By: Benjamin Joffe-Walt, The Media Line / Jerusalem Post.
University graduation ceremonies were interrupted in Jordan following local outrage over ‘Made in Israel’ labels found atop the graduation gowns
A group of activists staged a sit-in Sunday at the southern gate of The Hashemite University in Zarqa, Jordan to protest the opening ceremony of graduation week after graduates of the 18,000 student institution found a ‘Made in Israel’ sticker on each graduation gown package.
Protesting students called on their colleagues to boycott the ceremonies, wear sashes reading “Not Made in Israel” and, in some cases, were seen burning their graduation gowns and an Israeli flag. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and student union took part in the protest.
Activists claim campus police assaulted students distributing fliers about the protest.
While Jordan has allowed open trade with Israel since the two countries signed a comprehensive peace treaty in 1993, many Jordanian’s oppose the ‘normalization’ or expansion of political or economic relations with Israel, often referred to locally as ‘the Zionist entity’.
A number of students at the university protested and the issue made national news over the weekend, with hundreds of posts on blogs and social media sites expressing outrage over the issue.
“They will not use those gowns that are made in Israel and students are talking about burning their gowns on their graduation day,” Jordanian Osama Al Romoh, an award winning Jordanian blogger who was the first to comment on ‘Gowngate’, told The Media Line. “We cannot sell products made in Israel to students. They are still young and this for me is to push normalization on the students. You cannot do that.”
University officials insist it was only the bags, not the gowns themselves, that were made in Israel.
“First of all, these robes are 100% Jordanian industry,” Dr Sulaiman Arabiat, President of The Hashemite University told The Media Line. “Each robe costs 5.39 Jordanian dinars INFO[$7.60]. In Israel these robes cost 10 times that, so economically speaking it would make no sense for us to sell Israeli robes.”
“As for the bags, Jordanian manufacturers want to export and use these bags so as to meet the standards concerning the weight, thickness and international specifications,” he said. “This is not something we have anything to do with.”
The university said the graduation robes were made in the Al Hassan industrial zone in Irbid, Jordan’s second largest city. But this claim just further angered the critics.
“For me this makes the problem much bigger because it begs the question why can’t we make plastic bags in Jordan?” said Al Romoh.
The Hashemite University and the city of Zarqa in general are known as hubs for the Muslim Brotherhood and activism against the normalization of relations with Israel. The Brotherhood lost this year’s student elections, however, and the university president claims the defeat, along with parliamentary elections this November, to be behind ‘Gowngate’.
“I am not a politician, I am the proud president of a university, but frankly speaking this is a politically motivated lie coming from outside the campus and led by the Muslim Brotherhood,” University President Dr. Arabiat said. “The real motives behind this is that the Muslim Brotherhood lost the student elections on this campus and this is just part of their strategy for future elections. So those who tried to protest have lost their compass and come to the wrong place, but we are transparent and under the law they can protest whether they are right or wrong.”
Following the 1948 War and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel, all Arab countries enacted a comprehensive embargo on the import of all Israeli-made products. While the boycott is still enforced in Lebanon and Syria, a number of Israeli products have quietly made their way into the Arab world, including into countries which officially have no relations with the Jewish state.
Every since Egypt signed a comprehensive peace treaty with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1993, both countries’ governments have allowed the free flow of Israeli products into their markets, while tip toeing around public calls against ‘normalization’ of relations with Israel.
The issue has been particularly volatile in Jordan, where protests over Israeli produce sold in Jordan’s city markets forced the country’s agriculture ministry to begin labeling products as ‘Made in Israel.’
“There has always been anti-Israeli sentiment in Jordan but when the political process was moving forward its influence was limited,” Doron Peskin, an expert on trade between Israel and the Arab world and the head of research at Info-Prod Research Middle East Ltd, told The Media Line. “Now that the political process is stalled, these kind of student incidents get more public attention.”
“Over the past year or two since the Gaza War, anti-Israeli sentiment in Jordan is rising and has been conflated with economic relations,” he said. “The number of incidents involving public campaigns or ceremonies to burn Israeli products has gone up in Jordan.”
“The government and especially the Agricultural Ministry were embarrassed when it was revealed that Jordan is importing produce from Israeli settlements,” said Peskin. “Since then they have been labeling all products as ‘Made in Israel’.”
Trade between Jordan and Israel stood at $147 million in 2008. That figure went down to around $100 million in 2009. Most regional trade analysts attribute the decline to the economic crises, not politics, although there have been no studies exploring it.
Zarqa, where The Hashemite University is based, is host to two additional universities. The city, Jordan’s third largest located just 12 miles northeast of the capital Amman, is know as Jordan’s industrial hub and home to over half of the country’s factories. It is also the hometown of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led the Iraqi insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
Graduation week at The Hashemite University opened on Sunday, and graduation ceremonies will take place over the coming ten days.