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Israeli researcher at the University of Copenhagen: »I can’t answer as to what is good or evil. I only see the shadows«

Grey in grey — Liora Sion is the only associate professor in Hebrew on the Middle Eastern Studies programme. She is Israeli, but is doing research on how the enemy is portrayed in Israeli war songs. At work, she teaches activist and pro-Palestinian students. »I have often been asked why I have chosen to do research on Israel when it is akin to walking around with a target on my back.«

She is happy to speak to the media. And she also responds honestly and extensively when students or colleagues ask her about her attitude to the war between Israel and Hamas.

Liora Sion can rarely, however, offer unequivocal answers. Instead she asks new questions. Because the situation is no where near as black and white as many media and various political factions would have it.

Liora Sion, who is from Israel, teaches Hebrew on the Middle Eastern Studies programme at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies (ToRS). She has taught at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) since 2019 and is currently the only associate professor that has an Israeli origin at the department.

»I have often been asked why I have chosen to do research on Israel. Why would I want to do that to myself when it’s kind of like walking around with a target on my back. Everyone has an opinion about what I should say, what I should think. And no matter what I say, some people will think it’s wrong,« says Liora Sion.

Even though she knows that a large proportion of the students on the Middle Eastern Studies programme are both committed and activist in favour of Palestine, she has still only encountered respect and understanding in her place of work, she says.

READ ALSO: Students on Middle Eastern Studies: »We talk about the war from a pro-Palestinian point of view«

But things are different outside the premises of the university.

»I haven’t spoken to the media much. It’s not that I don’t want to. But I haven’t actually been asked. Probably because I do not speak Danish. And in terms of Israel and Palestine, everyone seems lately to have become experts,« says Liora Sion.

No matter what I say, the Muslim community will attack me for my Israeli origin, while the Israeli community will attack me for not supporting my country

Liora Sion

But she has, however, managed to elicit several negative responses when she has expressed her opinions on social media, or in conversations with people who have no professional competence in the field.

»I know that I will be the subject of a lot of negativity by speaking out, because I am already being attacked. I am from Israel, but I do not in any way support the actions of the Israeli government. Hamas is pure evil and needs to be removed, but this does not justify Israeli civilian killings in Gaza,« Laura Sion says and continues.

»No matter what I say, the Muslim community will attack me for my Israeli origin, while the Israeli community will attack me for not supporting my country.«

But Liora Sion chooses to let herself be interviewed nevertheless. She would like to see a more nuanced public conversation about the war. According to her, the public debate has taken on the character of »a soccer match.«

»You’re either on one team or the other. People are hugely emotionally involved, and they don’t see the complexity and finer shades of the situation,« she says.

The government wants to destroy Israel

The war has infiltrated every aspect of Liora Sion’s life. During her working hours, she does research and teaching on the subject of Israel. In her spare time, she reads news about the war or speaks on the phone with family members who are in Israel.

»Sometimes I wish I could take a break from thinking about it. But I can’t, my whole life is about it,« she says.

Liora Sion was to have flown to a conference in Israel on the evening of the Hamas attack. The conference was, of course, cancelled immediately. Not least because several of the researchers who should have participated had been killed during the attack.

»7 October was the worst day of my life. I don’t know how I’m ever going to get over it. It’s a pain that I don’t think will stop. I had just moved into a new apartment two days earlier, so I just slept on a mattress in a room full of boxes. I didn’t leave that mattress for two weeks. I just lay there staring at the screen,« she says.

Almost all of Liora Sion’s family lives in Israel, including her parents, who are around 80 years old.

»I had been looking forward to coming to Israel and seeing my family. My parents are old, so you never know when it’s too late. The first days after the attack, they were completely stunned. They walked around the house with knives. I was scared they would end up stabbing themselves by mistake,« says Liora Sion.

»I spoke a lot to them on the phone. My mother is a Holocaust survivor. She cried and said that now the second Holocaust would happen. I pray that Hamas will release the hostages it has captured, including the children and infants.«

I have tried to reach out to Palestinian researchers from other universities – including from Sweden. But they refuse to talk to me because I am Israeli

Liora Sion

Despite the events of 7 October, which Liora Sion describes as »the worst trauma« of her life, she emphasizes several times in the conversation that she in no way supports the Israeli government and its actions against the Palestinian people.

»The Netanyahu government is the worst Israel has ever had. It is dangerous and fascist, and it will destroy Israel. It is the first anti-Zionist government Israel has had, and it is very sad that the Danish government accepts and welcomes it,« Liora Sion says.

According to Liora Sion, Zionism was originally about creating a practical and secular solution for Jews. The associate professor says that the Netanyahu government want to destroy the state in order to have a halachic state, a religious state, like for example Iran.

She does not believe, however, that the actions of the Israeli government should incite people to believe that the state of Israel should not exist.

»When I hear people say that Israel should no longer be a state, I don’t consider that criticism. That is anti-Semitism. Israelis are often urged to ‘go back to Europe where they came from’. But I come from nowhere but Israel. I only have my Israeli passport – where should I go?«

The atmosphere has changed

On the Middle Eastern Languages and Society programme where Liora Sion teaches, the students specialize in Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Hebrew. She usually teaches Hebrew language courses as well as general cultural and historical subjects.

But since the 7 October attack she has only taught Hebrew students. Among her colleagues, she has met nothing but understanding and sympathy for the fact that the country where most of her family lives is at war.

But she hears from some of the Hebrew students who are of Israeli origin that they are vulnerable on campus at the moment.

Several of the department’s Arabic-language line students told the University Post that all conversations between students about the war in Middle East studies take place from a pro-Palestinian perspective. No Hebrew-language line students have wished to comment on the atmosphere on campus.

»I have not experienced anything negative in my department, but it is sensitive for my students. Nobody says anything to them directly, but I think they feel that the atmosphere has changed,« says Liora Sion.

READ ALSO: Jewish student scared of anti-Semitism

Last week, Liora Sion and three other teaching staff invited all Middle Eastern Studies students to an event about the war.

We live in a democratic society, so people can boycott Israel if they want to

Liora Sion

»I think we ended up having some good, factual, discussions with the students. One of them criticized the absence of a Palestinian perspective in the panel. This was a criticism that I can easily understand and endorse,« Liora Sion says and adds:

»But we are a tiny section, and we currently have no researchers with a Palestinian background. Nor do we have any researchers who specifically specialize on Palestine. I have tried to reach out to Palestinian researchers from other universities – including from Sweden. But they refuse to talk to me because I am Israeli.«

»I cannot answer as to what is good or evil«

The students and researchers of the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) would like to engage in dialogue on the subject, also at the event, with space for all the subtle distinctions that are otherwise lost, according to Liora Sion.

»We are fortunate with our students. They are very mature, and we can have good and nuanced conversations. We don’t always agree on everything, but that’s certainly not the point of academia either. As a university, it is not our job to teach about the war from one or the other side’s perspective. Our job is to teach and to enlighten.«

Several of the students on the Middle Eastern Studies programme are active in, for example, the organisation Students Against the Occupation, which wants to stop all cooperation with Israeli universities. What does Liora Sion think of these students’ activism?

»We live in a democratic society, so people can boycott Israel if they want to but we are not going to stop cooperating with Israeli universities as long as we have Hebrew students who need this cooperation in order to complete their education,« she says and adds:

»I also believe that it would go against the idea of freedom of research to stop cooperating with Israeli universities. How can we continue to do research on Israel if we completely cut off our connection to it?«

Israel is not as democratic and Western-oriented as many claim. Officially, it is a democracy. But it functions more like an authoritarian regime

Liora Sion

According to Liora Sion, the various demands for a boycott of Israel – and especially its knowledge institutions – are precisely what contributes to making the conversations unsophisticated.

»I understand the students and everyone else who demonstrates and shouts ‘Boycott Israel’. It’s fascinating to be in your 20s and be activist and feel you’re right. That you fight on the side of the right, and that you can tell the difference between good and evil,« says Liora Sion.

She pauses.

»But I don’t think it will change anything. You have to see the bigger picture, and I cannot answer as to what is good or evil. I only see the shadows.«

Israel: The West or the Middle East?

Back in 2016, the four independent subjects Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew were merged into a joint study programme as Middle Eastern Languages and Society. At the time, experts criticised the fact that there was too big a differences between the four subjects for them to function as a single programme.

According to Liora Sion, the University of Copenhagen is the only university in Europe where studies on Israel are located alongside studies on the Middle East.

»Israel does not see itself as part of the Middle East, but as a Western country. Israel is in its self-understanding a democratic country with Western values that differs in many ways from neighbouring Arab countries,« Liora Sion says.

In this respect, it also applies the other way round. According to Liora Sion, the surrounding Arab nations do not see Israel as a country that belongs in the Middle East.

This phase is new and I believe it will be devastating for both Israel and Palestine

Liora Sion

»But Israel is not as democratic and as Western-oriented as many claim. Officially, it is a democracy, but it functions more like an authoritarian regime with less and less freedom, and more and more influence from religion,« she says.

Liora Sion believes that both Israel and neighbouring Arab countries should begin to see Israel as an integral part of the Middle East. And that’s why she thinks it’s »fantastic« that Hebrew is now part of Middle Eastern Studies at UCPH.

»When I came here four years ago, I was both surprised and a bit nervous about the constellation. I was afraid I was going to have to walk on tiptoes,« says Liora Sion.

»But I think it’s fantastic that students of Arabic and Hebrew get the same instruction in Middle Eastern languages and societies. Because it doesn’t make sense to isolate Israel from the surrounding countries – all parties need to understand each other better.«

The most dangerous phase of the war

In addition to teaching both Hebrew and Middle Eastern history and culture, Liora Sion has done research on Israeli military culture. She is currently working on a scientific article about how Israeli soldiers’ perception of the enemy has changed over time.

»I have compared war songs written by Israeli soldiers over the last 30-40 years. The majority of the literature I use comes from psychology and describes how soldiers have to create a social and emotional distance from the enemy – that is, Palestine – if they are to be able to kill,« she says.

Looking at war songs from before the First Intifada in 1987 until today, Liora Sion finds the trend »disconcerting.«

The songs after the First Intifada describe the Palestinian people as a hated enemy. Enemies, but still humans. In the songs after the Second Intifada, which began in 2001, Palestinians disappear completely from Israeli soldiers’ war songs, Liora Sion says.

I have no hope for the future

Liora Sion

»Palestinians no longer exist as human beings, but have at this point been reduced to objects of war in the eyes of the soldiers,« she says.

But in the past decade, the songs have again changed their character. The Israeli military has become more religious, and now Palestinians appear again in war songs.

»Now they are described as biblical enemies of Israel. When I look at how the image of the enemy has changed from the First Intifada to today, I would say that we are in the most dangerous phase of all,« says Liora Sion. She believes that what is particularly dangerous is that both the Israeli government and Hamas see each other as religious enemies.

»If you read the Bible and see how they viewed their religious enemies in the past, it scares you. It says that everyone must be killed. No one can be pardoned — not even infants. This phase is new and I believe it will be devastating for both Israel and Palestine,« says Liora Sion.

When asked what she hopes for the future, she laughs dryly. She sighs and shakes her head.

»I have no hope for the future.«