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Tonight reserve soldiers from the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) will speak at Victoria as part of a nationwide tour, in what Victoria academics have described as “an exercise in propaganda and apologetics for military violence”.
The event “Operation Protective Edge: An Israeli Soldier’s Perspective”, to be held at 8:30pm in the Cotton Building, was organised by the Wellington chapter of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) and will consist of a 40-minute talk and a 20-minute question and answer with the IDF speakers.
The event has proven controversial amongst both staff and students.
In particular, opponents have raised concerns that the purpose of the talk is to justify Operation Protective Edge, a 2014 Israeli offensive on Gaza. During the operation some 2194 people were killed, including 1523 civilians.
Former IDF soldiers Raphael and Naftali were quoted by the AUJS in defence of their address.
“We are not sent her by the IDF nor the state of Israel nor any organisation… we are not currently in active military duty. We are Israeli Medical/Business school students,” the pair said.
“Having an open dialog and being liberal in hearing all sides of the conflict is something we expect from University students in the academic world.”
Raphael and Naftali also posted on Facebook that “the meeting is totally opened[sic] for questions and we have no intention of spreading any agenda, only to conduct an open minded lecture about the ethics of war.”
However, Dr Dougal McNeill, a lecturer in English at Victoria, rejected this claim. “I think people that tell you that they’ve arrived somewhere without an agenda, to a well publicised, well-organised public meeting, occurring in multiple centres around the country, are of dubious integrity.”
McNeill and a number of other academics from Victoria published an open letter in opposition to the event, claiming “it is astonishing… that an exercise in propaganda and apologetics for military violence should be hosted at a university setting under the guise of education and learning opportunities”.
According to the letter, three universities and at least 147 schools suffered “severe damage” from Israeli forces during Operation Protective Edge. Over 20 university students were killed in one attack, and thousands more were displaced.
McNeill told Salient TV the open letter was a “message of solidarity” to Palestinian academics.
“Academic life in Palestine is disrupted by the Israeli occupation, it’s very difficult for universities to operate in a normal way, it’s very difficult for Palestinian students to go about their studies,” McNeill said.
The Victoria chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has called on the University to cancel the event and will protest the gathering should it go ahead. Victoria student and spokesperson for the group Ian Anderson said that “these people [IDF soldiers] are representing the Israeli state. Victoria University should not be a party to this. There is no neutral position on atrocities”.
Friends of Israel have accused the SJP of “attempting to gag any discussion and debate about the 2014 Gaza War” in their protest of the event.
New Zealand Friends of Israel President Tony Kan endorsed the public address, claiming that “Universities have a long tradition of protecting freedom of speech, recognising that open discussion and debate is a necessary and healthy tool in the discovery of truth and the development of new ideas”.
The University of Canterbury’s Political Science Society (UCPOLS) recently opted not to host the IDF soldiers.
UCPOLS Vice President Hannah Rhodes told Salient that her organisation declined to host the event as “the motives of the group and their interest in UC was unclear”. Rhodes said that “due to the controversial nature of this event we felt that we could not fairly represent each side in the situation”.