Israeli linguist and Palestinian rights activist Tanya Reinhart passed away in 2007. In light of the 2021 U.S. protests calling for the support of Palestinian rights and the February 2022 rallies in support of Ukraine, Reinhart’s work is as timely as ever. Reinhart served as a rare voice that both identified as Israeli and sympathized with the struggles of Palestinians fighting for civil rights. She never backed down when it came to fighting for justice in the academic arena.
In May 2002, many years before a call for the academic boycott of Israel was proposed by academics worldwide, Reinhart lay down the foundations of what later became a boycott movement. She wrote in a letter, arguing against anti-boycott arguments of fellow academic Baruch Kimmerling, that she had “no doubt that you supported the South Africa boycott. Where we may differ is in the question whether the Israeli case is sufficiently similar.”
Amnesty International recently released a report deeming Israel an apartheid state. That claim could gain legal leverage as implications are revealed in the coming months. In her 2002 letter, Reinhart states that, “much before its present atrocities, Israel has followed faithfully the South-African Apartheid model.” She briefly writes about the 1993 Oslo records, but ultimately concludes that “no matter what you think of the Oslo years, what Israel is doing now exceeds the crimes of South Africa’s white regime.”
Collaborating with an Oppressive System
Reinhart goes on to say that Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories have “started to take the form of systematic ethnic cleansing, which South Africa never attempted. After thirty-five years of occupation, it is completely clear that the only two choices the Israeli political system has generated for the Palestinians are Apartheid or ethnic cleansing (‘transfer’). Apartheid is the ‘enlightened’ Labor party’s program (as in their Alon or Oslo plan), while the other pole is advocating slow suffocation of the Palestinians, until the eventual ‘transfer’ (mass expulsion) can be accomplished.”
The 2002 letter concludes with Reinhart’s statement that “if in extreme situations of violations of human rights and moral principles, the academia refuses to criticize and take a side, it collaborates with the oppressing system.”
The loss of Reinhart was major for not just academia but Palestinian activists everywhere. Jewish-American Palestinian rights activist Anna Baltzer’s December 2017 TedX talk — that warned against the danger of neutrality — could be argued to have taken inspiration from Reinhart’s work and research. To this day, Reinhart’s legacy continues in academia. Some would argue that she made a huge professional sacrifice by laying the foundations of academic boycott.
Armed with Extraordinary Spirit
Reinhart published many books during her academic career, but in the last pages of her 2006 book, Road Map to Nowhere, Reinhart writes about Palestinians, describing them as “armed only with the extraordinary spirit of people who have clung to their land for generation after generation, they stand in the path of one of the most brutal military machines in the world. This daily struggle is our hope.”
Reinhart had the unique perspective of living through the years — as only a four-year-old girl in 1948 — when Israel first gained statehood. Born in Palestine in 1944, Reinhart grew up in Haifa before it was officially part of the State of Israel. She got her bachelor’s degree in philosophy and Hebrew literature and later a master’s degree in philosophy and comparative literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She taught at Tel Aviv University for 20 years, later threatening her own career as key supporter of an international academic boycott of Israel.
She spoke at the University of Sydney’s “Sydney Ideas” forum in October 2007, describing the reasons she was – like many Israeli opposers of Israeli policies – ultimately brought to exile. To an audience in Sydney, she acknowledged the responsibility she felt “to continue the fight, together with my comrades, within Israel,” but claimed that after the 2006 Lebanon War, “morally, I can no longer stay in Israel. I love the country, but I cannot stay there. I’m going into exile, like Edward Said, but mine is an exile of choice.”
Tanya Reinhart, A Supporter of Palestinian Rights
The phrase “exile of choice” is a fitting one for a linguist and supporter of Palestinian rights. For many Palestinians in the territories, exile is not a choice. Many Palestinians legally cannot return to the places they were born because of limitations on movement between Israel and Palestine. Even some Palestinian Israelis who live within Israel’s formal borders are internally displaced refugees (so called, “present absentees”) who are not allowed to return to their homes within Israel.
Perhaps one of Reinhart’s most valuable offerings to the Palestinian struggle was an analysis of the failure of the subsequent “peace process” after the 1993 Oslo records on the Palestinian struggles for human rights and statehood in her book. She writes about this struggle in her book, Israel/Palestine: How To End the War of 1948.
The idea that although the 1948 Arab-Israeli War is officially over, the results of it still haunt people in Israel and Palestine to this day is a powerful one. In Reinhart’s book Road Map to Nowhere, she explores most interestingly the U.S. pressure on Israeli policy-making and Israel’s annexing of Palestinian land in the West Bank. She describes this land theft as “the second naqba” (a wordplay on the dispossession of 1948).
During her time in academia, Reinhart also criticized the international economic embargo in Gaza (specifically against the Hamas government). In 2006, she called it a “starvation blockade.”
A Legacy to Remember
Clearly Reinhart’s gift with words and capacity for empathy made her a valiant supporter in the pursuit of Palestinian rights that now appears on the world stage. Her death in 2007 was a major loss for not only Palestinian rights supporters but also academia.
Rather than promote conflict, Reinhart hoped to drive awareness to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through her boycott of Israel that spanned across academic institutions internationally. She hoped her words would ultimately lead to change in Israel and Palestine.