‘I’m Israeli and I take responsibility’

Trinity professor Ronit Lentin talks to TN about her support for the Trinity Apartheid-Free Campus Campaign.


Ronit Lentin is perhaps the most senior figure associated with Trinity College to support an academic boycott of Israel. Born in Haifa before, as she is keen to stress, the creation of the state of Israel, Lentin began her PhD in Trinity in 1991. She has only just left the staff after retiring as Associate Professor of Sociology in September.

As a political sociologist, she has published widely on topics including Ireland’s relationship with gender, race and immigration. It’s clear that Lentin’s personal life bears a close relation to her academic work; hailing from a Jewish Romanian family, Lentin has also written on the Holocaust, seeking to tackle the challenge of historical interpretation through the lens of the neglected female perspective.

In the latter stage of her career, her work focused on the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Once again, the line between the academic and the personal is difficult to discern. Lentin has increasingly involved herself in political activism and has signed both the ‘TCD Apartheid-Free Campus Campaign’ petition calling for an end to research affiliations with institutions linked to the Israeli security services, and the Academics for Palestine (AfP) pledge for a complete academic boycott of Israel.

We have arranged to meet early in the day because she is attending a protest at lunchtime organised by MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland) who are looking to bring an end to the direct provision hostels and deportations. Arriving on time down to the minute, she greets me light heartedly, bemoaning the dilemmas Dublin winter weather brings: Lentin is wearing a crimson beanie against the cold but she jokes this will mess up her hair. As the subject matter becomes more serious, her tone becomes more frank, but still she remains in good humour. Her sentences are cogent, her answers direct.

Lentin has a brother who still lives in Israel, so I begin by asking if she has been back recently. “No, not recently. I’m reluctant to go,” she says. “As soon as I get off the plane, I become an animal. You get in a cab and everyone starts shouting, you know? It’s a very angry society. Since my husband died, I haven’t been back… I don’t know why, but I will go.”

Her husband, Louis Lentin, a Trinity graduate who died in July this year, was an acclaimed film, theatre and television director, and member of Aosdána. In 1986, he produced The Island, a play about inmates at Robben Island prison based around Sophocles’Antigone, at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. It was from speaking to John Kani, a black South-African who acted and co-wrote the play, says Ronit, that she takes inspiration for her present activism.

So not acting is morally indefensible? “Yes, and I remember this line from John at the time. He was very definite you had to take a stand. Louis, by doing the play, took a stand.”

Trinity campaign

Similarly, the Trinity ‘Apartheid-Free’ campaign is notable for drawing on, and celebrating, Trinity’s centrality in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, with Mary Robinson and Kader Asmal named as inspirations.

“This is why I think Ciarán [O’Rourke’s] campaign is really excellent,” she says. “Trinity fought apartheid in the past – you know Desmond Tutu has called what is happening in the occupied territories worse that anything he saw in South Africa? I think this gives us added responsibility to protest Israel’s actions now.”

Despite this, the campaign so far has not, on the whole, discernable interest from the wider staff community in college. This is essential if the campaign wishes to affect college policy at board level. Lentin notes at the recent debate on whether or not to stage an academic boycott of Israel, held on campus in November, that “very few academics were there, other than the usual people like David Landy.”

Ireland’s own past with colonial oppression – and here we are dealing with the last occupied colonial state on the planet – means that if we boycott, things will happen.

Even the AfP pledge, as of September 1st, had only 12 signatories from Trinity. If the “Apartheid-Free” campaign is so strong, why has there been such little interest from staff? Lentin believes the answer is largely financial: “This is the way Trinity is going. I have one friend who opposes what Israel is doing, but his research funding comes from an Israeli university, so he can’t say anything.” Will some academics have to damage their own careers for the campaign to ultimately be successful? Lentin nods carefully. “Yes, I think so. But I also think part of the problem is that this issue is no longer the cause du jour. Maybe around 2007 it was, but not now.”

I ask why it still remains the cause du jour for her. “The reason I am involved is because I care. Not just about Israel but about Palestine. I’m Israeli, and I take responsibility for what they’re doing there. Another reason is because my family experienced some of the Holocaust in Romania. I just don’t understand how you can do to others what has been done to you, and such a short time ago… so that’s me.” Lentin manages a brief smile.

Academics for Palestine

The AfP pledge states that their boycott of Israeli academic institutions will remain “until such time as Israel complies with International Law and universal principles of human rights.” Likewise, the Trinity boycott would remain as long as “Israel’s programme of occupation and discrimination against the Palestinian people persists.” But what, in practical terms, would be the conditions necessary for a boycott to be lifted, if Trinity were to implement one?

“As a minimum, firstly, the complete exit from the occupied territories, and secondly, to immediately stop the siege of Gaza.” What about judicial action from the UN or the ICC? “Absolutely yes. I believe Israel is guilty of war crimes.” Lentin goes on to describe that the motivations for Israel’s regular offensives in the occupied territories are not only ideological or strategic, but a market requirement of the Israeli arms industry. “People buy these weapons not because they are the best, but because every two years when they have their next attack in Gaza, they can say, ‘Hey look, this works.’ It’s product testing, and it’s completely unacceptable the Palestinian people are used as guinea-pigs.” She then references a film called The Labby Yotam Feldman, which provides “extraordinary” evidence to support her claim.

I suggest to Lentin that even if Trinity academics do stage a boycott, it will be easy for these institutions funded by arms companies to find other research partners in universities around the world. I suggest that the real fight is political, not academic: against governments, not Irish universities. “Yes I do agree with you to an extent. We must put pressure on governments – and you know the Irish government is actually quite pro-Palestine? – but this does not mean academics are not complicit. You used to be able to argue ignorance, but now with the Internet and Facebook, everyone knows what is going on. And it’s not just the scientists. There are philosophers like Asa Kasher [of Tel Aviv University, and author of the Code of Conduct for the Israeli Defence Forces] who are providing moral justification for what Israel is doing in the occupied territories. These are public intellectuals justifying atrocities.”

I want to talk about another individual Lentin is familiar with: Michael Federmann, the billionaire chairman of Elbit Systems and a board member of the Weizmann Institute of Science (both institutions which would be boycotted under the TCD Apartheid-Free Campus Campaign). Incidentally, in June of this year, he was also awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list 2014 “for services to UK/Israel business cooperation and UK prosperity.” Even Lentin is visibly shocked at this fact: “Wow, that’s incredible don’t you think?” Elbit Systems is one of the largest drone manufacturers for the US, as well as the UK, military. I venture that boycotting such companies may make enemies out the US and UK. Lentin takes time to consider her answer: “No, I don’t think so.” She says it’s become almost accepted that an issue like this one divides nations rather than sets them against each other. “For example, the American Anthropological Association recently voted in favour of a boycott. I don’t see it as making enemies. Hopefully it will have a knock on effect and others will follow.”

The second individual I mention is the writer Amos Oz. He is one of few living men and women with an international reputation in literature. His name is often in the running for the Nobel Prize, and in June of this year he travelled to Dublin to accept an honorary doctorate from Trinity. Less than two weeks later, Israel commenced their most recent offensive in Gaza: ‘Operation Protective Edge’. Besides the figures Lentin quotes (“22,000 housing units destroyed”), the conflict received widespread condemnation for the bombing of schools and hospitals, and the high proportion of child mortality. Oz later came out in defence of Operation Protective Edge: “What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap, and starts shooting machine-gun fire into your nursery?”

I ask Lentin if she believes Trinity should strip Oz of his honorary degree. “Yes, they should, but I don’t think they will. Maybe that horrible comment is because he lives close to Gaza and he hears the rockets going in, but that’s exactly why I don’t understand how he can make it.” She continues: “Oz is a character who in recent years swings between…” She stops herself. “It’s like his writing. His more recent books, I don’t like. They’ve become repetitive.” Finally I ask Lentin what impact, what effects, a boycott from Trinity could have. If what she has campaigned for comes true, and Trinity publically severs research links with certain Israeli institutions, what message will be sent, and how loud will it be?

She is adamant that Trinity’s, and Ireland’s, reputation should not be underestimated: “Our stand against apartheid in the past, and the work of people like Kader [Asmal], not only gives us a responsibility to speak, but means that people will listen. Ireland’s own past with colonial oppression – and here we are dealing with the last occupied colonial state on the planet – means that if we boycott, things will happen.”

Photo: Tadgh Healy