a second-year student at Ben Gurion University, was recently harassed on social media for using the term martyr when quoting Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish during a speech she gave at a student-led Nakba Day ceremony on campus. 

Nassra described how she’s witnessed a student showing off his gun during a lecture and groups chanting “Death to the Arabs” near school.

The presidents of Tel Aviv and Bezalel Academy didn’t respond to press inquiries on maintaining safety for Palestinian students. A spokesperson for Ben Gurion University told Mondoweiss the administration was not aware of any harassment or arrests.

Both Nassra and Madi say they chose to study at Israeli universities instead of Palestinian ones so they can improve their Hebrew. But language learning comes with the price of having to study in an intimidating campus environment.

Nassra described how she’s witnessed a student showing off his gun during a lecture and groups chanting “Death to the Arabs” near school.

“If any Arab [Palestinian] student did anything like that, the faculty management would do something about it. They will expel people. But when a Jewish student does this, they don’t do anything,” Nassra said. 

Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center, a non-profit advocating for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and who was arrested during his university days in the 1980s, agrees there is a double standard on Israeli campuses.

“If Arab students would say anything similar about Im Tirtzu activists or Im Tirtzu as a movement, the police will immediately act and not consider it freedom of speech, while Im Tirtzu actions will always be protected by the attorney general as part of freedom of speech in Israel,” Farah said. 

Farah, who noted the majority of students experiencing harassment lately have been women, traces the root of the problem to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the state’s heavily militarized society. 

“Some of the Jewish students were part of the occupation forces and [the university] is a place where they can’t use their weapon in the way they used to in the occupied territory.”

Jafar Farah

“Some of the Jewish students were part of the occupation forces and [the university] is a place where they can’t use their weapon in the way they used to in the occupied territory,” Farah said. “They’re not expecting equal students. They’re not expecting a woman who will face them as a proud Palestinian and tell them the truth. For them, the regular situation that they lived for three years or more is that they control the life of the Palestinians.”

For Madi, this is just part of the struggle of being a Palestinian woman in Israel, whether on or off campus. 

“This is the same feeling as living in Israel as a Palestinian,” Madi said. “To be Arab, Palestinian, and a woman isn’t the best combination in Israel, but this is our right to study in our homeland.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem covering Palestine and the Israeli occupation