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July 8, 2019 | by  | in Opinion |
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Israel-Embassy-Sponsored Scholarship Should Be Terminated Kristin Crowe

On Thursday, 16 May, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) held a meeting at Berrigan House to protest a scholarship for essays on the Israeli State—a state whose political systems they say are inherently “racist” and “brutal”.


The Embassy of Israel Prize in Political Science and International Relations is listed on Victoria’s website through the Department of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations. The $250 scholarship is awarded to one student per year on the merit of an essay on one of the given topics—including ”Israel and the Middle East”, ”Israel’s bilaterial relations with its neighbours”, and ”Israel’s democracy in the context of the Middle East”. The winner is selected by the Head of Department, and the winning essay “may be provided” to the Ambassador.


In the wake of a century of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, US interventions have failed to produce peace. Israel’s continued presence in Gaza and the West Bank—including building settlements illegally in Palestinian territory, restricting the flow of commercial goods to Palestine, and denying Palestinians the right to vote—has sparked an international protest movement. Proponents are calling for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli state.


Many universities in the US, Canada, and New Zealand have SJP groups which promote BDS on their campuses. Victoria is not currently participating in BDS protest, and maintains ties with Israeli universities. Lecturers from these universities have appeared on Kelburn campus, drawing criticism.


SJP at VUW are calling for the university to terminate the prize, calling VUW’s partnership with Israel “unjust” because the political climate in Israel is “directly comparable” to Apartheid South Africa.


The prize is “insulting”, they say, to those students “forced from their homeland by the Israeli government”.


The most recent winning essay was not about the political systems referred to by SJP, but focussed instead on Jewish history. The recipient researched Jewish communities in North Africa during the Second World War, detailing the human rights abuses committed under German colonial and military regimes. Xavier Márquez, head of Department and judge of the award, told Salient that “nearly every” winning essay has been about some aspect of the holocaust.


SJP do not object to the use of the award in these cases, and acknowledge the importance of continuing to shed light on Jewish history. They maintain, however, that the topics touching the modern Israeli government should be changed or removed. As long as those topics are included, they assert, the prize enables the Embassy to ”propagate views supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands”.


SJP have met with two heads of department to discuss their concerns. Following that meeting, the department remains committed to the award. The prize, they maintain, does not “imply support for the views or behaviour of [the] prize donor”. No essay critical of Israeli politics has yet been chosen, but they stress that such essays will be judged, as with all others, on the basis of “high academic merit”.


SJP organiser Ella Young assures me that this will not be the end of SJP’s campaign.

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