AUC community continues normalization debate

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CAIRO: Twenty eight years after the Camp David Accords ended hostilities between Egypt and Israel, there are few issues that inspire more rumors, or get Egyptian intellectuals as heated, as “normalization with the Jewish State. Despite three decades of security coordination, an Israeli embassy in Giza, and extensive Israeli investment in Egyptian industry, for many it seems the war never ended.

For many Egyptian intellectuals, the battle against Tel Aviv has moved into the cultural sphere. Rather than taking up arms against Israel, they now defend Palestine by fighting against the screening of Israeli movies in Egyptian cinemas or the presence of Israeli students in the country’s universities.

Many say they cannot just sit in a movie theater watching the latest Israeli new release while a steady stream of images of Palestinian suffering play on their TV sets back home.

This fall, the American University in Cairo (AUC) found itself in the middle of this long-standing debate as rumors swirled around campus and the internet that the administration was planning to hire Israeli faculty or admit Israeli students.

Many students and alumni of the prestigious university reacted with outrage, circulating petitions, organizing Facebook groups and threatening protests.

When word spread that a possible proposal would be discussed at a meeting of the Faculty Senate, dozens of students showed up to angrily disrupt the meeting.

But administrators at AUC now say a proposal to open the university to Israeli faculty and students – to “normalize its relations with Israel, in the language of international relations – was never on the table.

In private, they chalk up the whole affair to conspiracy theories and rumors.

Administrators point to a similar scare last year when rumors spread that the university was planning to sell its downtown campus to the Israeli embassy, which it also denies.

“Over the past several months rumors have circulated on campus – and have also been reported in the local media – that have had no basis in fact and may seek to harm the university and its reputation as an independent, apolitical institution, AUC President David Arnold said in an e-mail message to the university community.

“These rumors are completely false and seek only to harm the university, he added.

Addressing the rumors about Israeli faculty and students more head-on, a week later University Provost Tim Sullivan was blunt.

“There are no agreements with Israeli universities. We don’t have any now, nor are we contemplating any. And David Arnold never said we were.

But many people refuse to believe AUC’s outright denials, and think the university is either lying or that a conspiracy is in the works.

Kholoud Khalifa, a 21-year-old senior at AUC who has written about the controversy for the student newspaper, says that she thinks the university is going ahead with a secret normalization plan, no matter what they say.

“I think there is something going on, but it is happening under the table, says Khalifa.

Many students, such as Yasmeen Jawdat El Khoudary, agree.

El Khoudary is a 17-year-old undergraduate from the Gaza Strip, and is President of the university’s Al Quds Club, which promotes Palestinian culture and talks about the conflict from the Palestinian perspective.

“I think the rumors are true, she says. “It’s not a lie. As we say in Palestine, there is no smoke without fire. If these things weren’t happening then why would people be talking about them?

El Khoudary grew up under Israeli occupation and is happy to be in university in Egypt. Her experiences in Gaza form the basis for her opposition to normalization between the university and Israel. She says that until the occupation ends, Israelis should not be allowed to study in Egypt.

“In Palestine we are still trying to prosper and learn inside our community, but Israelis have already passed that point and now they travel abroad, she says. “Once we can educate ourselves and travel freely inside our own country, once the separation wall is gone, once the checkpoints and the travel restrictions are gone, then they can come here to a place like this and study.

Dr Mahmoud El Lozy, a professor of theater at AUC and a well-known critic of normalization, says that rumors like these are an inevitable consequence of business-as-usual in Egypt.

“Rumors always grow, develop and acquire dynamism in the absence of transparency, he says. “If there were clear principals established, and people believed that policies would be based on those principles, then there would be no more rumors. The problem is that we are dealing with shifting grounds.

Like many Egyptian intellectuals, El Lozy rejects normalized cultural relations, such as academic exchanges, with Israel because of concerns over the treatment of Palestinians under occupation.

El Lozy says that people who support normalization and do business with Israel are “bend-over Egyptians who “support globalization and the rape of the country.

“Talking about having dialogue with Israel is like mixing up apples and oranges, he says. “How can we have dialogue with people who sent tanks and planes to our part of the world, who bomb our cities with depleted uranium in the name of shock and awe, bomb Palestinians, and then take their land?

Furthermore, El Lozy condemns attempts at dialogue as “an attempt to recruit more ‘bend-over Egyptians’ – the kind of people who go and have a dialogue and get their picture in the papers. Then they think they’ve become human, they think they’ve gained some credibility, they’ve entered the white man’s nirvana.

Opposition to normalization is widespread at AUC, and although not everyone feels the same way, those who take a more favorable view towards working with Israel are often nervous about saying so publicly.

Passant Rabie, one of the editors of the student newspaper, says she thinks that when it comes to Israel, most people on campus get upset without getting all the facts straight.

“A lot of the students get all the facts wrong, says Rabie, a senior who has seen a number of rumors about AUC’s supposed relations with Israel spread during her four years here.

“I support normalization because we’re all people, we have to consider that, she says. “Normalization does not necessarily mean that you are pro-Israel. You should be civil enough not to have hate for any one big group of people.

“It’s like people getting worked up and saying that all Arabs are terrorists, she adds. “That’s really the same thing as saying that all Israelis are Zionists, and that they are all out to destroy our societies and our belief system.

Randa El Tahawy, who is also an editor of the student paper, agrees. She traveled to Israel once for a weeklong beach vacation, and says if she is given the chance she would go back.

“Maybe I don’t like what Israel is doing in Palestine, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to know what is happening in their country, or what the people are like, she says. “We all have things in common with each other.

No one on this planet is really living here by themselves.

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