An Interview with Scholar and Activist Ronit Lentin

Ronit Lentin1.    Tell us a bit about your early life, being born in Haifa and migrating to Ireland.

I was born in Haifa, Palestine, in 1944, before the establishment of the state of Israel. My parents came to Palestine from Bucovina, northern Romania, my father in 1926 as a boy of 13 and my mother in 1940, as a 20 year old; many members of her family were deported by the Romanian fascists to Transnistria and some perished. My British Mandate birth certificate lists my parents’ nationality as ‘Palestinian’, but of course this does not make me a Palestinian. I grew up in the State of Israel in a Zionist family and there was nothing in my education that made me question Zionism. I did not serve in the army (for medical reasons, not my choice at the time) which thankfully made me different to most Israelis. I studied at the Hebrew University, but did not complete my first degree for a variety of reasons.

My ‘road to Damascus’ moment happened shortly after the 1967 war when I followed Matzpen, the first anti-Zionist socialist group to analyse Israel as a settler colonial imperial power and to speak about the dispossession of the Palestinians in the 1948 Nakba. By that stage, I was no longer a Zionist. In 1968 I joined the newly founded Israel Television, where I met my husband, television director Louis Lentin, with whom I migrated to Ireland in 1969. I worked in television and in journalism before I embarked on a late academic career, working as a lecturer in sociology in the University of Dublin, Trinity College, where I founded a masters programme in Ethnic and Racial Studies (later re named ‘Race, Ethnicity, Conflict’), teaching Race Critical Theories and Gender and Race. I published extensively on Israel-Palestine, gender and violence, and race and migration in Ireland.

2.    How did you come to be involved in the Palestine solidarity campaign, and why do you feel it’s important for others to do the same?

I formally joined the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign only recently, although I was active in debating Palestinian issues and organising conferences on Palestine for many years, bringing speakers to the university, and supervising PhDs on Palestine. In 2007 I organised a conference on Palestine in a global context, the proceedings of which were published in an edited collection Thinking Palestine (Zed Books, 2008) with chapters by Ilan Pappe, Honaida Ghanim, Raef Zreik and several UK and US scholars. In 2010 I published Co-Memory and Melancholia: Israelis Memorialising the Palestinian Nakba (Manchester UP, 2010). Over the years I have written many newspaper articles and spoken publicly about the question of Palestine.

I plan to get further involved with the IPSC, particularly working on the academic boycott. Recently, we have been discussing establishing a group of Jews for Palestine – I am aware of the impact made by Jewish people working for Palestine, but I am yet to be convinced about organising ‘as Jews’.

There is broad public support for Palestine in Ireland culminating recently in the Irish lower house, the Senate, voting to recognise the state of Palestine (though personally, I wonder whether such recognition, despite its strong symbolic value, is actually about bringing the two state solution in by the back door). The IPSC is articulate and effective and is also clear about opposing any signs of antisemitism, of which we are accused by Israel and its representatives and supporters.

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3.    Did you face challenges in joining the campaign, coming from a Jewish background? If so, how did you overcome these?

Supporting Palestine as a Jew meets with the usual objections by other Jewish people, invested in supporting Zionism at all costs. My husband to whom I was married for 45 years and who passed away recently, was a supporter of Israel and we had many arguments throughout our married life, which is why I only publicly joined the IPSC recently. The Jewish community here disliked my political stance ever since I arrived;  apart from activities relating to my children’s (Jewish) school, I have not been involved in any communal activities. My family in Israel does not like my stance either.

But ultimately these things are not important. There is little point in complaining that it’s difficult to support Palestine ‘as a Jew’ when the real suffering is encountered by Palestinians. Israeli society has recently become increasingly fascist; and I am not only speaking about the government: during the recent Gaza massacre right wing thugs went out beating left wing demonstrators against the war and courageous journalists such as Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz have to be protected – freedom of speech is a figment of the imagination in a state calling itself ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’, where anti occupation organisations are hounded by the security forces.

4.    Can you tell us a little about the history and development of BDS?

The global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights was initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005, and is coordinated by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), established in 2007. BDS is a strategy that allows people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice.

5.    In your view, what role does BDS play in the wider solidarity for Palestine campaign?

According to the editor of Electronic Intifada Ali Abunima, ‘BDS has allowed Palestinians to put their rights back in the center of discourse and action around Palestine and the so-called “peace process”.’ Because it was initiated by Palestinians and is a response to Palestinian demands, the BDS campaign allows those working on it the opportunity of focusing on these demands and extending solidarity beyond ‘well wishing’ white western people doing ‘good things’. This is not always easy to remember because western supporters of Palestine often get stuck in a charitable mode.

6.    You are currently involved in the Academics for Palestine group in Dublin. Tell us more about the group and your recent achievements

The group was established a couple of years ago, although the call to boycott Israel has circulated amongst Irish academics before its establishment. Importantly, we have some 200 signatories to the boycott pledge and growing. Another achievement is our research in relation to firstly, the involvement of Israeli universities in Israel’s military and armament industries and secondly, the involvement of Irish universities in Israel’s military and security industries. Our research shows that Irish universities have collaborated with Israel in 257 projects to date, seven of them listed as “security” and 13 as “aerospace”.

Some examples:

  • Academics at Trinity College Dublin have worked with Israeli drone manufacturers Elbit Security Systems and two other Israeli firms in an airport security project, ended March 2014, and on a separate project with Israel’s notorious International Security and Counter-Terrorism Academy.
  • Researchers at University College Cork actually collaborated with the Technion and coordinated a recently completed counter-terrorism project to improve the detection of traces of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
  • Researchers at the University of Limerick (UL) collaborated with an Israeli security company, Athena GS3-Security Implementations Ltd, on an EU-funded programme worth almost €4 million from April 2009 to March 2011. (The project researched digital support systems for first responders). Athena, on its website, claims to be a world leading counter-terror advisory group with indigenous expertise from the Mossad and other elite Israeli counter terrorist units. UL also partnered with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). IAI are key players in the development of security and surveillance for Israel’s separation wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations.

Our next big event is a debate on November 12, on the academic boycott with Prof Ilan Pappe and Dr Ghada Carmi, both of Exeter University, UK, for which we expect a large crowd.

7.    How can academics and university staff participate in BDS?

Following the PACBI directions, academics and university staff should not collaborate with Israeli institutions. This is particularly difficult when EU research funding is concerned and needs to be tackled.

Israel has hugely benefitted from its inclusion in the European Union’s FP7 on the same terms as member states of the EU, in fact it has led on more projects than 12 of the 28 EU countries, pointing to the embeddedness of Israel in European institutions.  For European Research Council grants, on a per capita basis, Israel was bested only by Switzerland, also an associated country.

Israel has led on 1071 EU funded research projects, the majority of which are science and technology projects, including projects relating to security, aerospace and nuclear development. Israel has been a participant in a further 3090 projects, the majority of which are scientific. Again, a significant number relate to security, aerospace and nuclear development.  There is no doubt that EU research funding helps build capacity in Israeli research institutes – many with direct links to the military. Israel paid €534 million into FP7, which spanned 2007 to 2013; in return, they received a total of €634 million in funding. However the indirect benefits to the economy and to Israeli society of such prestigious scientific links are way higher than this.

Now that PF7 has come to an end, the next EU research strand Horizon 2020 is taking applications, and it is difficult to ask academics and universities in Ireland and beyond to refrain from participating in projects with Israeli participants, but this is one of the things we draw attention to.

8.    What role can a university or cultural boycott play in the struggle for a free Palestine?

The academic and cultural boycott plays a central role in the struggle for free Palestine in that it demonstrates to people how they can participate in the struggle and it has a huge symbolic value. Where successful, the academic and cultural boycott also has economic impact, as I have shown above in relation to EU research contracts. We make a point of boycotting artists who are funded by the Israeli government but try to be careful not to boycott individual academics or artists who do not come to Ireland as representatives of their universities.

9. What challenges will BDS activists face and how can they overcome them?

The main challenges faced by BDS activists, in particular supporters of the academic boycott are, firstly, accusations that they are damaging the freedom of speech by not allowing dialogue with Israeli academics. This, of course, is inaccurate – freedom of speech in Israel is reserved for academics who toe the line. For instance, revisionist historian Ilan Pappe was forced out of Haifa University because of his research and teaching about the 1948 Nakba (and his support for Teddy Katz’s Masters dissertation about the massacre in Tantura in 1948).  Another example is the attempt by Ben Gurion University to close the Department of Politics and Government because of the radical views of department members – at the end the attempt was unsuccessful, but Israeli academics who criticize the government are regularly targeted – so much for freedom of speech. As for Palestinian academics, their freedom is not honoured and Palestinian universities and schools are regularly under closure.

Overcoming such challenges, Israeli and other academics have staged campaigns of resistance. In Ilan Pappe’s case, he was offered and accepted a professorship at the University of Exeter, UK. The Ben Gurion University attempt to close the department met with an international campaign and the university reversed its decision. However, the campaign by students in Tel Aviv University against academics who criticized Israel’s latest onslaught on Gaza did not receive widespread publicity and Israeli academics who support the government’s policies get favourable treatment by their government and their universities. As I say – freedom of speech is a figment of the Zionist imagination.

The other challenge supporters of the BDS face is accusations of anti-semitism, or, in the case of Jewish supporters, accusations of being a ‘self hating Jew’. This too is problematic as some argue that it is Israeli policies which foster antisemitism. However let me say that the blanket support for Palestine by some people in the west, where some supporters never mobilize to any other local causes such as the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, raises suspicions that perhaps they might be motivated by antisemitism. The IPSC is very careful about any displays of antisemitism, and I feel totally comfortable working with the group in this regard.

Another major challenge is the 2011 Israeli ‘Law for Prevention of Damage to State of Israel through Boycott’. The law states that individuals or organizations who publicize a call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against a person or entity merely because of its affiliation to the State of Israel and/or to an Israeli institute and/or to a specific region under Israeli control, may be sued civilly, by a party claiming that it might be damaged by such a boycott. The law also allows Israeli authorities to deny benefits from individuals or organizations – such as tax exemptions or participation in government contracts – if they have publicized a call to boycott and/or if they have obligated to participate in a boycott.

To my knowledge there have been no prosecutions yet under this law, but Israeli citizens who reside abroad and who publicly support the boycott have been delayed in entering and leaving Israeli airports.

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