On Academic Freedom and the BDS Movement

On Academic Freedom and the BDS Movement

On Academic Freedom and the BDS Movement

An effective isolation of Israeli academic institutions will undoubtedly curtail some privileges that Israeli scholars take for granted, like generous travel subsidies, but that has no bearing on their academic freedom.


Coming on the heels of several spectacular successes of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and its global partners in recent months, the unanimous position taken by the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsing the academic boycott of Israel provides fresh evidence that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement may be reaching a tipping point on college campuses and academic associations. Already, the Israeli government is treating the movement as a “strategic” threat and US Secretary of State John Kerry has labeled it as an “existential danger” to Israel.

The academic and cultural boycott is part of the BDS movement, which represents the overwhelming majority in Palestinian society and seeks to realize basic Palestinian rights under international law through applying effective, global, morally consistent pressure on Israel and all the institutions that collude in its violations of international law, as was done against apartheid South Africa.

As Judith Butler describes it, “The BDS movement has become the most important contemporary alliance calling for an end to forms of citizenship based on racial stratification, insisting on rights of political self-determination for those for whom such basic freedoms are denied or indefinitely suspended, insisting as well on substantial ways of redressing the rights of those forcibly and/or illegally dispossessed of property and land.”

To understand why the ASA boycott prospects raised such a loud alarm in the Israeli establishment and among Israel lobby groups, one must examine the wider context of the growth of BDS worldwide. Israeli leaders were conspicuously absent in the week-long mourning for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, which raised a storm of coverage about Israel’s long history of alliance with the former apartheid regime. This has further amplified Israel’s isolation and the sentiment, especially in Israel, that BDS seems to be inching closer to crossing a threshold.

Academic boycott activists will remember 2013 as a year of many BDS “firsts.” Days ago, in a letter of support to the ASA, the University of Hawaii Ethnic Studies department became the first academic department in the west to support the academic boycott of Israel. In April, the Association for Asian-American Studies endorsed the academic boycott—the first professional academic association in the United States to do so. Around the same time, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland unanimously called on its members to “cease all cultural and academic collaboration” with the “apartheid state of Israel,” and the Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students (FEF), representing 100,000 members, adopted “a freeze of all academic partnerships with Israeli academic institutions.” Also this year, student councils at several North American universities, including at the University of California Berkeley, called for divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation.

Whether or not BDS is reaching a tipping point, it is hard to deny that recent BDS developments have led to an explosion of interest in scrutinizing and criticizing aspects of Israel’s regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people. They have also opened a critically needed free space for debating Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights, underlining what legal scholar Noura Erakat calls “an ethic of legitimate dissent.” Calling for a boycott of Israel and its complicit institutions is still quite controversial in the US, but it is no longer taboo.

There are those in the academy who accuse the ASA, and BDS supporters in general, of undermining academic freedom. But the ASA has “unequivocally” defended academic freedom and argued that the boycott actually “helps to extend it,” mainly by promoting unhindered, rational debate in the US and beyond about Israel’s systematic oppression of Palestinians and its denial of their freedoms, including academic freedom. Few US critics of the boycott ever mention that Palestinian academics, too, are entitled to academic freedom. As US-based Palestinian academic Steven Salaita argues, “The boycott actually seeks to preserve academic freedom by challenging punitive campus cultures that punish critics of Israel.”

ASA National Council member Sunaina Maira, a key organizer in the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, makes a compelling point that has largely been missing in the coverage of the ASA boycott. Most academics were moved into supporting the academic boycott of Israel by learning “what Palestinian scholars and students go through on a daily basis just to get to school, as they navigate these checkpoints…. the many conditions that obstruct their access to education” and searching for a “civil society response.”

Unlike the South African academic boycott, which was a “blanket” boycott of academics and institutions, the PACBI call explicitly targets Israeli academic institutions because of their complicity, to varying degrees, in planning, implementing, justifying or whitewashing aspects of Israel’s occupation, racial discrimination and denial of refugee rights. This collusion takes many forms, from systematically providing the military-intelligence establishment with indispensable research—on demography, geography, hydrology, and psychology, among other disciplines—to tolerating and often rewarding racist speech, theories and “scientific” research. It also includes institutionalizing discrimination against Palestinian Arab citizens, among them scholars and students; suppressing Israeli academic research on Zionism and the Nakba; and the construction of campus facilities and dormitories in the occupied Palestinian territory, as Hebrew University has done in East Jerusalem, for instance.

Some opponents of the academic boycott may argue, still, that it contravenes academic freedom because it cannot but hurt individual academics if it is to be effective at all. Only through exacting a steep price from Israeli scholars and students, their argument goes, can BDS prompt them, in turn, to work for breaking the links of structural complicity between their institutions and the regime of oppression. This argument confuses academic privileges with academic freedom and fails, accordingly, to grasp how an institutional academic boycott can work.

Israeli scholars, under the boycott, would still be able to pursue their research, teaching, publishing and participating in international forums, provided that these activities do not involve any institutional links between Israeli institutions on the one hand and international institutions—and academics—on the other. What they do face as a result of the boycott is the “inconvenience” of having to seek independent international funding to cover their international academic projects, instead of relying on Israeli state or institutional funding for that. An effective international isolation of Israeli academic institutions will undoubtedly curtail some privileges that Israeli scholars take for granted, from generous travel subsidies to various perks and services that have no bearing on their academic freedom. These privileges are only possible, they forget, due to their universities’ lucrative business-as-usual relations with western academia.

The same cannot be said about Palestinian scholars. They are denied basic rights, including academic freedom, and are often subjected to imprisonment, denial of freedom of movement, even violent attacks on themselves or their institutions. If exercising the right to academic freedom is conditioned upon respecting other human rights and securing what Butler calls the “material conditions for exercising those rights,” then clearly it is the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students that is severely hindered, due to the occupation and policies of racial discrimination.

This confusion between right and privilege may arise from a tendency in the US academy to ignore the internationally-accepted norms of academic freedom and to posit various idiosyncratic definitions in their stead, or from a proclivity to consider academic freedom an absolute right.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNESCR) defines academic freedom as including “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.” Nothing in the PACBI boycott conflicts with any of this.

Even though the academic boycott of Israel does not undercut academic freedom, PACBI founders, in harmony with the BDS movement’s profound commitment to universal human rights, have consistently argued that this freedom should not be privileged as above other human rights. The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights proclaims, “All human rights are universal, indivisible … interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis.”

According to the UN, Academic freedom itself, like any other right, is not an absolute right. The “enjoyment of academic freedom,” according to the UNESCR, comes with the basic “obligations” to ensure that contrary views are discussed fairly and “to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds.” This rights-obligations equation is a general underlying principle of international law in the realm of human rights. When scholars neglect or altogether abandon such obligations, they can no longer claim what they perceive as their inherent entitlement to this freedom.

Those who are reluctant, on principle, to support a boycott that expressly targets Israel’s academic institutions while having in the past endorsed, or even struggled to implement, a much more sweeping academic boycott against apartheid South Africa’s academics and universities are hard pressed to explain this peculiar inconsistency.

As to those calling for only a selective application of the academic boycott against institutions in the occupied Palestinian territory, like the Ariel colony-college, they have in fact strengthened the case for the academic boycott by dropping their principled opposition to it. If Ariel violates international law, so do all other Israeli universities, without exception, as one can easily demonstrate. Why the double standard then?

A mushrooming number of academics around the world today realize that all Israeli academic institutions should be boycotted until they recognize the rights of the Palestinian people, as stipulated in international law, and cease their multi-faceted complicity in violating those rights.

We might be witnessing what I call the “Stephen Hawking effect”—the entrenchment of BDS in the international academic mainstream, reminding many of an important stage in the struggle of apartheid South Africa. Academics and educators are increasingly conscious that they carry a moral obligation to stand up for justice and equal rights everywhere and to refrain from lending their names to be used by oppressive regimes to cover up injustice and human rights violations. The ASA’s resolution will be remembered as an important instance in this still long, but very promising, march to freedom, justice and equality.

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