Those of us who have called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions have done so for quite straightforward reasons. We believe in academic freedom and in the intricate network of intellectual exchanges that it safeguards. We believe this, not primarily because we are concerned with the fate of the profession and its protocols, but because we believe that the academy is part of the world.
Scholarship and teaching are not the same as other modes of practice, of course, but they are part and parcel of the world of thought and action that we all inhabit, no matter our academic garb. Nothing pleases the neoliberal state’s culture of expertise more than the false invocation of the ivory tower that allows it to govern without the hindrance of a critical citizenry.
Nothing infuriates the neoconservatives more than when a handful of academics show that they do indeed have an impact on the outside world by holding a teach-in that begins to change the discourse on US domestic and foreign policy, or in this case on US-Israel relations. The proof of that pudding is the ongoing campaign of “lawfare” to ban criticism of Israel on college campuses on the spurious grounds that it is anti-Semitic.
The resources poured into such campaigns both by Zionist organizations in the United States and by Israel-based nongovernmental organizations suggests that they certainly do see the “ivory tower” as a site of political struggle.
We also believe that academic freedom and the right to education are both universal and indivisible. They cannot be afforded to US and Israeli academics but not to Palestinians.
Indeed, as the onslaught on professors and students who have criticized Israel demonstrates, if academic freedom is not available to Palestinians, it will not be fully available to US academics either. And academic freedom has been denied to Palestinians, not merely by lawfare, but through a continuous assault by Israel, whose ultimate intent is to deny to Palestine the capacity to reproduce its culture or educate its people.
The American public by now knows that in its 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead military assault on Gaza, Israel pulverized 23 schools, including a music school, the International American School, and the Islamic University. What is less well reported is that Israel has systematically closed universities in acts of collective punishment, and then sought to prevent professors from teaching their classes off campus.
It has denied freedom of movement so that students cannot reach their campuses and Fulbright scholars cannot take up their scholarships in the United States. It has prevented academics from leaving the country and prevented them from returning.
It has, like the South African apartheid regime, killed children and youth who protest such conditions or broken their bones with mallets. In Israel itself, where Palestinians supposedly have rights of citizenship, the school system is as segregated as it ever was in the Jim Crow south of the United States.
Israeli universities aren’t innocent
Israeli academic institutions are not innocent of this systematic denial of academic freedom. They participate in it and they benefit from it. They furnish the demographic and geographical information that enables the construction of the separation wall and the eviction of Palestinians from their homes and lands.
They do the technical research that enables the occupation and its network of surveillance and illegal settlements. They reward those who design the practices of torture. They have built freely on occupied land, in contravention of international law.
Not one Israeli institution has protested the infringement of Palestinian academic freedoms, though they have formed a consortium to protect their own and pressured administrations in this country and elsewhere to condemn the boycott. These are the real abuses of academic freedom: wanton acts of destruction and the passivity of silence.
It is in response to these facts that we have called for a boycott of Israeli universities. We ask for a moratorium on institutional support to Israeli academic institutions whose daily conduct infringes on the possibility of academic freedom of others.
And we ask for the boycott of scholars who expressly act, not as individual scholars, but as “cultural ambassadors” for Israel’s machinery of soft propaganda or hasbara — that is, against those who have explicitly politicized their scholarship in the service of dispossession and occupation. This is to target them not in their professional capacity as academics, but in their role as functionaries of the Israeli state.
Such a moratorium will and should impact the lives and work of individual academics who now advocate for a system that enhances their conditions at the direct expense of others.
The alternative prescription for inaction is the academic equivalent of the declaration of terra nullius. Ripe with concern for the fate of Israeli academics and their academic freedom, opponents of the boycott scarcely even acknowledge the existence of Palestinian scholars, or of their institutions that have struggled for decades to survive, to research, to fulfill their students’ thirst for education.
Their defense of the rights of Israeli academics depends upon the moral eviction of the Palestinians, who are subject to a double dispossession: dispossessed of their lands and of the material resources to reproduce their culture, they are then told that they do not even exist in the intricate world of academic exchanges.
The academic boycott of Israeli institutions will not prevent scholars from working, thinking and exchanging ideas. It will not destroy their institutions wholesale.
The boycott has quite specific ends, consistent with human rights conventions and international law, and can be short-lived. The dispossession of the Palestinian people threatens to be permanent and irremediable.
Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren professor in the humanities, Vanderbilt University.
David Lloyd is distinguished professor of English, University of California, Riverside.