'We won't tolerate educators who boycott our country'

Israeli academics slammed for signing letter accusing Israel of ‘plausible genocide’

Two dozen members of academia call on the US to stop arming Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza; students from the country’s devastated south demand their firing

IDF tanks secure the area while Palestinians fleeing from combat areas in Khan Younis to Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, January 26, 2024. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)
IDF tanks secure the area while Palestinians fleeing from combat areas in Khan Younis to Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, January 26, 2024. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

JTA — A lecturer at an Israeli university is going on unpaid leave after students demanded he be fired for signing a petition that claims Israel “appears to” be guilty of genocide.

Regev Nathansohn, who teaches communications at Sapir College, is one of two dozen Israeli academics who have signed a petition calling for the United States to stop arming Israel in its war with Hamas. The petition, which more than 1,000 academics from around the world have signed, characterizes Israel’s conduct as a “plausible genocide.”

“President Biden, do not let the United States go down in history as the enabler of genocide,” said the petition, which has more than 1,000 signatories, from a group called Academics4Peace. “Respect the US’s obligation under international law and basic morality. The only way to stop the starvation of two million people, including 100+ Israeli hostages, is to end this war.”

Sapir is located on the Gaza border near the town of Sderot, which was one of the sites attacked in Hamas’s October 7 invasion of Israel that saw 1,200 people butchered and 253 abducted to the Gaza Strip, roughly 130 of whom are still in Hamas hands.

Many of the school’s students and staff hail from the area, and hundreds of its students signed a letter asking the college administration to fire Nathansohn for signing the petition. Israel rejects accusations of genocide and says it takes measures to avoid civilian casualties.

“We will not tolerate educators who incite and call for a boycott against our country, as well as those who slander our soldiers,” said the students’ letter.

Nathansohn has not been fired. But the school released a statement to the press condemning the petition, distancing Sapir from its content and saying it had instructed him not to use his academic affiliation while making political statements. Since then, Nathansohn and the administration have fought over what the college owes one of its faculty members, whether and how he should be protected and, more broadly, how far academic freedom should extend.

Nathansohn, who earned his doctorate at the University of Michigan, is one of at least five Israeli signatories who have faced intense backlash from students, according to the petition’s organizer, Shira Klein, an Israeli American history professor at Chapman University in California. She said the others are Eran Fisher of the Open University of Israel, and three scholars at Beersheba’s Ben Gurion University: Michal Givoni, Maor Zeev-Wolf and Uri Mor. Klein pointed to posts from students denouncing them on social media and in an online petition, as well as, in one case, a campus protest.

In total, more than 20 Israeli academics have signed the letter, among more than 1,000 overall. Outside of Israel, signatories include two Nobel laureates and numerous scholars of the Holocaust and Jewish history. Klein is an expert on the Holocaust and has studied contemporary antisemitism.

The campus conflicts are especially notable in Israel, where institutions of higher education — including Sapir — are one of the few spaces in which Jewish and Arab Israelis interact. Other campus conflicts have erupted in the country since October 7.

Illustrative: The main building at Sapir Academic College draped with an Israeli flag. (courtesy)

“We forcefully condemn the rhetoric against IDF soldiers and take very seriously the offense felt by the students,” Sapir’s statement said. “We must clarify beyond any doubt: The petition, and its signatories, do not represent Sapir in any way.”

It continued, “While upholding basic principles of academic freedom and free speech, which the college has respected since its founding, the college unequivocally directed the lecturer not to use the name of the college in personal and/or political contexts and that he doesn’t represent the college in these contexts.”

Nathansohn said the college should have done more to defend his right to free expression. Following coverage of the students’ letter in the Israeli press, he said he received anonymous phone calls as well as messages from fellow faculty members condemning him.

In a letter to Sapir’s administrators on March 28, Nathansohn wrote that they did not “prevent the creation of a hostile work atmosphere in the college.” He said he could not teach in the spring semester, which was due to begin April 1, and requested a leave of absence.

Administrators understood his email as a request for unpaid leave, said granting a paid leave would not be possible according to the school’s regulations, and offered an unpaid leave of six months, according to correspondence reviewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Administrators also rejected his accusations, saying that they had vigorously defended his continued employment on the grounds of academic freedom.

“In recent days, we have unequivocally defended your right to express your opinion as a private citizen, in the face of a range of fronts that we are contending with — from the students’ association to government agencies,” read a letter dated April 1 from Sapir CEO Orna Gigi and its rector, Omri Herzog. The college did not reply to a request for comment from JTA.

Illustrative: Students at the University of Haifa, on April 11, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Nathansohn eventually agreed to take an unpaid leave, but he did not consider the choice voluntary. He said that the restrictions on using his academic affiliation on petitions were unjust and, if applied only to him, could constitute an illegal double standard.

“They presented me with a mafioso-like choice: either go back to teaching without protections and with more limited freedom of speech, or remain on unpaid leave that dramatically affects my livelihood,” Nathansohn said.

A reporter with Israel’s Channel 14 tweeted the names of the recent petition’s signatories who work at Israeli colleges and universities. The post garnered outrage from many users, some of whom accused the academics of treason.

The petition is the fourth organized by Academics4Peace. The first, which went online in August, prior to the Israel-Hamas war, sought to direct attention to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians amid mass protests against the government’s efforts to weaken the judiciary. The next three have focused on October 7 and its aftermath.

Along with the letters calling for him to face consequences, Nathansohn has received support from a number of academic associations and professors. One fellow academic wrote in an email to Sapir’s leadership that Nathansohn “has been subjected to political persecution and unjust treatment by actors within the Sapir Academic College community and specifically by its management.”

Herzog responded that Sapir has tried to uphold its values in an increasingly challenging environment.

“We’re serv[ing] as a gatekeeper, with all the complexities that you may or may not be aware of,” he wrote. “I’m proud of the work we do in the classrooms and on campus.”

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