Haaretz reports that eight Palestinian students in Gaza lost their Fulbright scholarships to pursue advanced degrees in the United States because the Israeli government denied them exit visas. This denial is unjust, foolish, and short-sighted. If Israeli policymakers want to discourage hatred and extremism among Palestinians, this goal would best be served by facilitating rather than closing off opportunities to study in the United States.
Right-wing Knesset member Yuval Steinitz (a member of the opposition Likud Party) offered this flimsy and utterly unconvincing justification for the government’s refusal to grant exit visas: “We are fighting the regime in Gaza that does its utmost to kill our citizens and destroy our schools and our colleges. So I don’t think we should allow students from Gaza to go anywhere. Gaza is under siege, and rightly so, and it is up to the Gazans to change the regime or its behavior.” Not only is Steinitz’s statement a non sequitur, it is also the same reasoning used by some British trade unionists to justify a blacklist (misleadingly described as a “boycott”) of Israeli academics and their institutions. The principle espoused by Steinitz and the British boycotters is the same: that scholars should be punished for the policies of the governments under which they live. As my union has pointed out (here and here), this is a dangerous notion that all educators ought to oppose, out of professional interest as well as moral considerations.
To Israel’s credit, the move has stirred up criticism and opposition here, even from the right. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, political prisoner, and activist in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, who is considered quite hawkish (he opposed Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005), spoke eloquently about the foolishness of the decision. “We correctly complain that the Palestinian Authority is not building civil society,” he said, “but when we don’t help build civil society this plays into the hands of Hamas. The Fulbright is administered independently, and people are chosen for it due to their talents.” The chairman of the Knesset’s education committee also spoke out against the decision, criticizing it as “collective punishment” that was “not in keeping with international standards or with the moral standards of Jews, who have been subjected to the deprivation of higher education in the past.” The New York Times reports that the education committee has asked Olmert’s government and the military to “reconsider the policy and get back to it within two weeks.” Let’s hope this bad precedent is overturned before it causes any more harm.