I only met Stéphane Hessel once. But I loved his pamphlet Time for Outrage. Here was a man in his nineties, goading the young into disobeying authority.
A few days after Hessel's death last week, I was lucky enough to meet a number of students that are acting in a way that would clearly have won his approval. Enrolled in the French-speaking Université libre de Bruxelles, these Palestine solidarity activists are incensed at how the ULB rector, Didier Viviers, is set to dine with Shimon Peres tomorrow night. "People like Shimon Peres should simply be boycotted, never honored," the students, who belong to the university's committee for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, have told Viviers in a letter.
Though Viviers is a historian, the students have felt it necessary to give him a history lesson. They reminded him that, as Israel's prime minister, Peres ordered the bombing of Lebanon in 1996 and must therefore be held responsible for the intentional massacre of 102 civilians in Qana.
Duty of dialogue?
Whereas the students' missive was concise and sharp, Viviers has tied himself in knots trying to justify why he is attending a "walking dinner" with the Israeli president. (Aside: I'm not sure what a walking dinner is and, given the recent horsemeat scandal in Europe, not sure that I want to know).
Writing on his personal blog, Viviers claimed that he had a "duty" to enter into a dialogue with a man bestowed with one of ULB's highest distinctions: the docteur honoris causa (whatever that anachronism is). Viviers went on to say that he was opposed to Israel's colonization of the West Bank and that he was shocked by the problems besetting Palestinian universities. He signed off his post by saying that his presence at the event did not involve supporting Israeli policies in any way.
His final point is fallacious. Viviers is an educated man, so he must realize that perceptions matter. The dinner he will attend is being organized by the Israeli embassy in Brussels and the invitations to it give the impression that the ULB is a co-host. By allowing his name and that of his institution to appear on the invitations, Viviers is helping Israel to appear respectable.
The banquet is not an occasion for a frank exchange of opinion: Palestine solidarity activists are being kept away from the event. For a start, the €100 ($130) entrance fee is too steep for most of them. And those campaigners who have tried to pay the fee have been told there is no room for them.
Licking Israel's jackboots
It is not hard to see why Viviers is happy to lick Israel's jackboots. The ULB is eager to soak up grants from the EU's programme for scientific research and Israel happens to be the most active non-European participant in that programme.
Viviers' crocodile tears over the oppression of Palestinian academics and students should be treated with contempt. Between 2007 and 2013, the ULB has taken part in at least seven EU-financed projects with Israeli institutions that enable the kind of discrimination he professes to deplore.
The most important Israeli partner for the ULB is the University of Tel Aviv. If Verviers was to check out this university's website, he would know that it doesn't try to conceal its support for Israel's crimes. On the contrary, it takes pride in how its alumni have helped develop particular weapons for the Israeli military. These include Danny Gold, who, according to the university was the "instigator" of the Iron Dome system that Israel used during Operation Pillar of Cloud, its murderous attack on Gaza in November. (Contrary to what Israel claims, Iron Dome is an offensive system; it is designed to intercept missiles fired in response to Israeli provocation).
Tel Aviv University is also directly involved in the colonization process that apparently exercises Verviers. It has a cooperation agreement with Elad, a settler group, carrying out excavations in occupied East Jerusalem as part of a drive to uproot Palestinians living there.
And Tel Aviv University does not respect freedom of expression. In May last year the university banned a commemoration of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing ahead of Israel's foundation in 1948.
Another Israeli partner of the ULB is the Technion. This Haifa-based institute of technology serves as an incubator for new weapons. One of its more infamous inventions is a remote-controlled "D9" bulldozer for use in destroying Palestinian homes. Among its other services to Israel's arms industry is that it runs courses specially tailored for weapons manufacturers. Managers at Rafael, a maker of components for Israel's Merkava tanks, can obtain a masters in management courtesy of an accord between their firm and the Technion.
Peres will more than likely be hailed as a man of peace during his diplomatic tour of Europe. Why does he get away with this? In Israel, this former weapons merchant is celebrated not as a pacifist but as a founding father of the Israeli arms industry. This point was emphasized when he gave the keynote address to a "homeland security" conference in Tel Aviv shortly before Israel's eight-day attack on Gaza in November.
If Didier Viviers is still determined to dine for Israel, then I would advise him to bring some disinfectant with him. After shaking hands with a man who caused so much bloodshed, he will surely need it.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 4 March 2013.