The Sawsan Salame case

Chemistry student wants to enter Israel to complete a doctorate at Hebrew University.

October 21, 2006 21:55
4 minute read.
Hebrew University 88

Hebrew University 88. (photo credit: )


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For many pundits and analysts, the IDF's decision not to allow Sawsan Salame, a Palestinian student, to cross into Israel in order to complete a doctorate at Hebrew University in Jerusalem was further evidence of "racism" and "discrimination."

  • University faculty oppose travel ban (archive) By all accounts, Salame is an outstanding student and had been granted a fellowship by the chemistry department - there was no question of her qualifications. And, according to the press reports, the Israeli security services did not have any evidence or reason to suspect Salame of involvement in terrorism. This seems, at first glance, to be an open and shut example of the "evils of occupation" and of Israeli government interference with the free exchange of ideas between academics. During a period in which scholars are fighting to end the abuse of academic institutions to promote anti-Israeli political boycotts and demonization, such restrictions are not helpful. However, beyond this simplistic narrative, the story and the rationale behind the policy involve complex issues and dilemmas. Salame is a foreign student - and around the world, foreign students require a visa, which includes conditions and limitations. British, Egyptian, Chinese and other students accepted to Israeli universities need to enter the country like other foreign nationals. But Israelis wishing to study archeology in Syria would not be admitted - the Assad regime does not recognize Israel or allow entry to anyone with an Israeli visa in their passport. The same is true for the Saudis, in case Israeli students are in interested in studying Islamic theology or petroleum engineering. Of course, Palestinian students are different - they are under Israeli "occupation," do not have a state of their own or passports and visas. And although the Palestinians themselves can be blamed for not developing institutions for statehood, particularly during the Oslo process, barring Palestinian students from attending Israeli universities will not change this. But the general policy of rejecting Palestinian requests to cross into Israel for a wide range of purposes - employment, entertainment, commerce, university studies, etc. - has a wider justification. The Palestinians are not only without passports, visas and a state - they are openly at war against Israel, particularly under the Hamas government which declares and tries to pursue the goal of ending Israel's status as a sovereign state. And over the past decades, a large number of Palestinians have used access to Israel to perpetuate this war. While health care, jobs and education are important human rights, they do not supersede the right to life and self-defense, even in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. IN THE context of the catastrophic failure of the Oslo peace process and the terror campaign that followed, the Israeli government, backed by strong public support, adopted a policy of unilateral separation from the Palestinians. In the absence of a realistic basis for a negotiated two-state agreement on the horizon, separation is essential to Israel's future as a Jewish democratic state, and the least bad option for managing the conflict. It is also important in order to get the Palestinians to end their dependence on Israel, and to start taking responsibility for their own lives, economy, health care and university education. In implementing this policy, Israel constructed a security/separation barrier, and large parts are in place, contributing significantly to lowering the success of continuing Palestinian terror efforts. The Israeli evacuation of the Gaza Strip last year was part of this separation process. And for this policy to succeed, the number of exceptions to separation must be kept to an absolute minimum. I admit that I cannot understand why Israeli government and IDF officials who are responsible for this policy cannot present this argument clearly. They might also explain that while individual cases justify exceptions, such as for cancer treatment and outstanding students like Sawsan Salame, bitter experience has shown that even the most innocent looking Palestinian can, at times, become involved in terror attacks. Indeed, Hebrew University has been the target of a number of bombings carried out by Palestinians, most recently in July 2002, when several students - Israeli and foreign - were murdered. In addition, the IDF could note the difficulties of screening thousands of requests, and the continued Palestinian complaints of humiliation at checkpoints (echoed by prominent supporters of Israel such as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) that this would entail. If the rationale were out in the open, we could debate the risks and the benefits of Sawsan Salame's case more intelligently. Personally, as a member of the Bar-Ilan University faculty and of the International Advisory Board on Academic Freedom, I am strongly inclined to support such exceptions to the overall policy of separation. The free exchange of ideas and scientific research across political borders is an important principle, and its defense requires taking some risks. In addition, academic exchanges and partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians, on an equal basis, and with mutual recognition of political and other rights, can be important for building confidence. Participants in such exchanges might eventually lead Palestinian society away from terror and rejectionism, and toward acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. The writer directs the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University and is the editor of

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