On Boycotts, Academic Freedom, and the Struggle for Justice in Israel-Palestine

On Boycotts, Academic Freedom, and the Struggle for Justice in Israel-Palestine

On Boycotts, Academic Freedom, and the Struggle for Justice in Israel-Palestine

The big story in the United States is the growing support for the Palestinian cause, and for a just and viable Israel that gives equal rights to all its citizens.


When the young Palestinian-American Lara Alqasem was finally allowed to enter Israel after being detained at the airport and threatened with deportation, who won? Liberal Zionists, many of whom had championed her case, felt they had cause to celebrate. You see, they could now tell the world, Israel is not (yet) the bastion of build-the-wall intolerance that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like his buddy in the White House, has wanted to make of his country. On October 16, two days before the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president and founder of J Street, had an op-ed in Haaretz under the title “The Ban on Lara Alqasem Is a Gift for BDS, and a Disaster for Israel.” J Street, which opposes the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), was naturally pleased that Alqasem had distanced herself from her earlier activities on behalf of BDS. It took the court’s decision to let her in as “a strong sign of the continued vitality of pro-democratic forces in Israel.”

How much vitality there is or isn’t among pro-democratic forces in Israel is, indeed, a crucial question. When I interviewed the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, of Tel Aviv University, he said that he himself had initially opposed BDS, and had written an op-ed in Haaretz to say so. He had changed his mind, he told me, when he realized how very weak the Israeli left is, and is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. If the Israeli left was not getting its act together, if there was no prospect of its persuading Israel even to end the occupation of the West Bank, this was not just a sad judgment on the left. It meant something much more important: It meant that the Palestinians had no chance of receiving justice from any pro-democratic swing inside Israel. It was that realization, Sand said, that pushed him over into the pro-BDS camp. Only international pressure, he concluded, can possibly move Israel to change. Domestic pressure is effectively nonexistent. No doubt that was why Palestinian civil society had decided in the first place to launch BDS, a direct appeal to international opinion.

My interview with Sand was conducted before Israel passed its infamous nation-state law this past summer, which enshrines Jewish identity at the expense of 20 percent of Israel’s citizens and, of course, at the expense of democracy. Sand’s argument has only gotten stronger.

The extreme mutedness of Israeli voices demanding justice for Palestinians is also a specific argument for the academic boycott of Israel. Many progressives in the United States tend to imagine that Israeli universities are embattled islands of enlightenment and dissidence in a sea of thuggish Israeli xenophobia à la Donald Trump, and that boycotting the Israeli universities is therefore unfair and counterproductive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aside from the routine discrimination against Palestinian students in 1948 Israel, not to speak of the harassment of anyone with an Arabic-sounding name who seeks affiliation with a Palestinian university in the occupied territories as a teacher or researcher, active academic complicity in the occupation and Israel’s military attacks on Gaza is broken only by lethargic silence. Where are the protests? Where are the signs of dissidence? How different is study at an Israeli university from the weaponized Zionist propaganda tours of Birthright Israel? While there are principled, progressive, and even radical professors scattered throughout Israeli higher education, neither the collective voice of the professoriate nor the universities as institutions have spoken out against the occupation.

On Philip Weiss’s indispensable Mondoweiss website, Nada Elia took the opportunity of the Alqasem case to wonder what her liberal Zionist supporters would have said if Alqasem had applied to study or teach at a Palestinian university like Birzeit or Al Quds, which Israel routinely bars faculty from doing. As a smaller but telling index of Israel’s indifference to elementary rights, it also seems worth mentioning, as Molly Minta has in these pages, that the Israeli border officials who stopped Alqasem at the airport did so by consulting Canary Mission, an online Zionist blacklist that is privately run and does not screen those who supply their denunciations. Anyone with a grudge can enter your name and get you denied entry for your year of study abroad.

Under the circumstances, what morally responsible faculty member would volunteer to write an enthusiastic letter of recommendation (as all letter-writers know, to say yes is to commit yourself to ginning up some enthusiasm) for a student who wanted to spend a year in Israel? It’s not hard to understand why John Cheney-Lippold, a tenured faculty member at the University of Michigan who also supports BDS, refused to write such a letter. What’s more puzzling is that the University of Michigan decided to punish him for not doing something that he was absolutely free not to do. This is a clear case of freedom of conscience as well as academic freedom. Where Israel is concerned, university administrations tend to forget the principles of academic freedom that they would otherwise claim they uphold. If the University of Michigan truly cares about non-discrimination, it will see that Cheney-Lippold is politely asking Israel to stop discriminating.

So who won? Yes, Israel successfully bullied Lara Alqasem into backing away from her undergraduate role as president of a local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. Governments can always get recantations from the weak and vulnerable who have had a taste of imprisonment, whether they stand to lose a planned year of studying Hebrew and human rights or a great deal more than that. And yes again, even very progressive Democratic candidates in the midterms have backed off earlier statements about justice in the Middle East, fearful of being tagged as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. But the big story in the United States is the growing support for the Palestinian cause, including support by those same candidates and by groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, most of which is also support for a just and viable Israel—not as a “Jewish state,” but as a democracy with equal rights for all its citizens.

When the Israeli Supreme Court decided to let Lara Alqasem in, democracy was not the winner. The court did not question Israel’s right to deny entry to supporters of BDS, and it probably could not have done so. Along with no recognized borders, Israel has no constitution that the law might violate. Except for refugees, international law does not guarantee anyone’s right to enter another country. Where anti-BDS legislation is almost certainly unconstitutional is in the United States (see, for example, this 2016 article in the Harvard Law Review). That’s where the real war for justice in Israel-Palestine is being waged.

And in that war, BDS has had more than its share of high-profile successes lately. Just this month, Sarah Schulman and Jewish Voice for Peace talked Transparent creator Jill Soloway into deciding not to shoot, as planned, in East Jerusalem. And on October 23 Mondoweiss reported that more than 30 student groups at NYU had pledged non-cooperation with NYU’s study-abroad program in Tel Aviv. The reason they give for their stand is simple: In discriminating against Palestinian and Muslim students, among others, Israel has failed to respect the principles of academic freedom, principles to which NYU ought also to be committed. As the ever more corporate-style administrations of both NYU and the University of Michigan know well, study-abroad programs are moneymakers, popular with their student clients. As more pledges of non-cooperation with study-abroad programs accumulate, we will see whether BDS is really, in Jeremy Ben-Ami’s words, a “pesky but largely toothless challenge.”

Correction: The text has been updated to reflect the fact that it was Nada Elia, not Philip Weiss, who wrote the article for Mondoweiss speculating about what would have happened if Lara Alqasem had wanted to attend a Palestinian university.

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