The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin was in the process of compiling a collection of writings by 29 female authors, who were offering their perspectives on life in the Middle East. The project was meant to celebrate the work of the late Elizabeth Fernea, a long-time faculty member at the college who had championed scholarly study of the region and the English-language publication of literary works from area countries. But as the book was getting close to completion, Huzama Habayeb – a Palestinian writer living in Dubai, Saudi Arabia – discovered that two Israeli women, Yehudit Hendel and Orly Castel-Bloom, were scheduled to have their writings added to the mix, and she launched an effort designed to ultimately scuttle the project.
First, Habayeb informed the other writers that she would pull her contribution from the book if the college did not agree to remove the pieces by the two Israelis. Habayeb specifically protested the Israelis’ inclusion in the book because – in her opinion – Israel is an “occupier” of “her land Palestine” – although she was born in Kuwait, grew up in Jordan, lives in Dubai, and has never visited Israel.
When the University of Texas made clear it would not accede to her demand, thirteen authors of Arabic descent joined Habayeb and withdrew their writings. Several of the other planned contributors declined to let the project’s overseers know if they were still officially participating, so it appeared that the book would be devoid of any Arab submissions. “It would not have been academically sound to publish the anthology without any Arab writers,” said Kamran Scot Aghaie, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, “nor would it have been academically or ethically sound to exclude the Israeli writers.”
According to Aghaie, several of the reneging writers personally expressed their dissatisfaction with not having been informed in advance that the book would include Israeli writers. Aghaie responded that he would never operate in such a fashion. “My view is that it’s not proper to single out individual contributors for other contributors to veto,” the academic director stated. “We were not willing to give any group special treatment.” He further noted that since the University of Texas is an academic institution, it cannot censor people based on their native country. “As a publishing press or as a program, it’s not appropriate for us to single out anyone based on religion or national origin,” he said. “To do so is simply discrimination, and it’s wrong.”
An editorial in the United Arab Emirates-based Gulf News praised the woman whose actions generated the book’s cancellation. “Habayeb’s actions are those of a resistance fighter – never giving an inch to Israel, which has illegally occupied her homeland,” the editorial declared. “But there’s also a bigger issue — one whereby academics the world over need to ensure that Israel is isolated for its immoral and illegal actions in occupying Palestine and repressing the Palestinian people. The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Habayeb was not shy about her triumphant feelings regarding the anthology’s termination. “I am so proud of having the book cancelled,” she exulted. “I am a Palestinian and to achieve this, to be able to resist the illegal Israeli occupation of my homeland is something that I will cherish forever. It is my own victory in the struggle.” Habayeb went on to say that the Jewish state’s representation in the planned book was “an allegedly legitimate literary Middle Eastern component that desperately seeks acceptance, notwithstanding its ‘genocidal’ practices against Palestinians.”
Rabbi David Komerofsky, Executive Director of Texas Hillel / The Topfer Center for Jewish Life, did not mince words when asked to comment on Habayeb’s actions and the consequent cancellation of the book. “This is another example of a few people abusing the sacred rights of free press and free speech to promote an agenda of intolerance and exclusion,” he told the Jewish Voice. “The Center for Middle Eastern Studies handled this in a professional and appropriate way, and should be commended for its commitment to openness and academic freedom. Shame on those who withdrew their pieces for dishonoring the memory of the person to whom the volume was to be a tribute. It is an inexcusable example of the kind of bigotry to which academia should give no quarter.”
The Hillel leader painted this latest incident of intimidation against Israeli expression as part of the wider issue of anti-Israel activism. “Sadly, it is no longer shocking to see the singling out of Israelis from all other peoples, even on a college campus,” he stated. “This makes our collective agenda of promoting the truth about Israel’s right to exist, our shared values of free expression and the strong partnership between American and Israeli institutions of higher learning all the more important.”