Battle dress

Below is an article from Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily, about a Palestinian Israeli lecturer who has been victimised because he refused to allow soldiers uniforms or weapons in his class. Bear this in mind when anyone says that they support academic freedom and that is why they oppose the academic boycott of Israel:

Tony Greenstein

By Tamara Traubmann and Yuval Azoulay

About 15 students, most of them Jewish, were waiting for the filmmaker Nizar Hassan when he got to the restaurant outside Sderot. They hugged and kissed him. Their relations seemed open and warm – a far cry from the image of the aggressive and contemptuous lecturer that has clung to Hassan for the past few months, since he reportedly threw an army-reservist student out of his class for showing up in a uniform.

The students met with Hassan last Wednesday, after demonstrating on his behalf, along with other students and a few lecturers, on the campus of Sapir Academic College in the western Negev town of Sderot. Right-wing activist Itamar Ben-Gvir and a group of young followers of the late ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane gathered for a counter demonstration, which the students had organized in support of reserve soldiers. Numerous journalists were on the scene as well, but Hassan chose to keep his distance from them. In his opinion, the Israeli media not only published erroneous information about what happened during the lesson, but also prejudged him in their militaristic discourse.

Hassan did not, in fact, eject student Eyal Cohen, a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces reserves, from the classroom. Rather, he told him: “I am absolutely unwilling to have people bearing arms and in uniform – whether of the police, of Fatah or of Hamas – come to my class.” However, since November, when the mistaken reports were first published, Hassan has been under public attack by senior IDF officers and politicians, and behind the scenes by senior staff and students at the college, where he has worked for the past four years.

The Knesset’s Education Committee passed a resolution condemning the lecturer who “refused to teach a student because he was in IDF uniform and armed.” A disciplinary procedure was launched against Hassan and he was suspended even before the procedure was concluded. Someone stuffed a photograph of him with a swastika scrawled across it into his mailbox.

An ultimatum had been given Hassan by the college’s president, Prof. Ze’ev Tzahor: Apologize to the student and declare that you respect the uniform of the IDF, or you will be fired. But by last Thursday, when the ultimatum expired, Hassan had neither apologized nor made the declaration. On Monday the college published a statement that it had started the process of terminating his employment and said that he would be required to attend a hearing on the matter in the future. Hassan himself learned about this from the press. “I will not apologize,” he says in a first interview to an Israeli paper since the start of the affair. “I prefer to beg in the streets of Nazareth and eat crumbs.

From the moment this became a political issue, there is no possibility of apologizing. And they turned it into a political issue by not saying from day one that the story is a lie and by not leaving it as a matter between teacher and student.”

‘Teaching human beings’

Nizar Hassan, 47, a documentary filmmaker, grew up in the village of Mashhad, in the Lower Galilee. He lives in Nazareth and is married and the father of two children. His films (which include “Ejteyah,” 2003, about the defense put up by the Jenin refugee camp during the IDF’s Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and “Cut,” 2000, about the Sephardi Jews of Moshav Agur) are screened at international film festivals. He is a well-known director outside Israel.
“I have had inquiries from all over the world,” he says. “At the moment everything is at a standstill. I don’t want to exploit the incident or even talk about things like that.”
Hassan meanwhile is considering an appeal to the Labor Court. “What happened here is unacceptable – it infringes on my rights. It will not end here. I will take it to every place in the world to prove that I am right.”

The incident occurred last November 8 during a workshop entitled “Script and Research in a Documentary Film,” he says: “I enter the classroom and see the legs of a soldier, the lower part of the body. I see a hand sliding across a pistol or something like that – I can’t tell one weapon from another. I didn’t recognize him, maybe because of the uniform. I asked him who he was, and he replied, ‘What do you mean, who am I?‘ I thought maybe he wasn’t one of my students, because never in my life did I imagine I would ever teach a student like this. I ask him, ‘Are you a student of mine?‘ He says he is and I ask what his name is. I see he is registered. For a moment I thought to myself that there was even something comic about this whole extraordinary situation.

“I said, ‘I am absolutely not willing to have people attend classes with weapons and in uniform – any uniform.’ One of the students said, ‘That’s the way it is everywhere in the world.’ I decided that I didn’t want to open the issue to discussion, because it was a new class. I said, ‘It’s not acceptable to me. I will not tell anyone not to come or to leave – you should understand that you don’t come here in uniform and with a weapon.’ I turned to the student and said, ‘Because you didn’t know that and I didn’t mention it, you can stay.’ He said, ‘I came straight from reserve duty, and I came like this because it says in your syllabus that a student is allowed to miss only one class.’ I told the class, ‘You are allowed to miss up to three classes, and the college allows a student in the reserves to miss more.’ Then I started the lesson.”

How long did that exchange take?

Hassan: “Maybe three minutes.”

Hassan says he then went on to talk about Hollywood, which produces formulaic films, and on the freedom of thought which a director needs. “I said that a director must not think in terms of ‘Yes, commander!’ A director cannot accept a ‘Yes, commander’ mentality.” (Eyal Cohen, the student, told the committee that he felt this was aimed directly at him, to humiliate and mock him.)

In another context, when the lecturer explained that a good director knows his remarks are not sacrosanct, a discussion developed in which one of the students went back to the issue of the uniform and asked, “And if a woman wearing a head-covering entered the classroom, how would you react?”

What did you reply?

“I asked what that had to do with it. [I said:] ‘I respect the belief of every person, whether they wear a skullcap or a veil, or any other faith. I am not an ‘Arab teacher’ and you are not Arab, Palestinian or Jewish and Israeli students. You are students and I am the teacher, and I teach human beings! I do not want to see weapons here, I do not want to see uniforms, and I request very much that you not bring the war into my class. I teach human beings.’

“Then the student said, ‘I am a human being, too.’ I told him, I do not teach uniforms, not of policemen, not of soldiers, not of Hamas and not of Fatah, not of anyone … I added, ‘Because I am afraid of not being fair with you, when you come next time’ – some say I said ‘when you come next time, without the uniform’ – I will first give you 10 minutes to say what you want.’ And that was the end of the affair.”

Why didn’t you let him speak then?

“In the messy situation and pressure that was created, I thought it would be better if everyone would go home, calm down and start over next time. It was my decision as a teacher not to generate chaos in the class.”

From that moment, the class proceeded. As it ended, a “color red” rocket-attack alarm sounded and everyone, including the lecturer, ran for cover.

The committee asserted that there could be no invalidation of the legitimate presence of people in uniform in the college. “Reserve service in Israel is inseparable from the fabric of civic life,” the committee stated. “This is a basic fact that cannot be denied or repressed, and it undoubtedly sets apart Israeli reality and way of life. Its roots are even deeper than the security constraints in which Israel has found itself since its inception. The IDF is a citizen army in every sense of the word.”

Hassan does not share this sentiment. According to his logic, weapons and uniforms do not enter the classroom, “and with all due respect to Israeli logic, uniforms are a symbol of violence. Maybe some Israelis have begun thinking of their weapons like their children, or the extension of one of their organs – I am sorry to say that, and I say it with extremism to shock people a little. There is nothing like this anywhere in the world. I also do not accept the view that ‘we here are in a special situation.’ Even if there is a special situation, we have to change it.”
You made the decision to work in an Israeli academic institution – you know the rules of the game.


Can you lay down rules in the classroom even on a nonacademic matter?

“First of all, I have every right to argue with every rule and fight for rules that are appropriate for me. Compromises between people are exactly the name of the game, and the game is to be open. Israel has not yet emerged from its fixed ideas. Just say that you are a militaristic society that cannot live without weapons and uniforms, and that will be the end of the story. What do you want from me? Take me out of the game. Build yourselves a college in your image, a Jewish-Zionist college, with values like those the committee talks about, where a condition for teaching will be a declaration of respect for uniforms. Even if I return to Sapir, it will still be unacceptable to me for a student to enter my class in uniform and with a weapon … [If] I decide to stay, it is my right to wage a bitter battle, together with my colleagues and students, so uniforms will not be allowed. Not because of my feelings of frustration, as the committee said, but because I believe a complete separation is needed between the arenas. Even if I were in Syria, I would insist that no weapons or uniforms enter the classroom.”

But you know – everyone knows – that the army is everywhere in Israeli society.

“I know no such thing. I went out into the Israeli street and did not see what you are describing. And even if it were the case, so what?”

Were you surprised to see a uniformed soldier in your class?

“It surprised me, and how. Everyone keeps saying ‘uniform’ as though we were talking about a piece of cloth. It is not some rag. Is it convenient for everyone to say it’s just a piece of cloth? Fine, live with your illusion.”

‘From the soul’

Hassan doesn’t answer to any conventions. He is critical of everyone, including the ostensibly radical left, the Ashkenazi-liberal, Arab-loving, provincial-patronizing left, and the self-important colleagues from the film and art world. Nevertheless, many of his students took his side. His supporters, and some opponents, too, spoke admiringly of a “tough” and critical person, who spurs his students to achievements and gets them to do things they didn’t believe they had in them – a teacher who does not give up on any student.

“He teaches from the soul,” says the student Sivan Petel, who describes herself as “extreme right wing.” “He is a type of Nietzsche, someone who murders all the gods and laws we were raised on, and opens your mind to other things. Not everyone is capable of studying with him; there are some people who will never understand him.”

The impression gleaned by the committee from the testimonies of student Eyal Cohen, the dean of students and senior college staff is that Hassan is an “outstanding” lecturer, who has an “impulsive character” and imposes a “regime of fear” in the class. The college does not have a formal set of disciplinary regulations or a charter concerning the behavior of students and teachers. According to Prof. Tzahor, the committee acted on the basis of a decision of the internal academic council and according to the academic ethos, which he summarizes as: “Politics – only as far as the classroom door.” Tzahor and the committee maintain that a lecturer is forbidden to bring politics into his classes or to force his ideological opinions on the students.

But it turns out that there is plenty of politics at Sapir, and not only in Hassan’s classes. Students Rotem Azoulai and Elad Zamir describe other cases in which teachers offended students, or where lecturers talked about politics and expressed their opinions, but were not subjected to disciplinary action. The head of the college’s Film and Television Department, Avner Faingulernt, told the committee that one lecturer told her class why her son would not join the “occupation army.” Tzahor says he was unaware of that case.

In another incident, Dr. Shlomit Tamari told a Bedouin student to remove her head-covering because it is an element of suppression. No disciplinary action was taken against her, either. “I told the student that I hadn’t intended to insult her,” Tamari says. “I told the college that I have academic freedom, and I can talk about that subject and I am continuing to do so.”
Tzahor says in response that the college administration “does not have a double standard.” He says that “a first case is treated more leniently, but in Hassan’s case it keeps recurring”: The lecturer was warned in the past not to bring politics into his classes. Tzahor adds that in the present case an official complaint was filed (see box), which required steps to be taken. Hassan asserts that, “I didn’t want to assume the role of a ‘member of the minorities,’ asking for special consideration in the wake of a personal problem he has with the IDF uniform. Nothing would have happened.” But because Hassan refused to conform to Israeli convention, he paid a steep price – and not only in terms of losing his and his family’s livelihood.

Hassan: “I was slaughtered. Incorrect reports were published and no one stood up and said ‘It’s a lie!’ People tried to take advantage of the case. There were a great many personal slanders and gossip on the part of people who were interviewed on condition of anonymity. Someone wrote that I said yehudon [kike] – a word I had never even heard of until then. People didn’t even ask for my response. How can Ze’ev Tzahor not be ashamed to condemn me in the Knesset, before the committee even made a decision? How can you condemn behavior before you know what happened?”

Tzahor says he expressed his opinion about Hassan’s remarks only after he clarified the facts. As for his comments in a meeting of the Knesset’s Education Committee, Tzahor says: “I said that if Nizar made those remarks it was a grave act.” The word “if” does not appear in the transcript of the committee’s meeting.

Crossing red lines

The IDF was outraged by the incident and several senior officers including Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi spoke to Tzahor about it. While talking about other matters, “the question of what we intended to do about it was raised [by Ashkenazi],” Tzahor recalls. “I replied that we would make an announcement upon taking action. I explained to him what I had explained to everyone: Everything will be done according to the academic ethos.”

In a letter he sent Tzahor when the incident first became known, the head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, Major General Elazar Stern, threatened to terminate the army’s cooperation with the college – which would mean a loss of revenues from tuition and budgeting for hundreds of soldiers who go there. Stern’s impression was that the college had not taken the “measures that are called for” against Hassan and “did not behave with the proper determination.” He added that “in the name of the IDF,” he expected a “sharp, public, official condemnation”: “At least,” Stern wrote, “the college administration should demand that Hassan apologize to Lieutenant Cohen as a condition for his continued employment.”

Three days after the first media report, the Sapir administration convened the internal academic council. Its members, who are lecturers, denounced Hassan’s remarks and said that “measures” had to be taken. The council decided to establish, for the first time in the college’s history, a committee chaired by Prof. Uri Regev, and including Prof. Yigal Elam and lecturer Yehudit Morag.

The council did not ask to hear Hassan’s version of the events before deciding to create the committee, nor was he invited to its meeting. The decision was made on the basis of a report submitted by Tzahor, who says he clarified details of the incident with Cohen and Hassan, and found no significant contradictions. “At first I didn’t realize it was a hearing. I thought it would be a proper committee of inquiry, to investigate the lie,” Hassan says.

When the storm broke, he was in Paris editing his new film, about the Shi’ites in Lebanon, which has since been aired widely on European television stations. In his view and that of his lawyer, Ester Livni, the incident did not mandate the establishment of a committee, but should have been dealt with internally in the department. “The very fact of the committee’s existence, like Nizar’s suspension, was a surrender to pressures,” Livni says. Tzahor maintains he did not encounter any pressure from the army and that the college’s action was transparent and orderly.

Department head Faingulernt was also abroad at the time. He told the committee that if he and Hassan had been in Israel, matters would have been worked out satisfactorily – without a disciplinary procedure. “Things would have calmed down, because there have already been worse cases,” Faingulernt says. However, the committee took a different view. Its report, issued at the end of last month, stated that Hassan “crossed red lines of rules of behavior.” He was instructed to apologize to Cohen.

The committee stated that Hassan’s “behavior and militancy toward the student is totally unacceptable and deserves the sharpest condemnation,” and that “if behavior of this kind recurs,” Hassan will be fired. In a letter to Hassan, Tzahor added that he must declare his respect for the IDF uniform. According to Tzahor, a “softened version” was afterward proposed to Hassan, which he also rejected.

Hassan is particularly incensed at the committee’s conclusions. “Nizar tried to cloak himself” in a viewpoint that describes a separation between the military and civilian arenas, the committee wrote. However, “we find [that viewpoint] utterly groundless, and we also doubt that this was what influenced his behavior in the face of the student’s appearance in a reservist uniform.” In his behavior, “Nizar abused his status and his authority as a teacher to flaunt his opinions, feelings and frustrations as a member of the Arab national minority in Israel, cloaking himself in a ‘humane’ and ‘universal’ garb, whereas in fact he demonstrated a stance of brute force bearing a distinctly nationalist character, completely symmetrical to crass nationalist outlooks which are also widespread, it must be said, in Israeli Jewish society.”

Hassan: To begin with, I am not a member of a minority: I am a Palestinian, and proud of it. Second, on what basis did they decide that I do not have humane values and that this was not a position of principle? They did not even ask me about my attitude toward Jordanian or Lebanese or French soldiers, or any soldier as such. The committee did not have a shred of doubt that I was motivated by frustration. How can they talk about what they claim is the experience of the Arab minority in Israel without having a clue about it? After all, they do not even know Arabic. But still they reject absolutely the possibility that I have universal values that were my reason for acting.”

“Maybe so,” says committee chairman Regev in response. “It’s clear that he has arguments, but a situation like this is not pleasant. That is why we wrote that that is how he and his lawyer see it, and this is how we see it. There can be nothing more natural than different people forming different impressions. I think the report is balanced, as far as we were able to be balanced. We took into account all the considerations. I definitely thought, as we all did, that our recommendations strike a balance between his crossing of red lines and his excellence as a teacher.”