Israeli historian, president of college, demands apology from Arab teacher who reprimanded student for wearing Israeli uniform

Historians in the News

Nizar Hassan, [an Arab] lecturer at Sapir College who refused to teach a reservist who showed up to his class in an IDF uniform, was asked by the college's administration to apologize to the student in order to avoid the termination of employment at the institution, according to a summary of the council hearing on the case on Thursday....

[History] Professor Zeev Zachor, President of Sapir College, sent a letter to Hassan saying: "As a condition of your continued employment, you are requested to apologize to the student for hurting and disparaging him. I will ask to see the apology within a week from the day you receive this letter. In your apology, you must refer to your obligation to be respectful to the IDF uniform and the full right of every student to enter your classroom in uniform."

Professor Zachor added that "I won't accept an apology that is not unequivocal. I won't accept an apology that does not refer to respecting the IDF uniform or that has any haggling political nuances…and obviously until the apology is received you are not permitted to lecture at the college."

[HNN Editor: Hassan subsequently apologized. In response to the controversy Prof. Haim Bresheeth, Chair of Media and Cultural Studies, University of East London, criticized Zachor in an open letter, reproduced below.]

Dear Prof. Tzahor,

I have read with disbelief and shock your humiliating and unprecedented letter to Nizar Hassan, following the Report of the Special Commission of Inquiry which you have appointed to check his case. I must say that the report itself is a questionable document which is unlikely to be produced by any self-respecting academic institution, and I wonder if it could indeed be written in another country, unless we think of Pakistan or Turkey, where similar sentiments against intellectuals on nationalist basis have been voiced.

Despite this view of mine, I see your letter as being even more humiliating and disingenuous than the report itself, as you seem to act in a way which cannot be justified. Even if you accept the Commission's view, that the lecturer needs to apologise to the student – a position I do not accept - as it seems to me obvious that he had a right to ask the student to come dressed in civilian clothes for the next lecture, I still find your unfounded demand for honouring the Israeli flag and the uniform of the occupation army, not even mentioned in the decisions of the Commission, especially puzzling, to put it mildly.

If Israeli society has reached the stage in which the President of a college writes using nationalistic language, in a crude and dismissive style, to a member of the occupied and subjugated nation, demanding a virtual salute to the occupation flag, it seems clear that the endgame of the Zionist, colonial adventure must be nigh, and that liberals masks are now being removed from the ugly face of brutal occupation and oppression. During a month in which almost two million Palestinians have been starved, with total disregard to international law, not to mention Jewish morality, only three kilometers from your desk, you found it necessary and right to forget and abandon your academic and intellectual duties, and, acting under growing pressure from the Chief of Staff, to behave more like a reserve officer rather than an academic! For me, who knows you from our years of work beside each other at Sapir, and also remembers the courage you have demonstrated at different times when such pressures were applied in the past (including upon myself) – it is shaming to realise that now your behaviour is very different; I ask you to reconsider your unjustified and shameful demand, and support the Comission's decision to ask the lecturer to apologise to the student, and bring this painful episode to a close.

It is clear to me that you too know that your unbalanced letter will bring about a whirlwind of claim and counter-claim, to demonstrations and students and staff leaving the college, and to the gradual destruction of the Film School, which I had some role in setting up and building; I do care about its future, not just because I had a role in the past, but also because under Avner Faingulernt's management, excellent and full of insight as it is, this school has employed the best of Israeli film studies academics and professionals, and Nizar Hassan was an integral and crucial part of this development. Nizar has supported, both in his many films and his inspired teaching, a continued if painful dialogue between the two nations, and towards building complex understandings, based on equality and not on the power relations of occupier and occupied. You must know that your letter will bring about a sudden end for all this, and instead of a mature dialogue which will assist a future end to the conflict, your letter will terminate this node of understanding and coexistence.

I wish to assume that your letter was written through a misunderstanding of the context, but such a conclusion is difficult to support. You demand that a filmmaker of the occupied and colonised nation, whose whole country has been conquered by this army which you support, that he accepts and honours this very army which continues to illegally occupy the Palestinian territories after forty years! This is the same army which uses death-squads which operate extra-judiciously, starves millions through criminal collective punishment, and which has also, few months before the event which the Commission has ‘examined' (it obviously did not examine it all) destroyed the whole of South Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and caused the death (if one wants to be very clean about it...) of over 1,500 civilians, in both Lebanon and Israel. Since that mad war, a further 150 Lebanese have died as a result of the illegal use of over two millions tiny bombs which Israel has rained over Lebanon, and of which many thousands are still live. This is the army you wish Nizar Hassan, one of the many millions who are victims of this army, to accept and support; this is a ridiculous, irrational and immoral demand, one which you do not pose to any other lecturer, and one which I personally would have never accepted; neither would any other academic or intellectual.

I call you to urgently rethink, to honour your rights and duties as a President of a college, and to take back your letter, humiliating and improper as it is; you would thus bring about the end of this shameful episode, which more than anything shows clearly the corrosive influence of the continued occupation and suppression. Nizar Hassan is crucial for the future of the school and the college, and instead of the ridiculous demands you have faced him with, it would be better if the college and its students will examine carefully the role of military occupation and oppression in the relationship between the two nations in Palestine. Nizar wished to remind the students that they are humans first, not only students following orders; it seems that your letter misses that point, proving that you are a soldier first, and only then an academic. A society which cannot separate the army from civilian life and civic society is doomed – as a historian you must know this; a nation oppressing another can of course continue this for decades, but it cannot itself be free – freedom is not divisible. I call on the historian Zeev Tzahor to refuse the orders of Major Zeev Tzahor, and thus avoid a fatal error. I believe in your judgment and ability to change your decision and stop the avalanche which your letter is about to cause.

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