A Palestinian Professor Spoke Out Against the Gaza War. Israel Detained Her. - The World News

A Palestinian Professor Spoke Out Against the Gaza War. Israel Detained Her.

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a Palestinian professor at a prominent Israeli university, first waded into the debate over the Gaza war by joining academics worldwide in signing a letter that called for a cease-fire. It branded Israel’s assault on the territory a “genocide” and the leaders of her university responded by urging her to resign.

That was soon after the war began on Oct. 7. Months later, the professor drew even more scrutiny for saying it was time to “abolish Zionism” and accusing Israel of politicizing rape. She was briefly suspended in March by Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she has taught law and social work for nearly three decades. But right-wing Israeli politicians demanded more severe punishment and in April, the police detained her overnight.

“I have been persecuted and defamed, my academic production of knowledge flattened and my home and even my own bedroom invaded,” Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian, 64, told The New York Times.

The professor is now under investigation for incitement to terrorism — a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. And though she has not been charged, her case has prompted a profound debate inside Israel about the repression of free speech and academic freedom since the war began more than eight months ago.

The professor’s lawyers say she is being punished for her political views. And some other Israeli professors and students worry that the country’s universities — which had long defended the values of relative diversity and open-mindedness — have contributed to the suppression of dissent.

While universities argue they are simply trying to keep campuses calm, critics say there is a clear double standard across Israeli society: Violent rhetoric toward Palestinians from Jewish Israelis is often brushed aside while Palestinian citizens of Israel who express support for Palestinians in Gaza or criticize the conduct of the war face discipline or even criminal investigation.

As of May, police records show, 162 indictments for incitement to terrorism had been filed since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7. Nearly every case, according to Adalah, a legal center for the rights of the Arab minority in Israel, involved Arab citizens of Israel or Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who mostly declined offers of citizenship after Israel annexed the area.

Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian is among about 500 Arab-Israeli citizens who have faced police investigations for incitement. Dozens of students have also been caught up in disciplinary proceedings by universities for vague expressions of religious belief or statistics and images that counter Israel’s narrative of the war, according to Adalah.

Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s case has drawn more attention than most because she is a globally recognized scholar under criminal investigation for statements related to subjects she has studied for decades.

“Violent extremism has been allowed to overtake and politicize the criminal justice and academic systems, and has reached new levels in my case,” she said. “This violent extremism has served to demonize Palestinians.”

A Palestinian of Armenian origin, the professor was born in the Israeli city of Haifa and educated at Hebrew University, where she received her Ph.D. in law in 1994. Her work has focused on trauma, state crimes, gender violence, law and society and genocide studies.

She has lectured worldwide over the past two decades, with visiting professorships at universities including Georgetown in Washington, and she tends to speak with a mix of outrage and academic jargon.

Abeer Otman, who studied for her Ph.D. with Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian, said she was also the kind of professor who was quick to hold a person’s hands during conversations about traumatic experiences, or line up a lawyer for someone in need.

But even before Oct. 7, Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s lectures and interviews, especially in the United States, were a focus for pro-Israel watchdog groups. The attention intensified when, after signing the letter mentioning genocide, she continued to speak out.

During a podcast interview recorded March 6 with American academics, she said it was time to “abolish Zionism,” calling it criminal. She also questioned the veracity of the Israeli government’s accounts of sexual violence during the October attack.

“If it didn’t happen,” she said, “it’s shame on the state to use women’s bodies and sexuality to promote political agendas, to promote further dispossession of land, to promote further killing.”

A new report on Wednesday by a U.N. commission investigating the Oct. 7 attack documented cases indicating sexual violence against women and men during the attack and against some of those who were abducted.

After reviewing testimonies obtained by journalists and the Israeli police concerning rape, however, the commission said it had not been able to independently verify the rape allegations, “due to a lack of access to victims, witnesses and crime sites and the obstruction of its investigations by the Israeli authorities.”

The report said Israel did not cooperate with the investigation. Hamas has denied that its members sexually abused people in captivity or during the attack.

About a week after the podcast, a right-wing Israeli news channel edited a video version of the podcast interview in a way that cut out caveats and context and a clip of the edit went viral in mid-March.

Hebrew University suspended the professor, explaining in a March 14 letter to students and faculty that “one of the most important values​​ of the social work profession is that you always believe and side with the victims so it is not possible to teach social work while declaring that rape didn’t happen.”

After Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian met with university leaders on March 27 and told them that as a feminist researcher, she believes all victims, and that she did not deny there were rapes on Oct. 7, she was allowed to return to teaching.

In early April, right-wing members of Israel’s Parliament called for her to be fired and for the police to investigate her for incitement. They urged economic sanctions against Hebrew University to increase the pressure to oust her.

Then on April 18, the police detained the professor at her home in East Jerusalem. Her lawyers said she was ill at the time, but had to spend the night in a cold jail cell with cockroaches even though she had not been charged with any crime.

The next day, the police and prosecutors asked to extend her detention, but a judge rejected the request and freed her.

Over the next few weeks, the Israeli authorities questioned Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian for more than 17 hours in several lengthy sessions, delving into her books and views on a variety of subjects, according to her lawyers.

“The police have already exceeded the authority given to them by asking her about other statements and things that are her opinions,” said Mazen Masri, senior lecturer of law at City University of London and a member of the professor’s legal team.

Alaa Mahajna, her lead lawyer in Jerusalem, said: “The message is clear — no dissent from the Zionist consensus is allowed.”

The Israeli police and national security ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Days after Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s arrest, members of the criminology faculty at Hebrew University condemned her on television, arguing her body of work was tainted by politics. Hebrew University’s leaders responded by saying that while some of her research papers and books “may appear to be fundamentally unfounded, they underwent a professional peer review process.”

In interviews, several Jewish Israeli professors of law and other subjects said that while they disagreed with some or all of the professor’s views, they felt betrayed not just by the police, but also by the leaders of many universities for failing to come out more strongly in favor of free expression.

Ariel Porat, a law professor and president of Tel Aviv University, said this was the first time he could recall that a professor had been detained in Israel for speech.

“I think it was a terrible thing to arrest her,” he said.

Hebrew University also issued a statement the day after the professor’s detention calling for her speedy release. But some faculty members said that the university has not done enough to defend free speech, and that her suspension started the cycle of persecution.

Shlomi Segall, a political philosophy professor at Hebrew University, joined a small demonstration in late April outside a police station where Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian was being questioned. He wore a white T-shirt that said in Hebrew: “They are taking away our democracy. Are you fine with it?”

“We see every citadel of democracy crumbling,” he said.

A few days later, after Professor Shalhoub-Kevorkian was called back for more interrogation, she said the case would not keep her quiet.

“I am a strong woman,” she told The Times. “We should also remember that this horrible ordeal pales in comparison with what women, children, doctors, academics, and practically everyone in Gaza is going through,” she added. “We should not lose our focus on their suffering.”

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