This morning, my colleague Vanessa and I participated in a videoconference with Arab students in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They are members of the Watan movement, which, as they presented it to us, exists to celebrate Palestinian culture and identity. “Watan” means “homeland” or “nation,” and clearly to assert Palestinian national/cultural identity within an Israeli university is a political act. But in general, asserting, defining, explaining, defending, debating, and developing a cultural identity is a political act–or at least has political aspects. Not all identities are commendable (think of fascist nationalism), but the act of asserting an identity through culture is both natural and appropriate.
The Watan students reported to us that their requests to hold a “Palestinian Heritage Day” on campus have been denied, even though other cultural days (e.g., for Chinese students) are frequent. They said they were told that the university should not be a political zone; politics belongs outside.
Of course, I do not know the whole story here–we just spoke to three students from thousands of miles away for a few minutes. And I make no comment about the local laws and policies regarding student events on campus. But I do think that universities exist to be places of creativity, contestation, and nonviolent politics–politics by word, not act. Those are central goods in a university, not optional. Thus a university should welcome a student-organized cultural day even if it offends other students. In fact, the majority (in this case, Jewish Israeli students) are potentially the prime beneficiaries, since they would have the most to learn from Palestinian Heritage Day even if it left them just as hostile to the Watan Movement as they had begun.
The Hebrew University is a world-famous institution, known for its liberal values of free expression. I think blocking a Palestinian Heritage Day should be an embarrassment.