Activists and scholars spoke to U of T community members about the “cultural genocide” going on Palestine, and the destruction of Gaza’s historical sites, during a January 23 virtual roundtable co-organized by the Critical Ancient World Studies Collective (CAWS) — an international group of researchers that seek to adopt a new model for studying antiquity — and Everyday Orientalism, a blog co-founded by U of T Roman history Professor Katherine Blouin that examines how historical power structures have shaped human societies’ self-perceptions. 

The event also received support from U of T group Hearing Palestine, which aims to educate on and facilitate academic inquiry into Palestine. 

The roundtable discussed how scholars of antiquity, archaeology, and heritage could play into opposing the alleged genocide of Palestinians and stand in solidarity.

“That history is a legacy” 

Marchella Ward, a lecturer in classical studies at the Open University — a public research university in the UK — and the chair of the CAWS collective, began the event by discussing the organizers’ “collective disappointment with the apathy and lack of leadership on the issue of Palestinian solidarity from major subject organizations within classics, archaeology, and ancient history.”

People have inhabited Gaza since at least the fifteenth century BCE, making it one of the world’s longest inhabited areas. 

“Archaeological sites prove the existence of ancient civilizations, and that history is a legacy for every free citizen in Gaza and their heritage”
Marchella Ward

Al Jazeera reported that, between October 7 and January 14, Israeli military air strikes had damaged at least 195 historical sites in Gaza, including some dating back 4,000 years. The United Nations (UN) Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has verified damage to 22 sites.

Speakers at the event included Fadel al-Utol, a Palestinian archaeologist who has been working with the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem — a French biblical and archaeological research foundation in Jerusalem — to excavate archeological sites in Gaza. “Archaeological sites prove the existence of ancient civilizations, and that history is a legacy for every free citizen in Gaza and their heritage,” he told the panel. 

He recounted crying when he heard that much of the Old City of Gaza — which included churches, mosques, and archeological museums — had been destroyed. An October strike conducted by the Israeli military damaged the Sayed al-Hashim Mosque — an important site for Muslims, originally built in the twelfth century, located in the Old City of Gaza.

Isber Sabrine — a chair and co-founder of the international non-governmental organization Heritage for Peace, which specializes in cultural heritage management during conflicts — explained that his team has collaborated with colleagues in the United Kingdom for satellite imagery and local contacts in Gaza and other countries in the Middle East to report directly on the destroyed sites.

Heritage for Peace published a report in November, which determined that “the recent war has… [resulted] in the destruction of a significant portion of the cultural heritage in the Gaza Strip.” The report garnered media attention in publications like National Public Radio and Al Jazeera.

However, regardless of the media attention, Sabrine said that he found the lack of reaction from other cultural organizations “shocking.”

“This is a tragedy,” he said. “Those buildings, those sites, they need to be really considered as a part for the reconstruction of Gaza.” He said that a recognition of shared heritage in the region can help unify people across religions.

How do we define ‘genocide’?

Santiago Slabodsky — the Kaufman chair of Jewish studies at Hofstra University in New York — posed a question to the audience: “Why is [it] so difficult to recognize this long-standing genocide that Palestinians are suffering?”

The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines the crime of genocide as violence “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Polish Jewish jurist Raphaël Lemkin originally introduced the term genocide to describe the destruction of a group, including destruction of a group’s culture. In her 2020 book, Suffer the Little Children: Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State, Tamara Starblanket notes that during the drafting of the convention, delegates from the US and Canada pushed for the definition to not include cultural genocide, fearing that recognizing cultural destruction as genocide would implicate their treatment of Indigenous peoples.

In a submission to the UN International Court of Justice on December 29, the South African government accused the Israeli government of committing genocide in Gaza, noting its alleged “targeting” of Gaza’s cultural heritage as evidence. The Israeli government has rejected claims of genocide, arguing that its actions in Gaza constitute self-defence. The court will likely take three to four years to pass a judgment.

According to Slabodsky, most of the Western world can not acknowledge attacks on Gaza as genocide due to the “myth of modernity,” coined by Enrique Dussel, which he defined as a view that the West, as the “most advanced civilization,” has used violence solely to help humanity and advance progress.

Slabodsky claimed that the Israeli government presents itself as the “right civilization” by promoting its technological advancement and claim as the “only democracy” in the Middle East. This justifies the government’s use of violence under the idea that ‘might makes right.’

Solidarity movements for Palestine

Aditi Rao, a third-year graduate student at Princeton University and an organizer in the Palestine liberation movement in Philadelphia, focused her presentation on how scholars can participate in activism supporting Palestine. She said scholars and universities can find many ways to participate in pro-Palestinian solidarity, including by boycotting Israeli institutions.

Rao encouraged faculty members to refuse to give talks at universities in Israel. However, she highlighted the importance of not conflating people with institutions, noting that boycotting does not mean refusing to work with colleagues based at Israeli universities.

“It is exceptionally important for putting the necessary sanctions on for the Israeli state to realize that it cannot be a part of this intellectual, cultural exchange if it continues the work of apartheid, if it continues to enact policies of genocide,” she said.