The ivory tower behind the Apartheid Wall

Palestinian teachers and students at a UN school in Gaza protest against Israeli airstrikes on the previous day (8 November 2006) which killed 18 Palestinians, mostly women and children, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. Israel’s use of ‘collective punishment’ are one of the reasons given by Britain’s University and College Union for a boycott against Israeli academic institutions. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)

In the last few weeks, university presidents across the US and Canada have rushed to issue statements about the proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions by the British University and College Union. They view this boycott as a serious violation of academic freedom. Yet, given the general failure of these leaders to comment on any number of infringements of academic freedom that have occurred in recent years, including those close to home in the form of the politically-motivated denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein and the colleague, Mehrene Larudee, who very publicly supported him, the harassment of Columbia University professors Joseph Massad and Rashid Khalidi, and the intimidation of faculty by Campuswatch, one might be excused for concluding that university presidents prefer to remain above the political fray and reserve their office for grave and important but non-controversial pronouncements on tsunamis. But now, even in the midst of the hot and hazy summer recess, university presidents have mobilized their most imposing academic rhetoric in expressing solidarity with Israeli academics and upholding the rights of all to engage in “an open exchange of ideas” and “freedom of association.”

What is perhaps most perplexing about this trend is its entirely virtual nature, for in fact no one’s freedom has been violated by the boycott yet under discussion. Nevertheless, university presidents are preparing in advance for what could be an “attack … [on] all universities at their core mission” (Gilles Patry, University of Ottawa) and a “threat … [to] the moral foundation of each and every university” (Amy Guttman, University of Pennsylvania). [1] University of Virginia President John Casteen compares the proposed boycott to “the conduct of the most vicious political movements and governments of the 20th century.” Yet, surely they must realize that Palestinians have for many decades suffered a multitude of assaults on their universities and schools by the Israeli occupying forces. Surely if university presidents are up in arms over a proposed boycott of Israeli academics, they must have something to say about the shutting down of universities, jailing and shooting of students and faculty, daily impeding of students and faculty from getting to classes, denial of student permits to attend universities, and revoking of visas to visiting scholars and researchers that characterizes academic life in Palestine. If a boycott of academic institutions is considered unfair, what does one call the methodical destruction of an educational system? If Patry warns about potential “acts of exclusion” against Israeli academics, isn’t he concerned that right now, as we speak, all but a handful of Palestinian students are excluded from Israeli institutions and that even within Palestine, the Israelis exclude Palestinian students from their own universities by refusing to issue them the necessary travel permits? Might he see the deportation and nineteen-year exile of his colleague, Birzeit University president Hanna Nasir, as an “act of exclusion”? My own university principal, Karen Hitchcock, is committed to “defend the freedom of individuals to study, teach and carry out research without fear of harassment, intimidation, or discrimination.” Do these “individuals” include Palestinians, one wonders? If so, is she prepared to address the erection of checkpoints outside of universities, such as the one outside of Birzeit that resulted in a 20-40 percent reduction in class attendance in 2001 according to Human Rights Watch? The philosopher and critic Judith Butler argues, “If the exercise of academic freedom ceases or is actively thwarted, that freedom is lost, which is why checkpoints are and should be an issue for anyone who defends a notion of academic freedom.” [2]

It is important to realize that the British UCU is targeting Israeli academic institutions (and not individuals) not only because they are linked to the same profession but also because of the place of universities in Israeli society. Israeli universities, far from being sites of dissidence and resistance to their government’s discriminatory and violent policies, are themselves guilty of human rights abuses. Bar-Ilan University founded a branch in Ariel, an illegal settlement in the West Bank, making it directly complicit in a continued colonialist expansion project. Hebrew University has a long and deleterious history of appropriating Palestinian land. In 1968, in opposition to a UN resolution, the university evicted hundreds of Palestinian families to expand their campus in East Jerusalem. This history of confiscation continues, as October 2004 saw more evictions of Palestinian families and destruction of their homes for another campus expansion. Israeli faculties collaborate with intelligence services, using their academic expertise to devise sophisticated “interrogation” methods for the Israeli military. And Israeli academics themselves serve in the military as reservists, often in the occupied territories. The British UCU’s position is ultimately designed to encourage Israeli academics to do something about the complicity of their universities in the illegal occupation.

Rather than merely showcase inflated rhetoric and verbally denounce the British UCU’s boycott, a few university presidents are prepared to go further. In her statement, Karen Hitchcock threatens to add Queen’s to the UCU’s “boycott list.” Modeling her position after Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, ironically a First Amendment scholar, Hitchcock is referring to the petition initiated by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz that enjoins academics to sign on to consider themselves as honorary Israelis and ask also to be boycotted by the UCU. University of California-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and McGill University Principal Heather Munroe-Blum express similar sentiments in their statements, declaring that should the British UCU choose to boycott Israeli institutions, they should also boycott Berkeley and McGill as well.

When these university presidents challenge the UCU to boycott them in their statements, they indicate that Columbia, Berkeley, McGill and Queen’s academics wish to be boycotted along with their Israeli counterparts because they think that such boycotts are wrong. One suspects that there may be faculty, staff, and students at these schools who do not want to be considered honorary Israelis and be boycotted by British universities. Is it within the proper purview of a university’s president to make unilateral pronouncements that have such potentially significant consequences for the intellectual welfare of its members? What sort of academic freedom is this if a president has the power to make such decisions for his/her faculty, students, and staff? While there may be many at these universities who welcome such a position, in principle one cannot and should not support it. I believe that it is itself an infringement of academic freedom.

Indeed, for all their professed commitment to “the exchange of knowledge and ideas” (Munroe-Blum) “scholarly understanding and free academic exchange and expression” (Patry), “open inquiry and exchange of ideas” (John Casteen, University of Virginia), “free and unfettered debate” (David Skorton, Cornell University), none amongst this cadre of university presidents seems the least bit concerned with providing the type of open debate on this issue that is purportedly the very hallmark of their institutions. Sadly, it seems that these presidents in fact are rushing to issue statements precisely in order to pre-empt such debate on their campuses. Were these university presidents really committed to their stated positions on intellectual exchange, would they not organize or at least foster a discussion of the issues amongst their constituencies that would examine the motivations behind the proposed boycott? Or are they rushing to stifle debate because they are afraid to be involved in a potentially controversial set of issues? When there has been no open discussion of these issues on campus, what sort of example is set by these statements from on high? I do hope that they will have a “free and unfettered debate” at Cornell. Let the fetters fly!

I suspect, however, that this spate of statements does not bode well for what Casteen calls the university’s “unique capacity to serve the public good.” It seems that a dangerous precedent has been set in which university presidents recently have taken on the customary role of politicians and accepted politically organized and motivated tours to Israel. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that seven university presidents from the US visited Israel in early July in a campaign designed “to explain Israel’s policies to the leaders of US academic institutions and to strengthen scientific collaboration between the two countries.”[ 3] In addition to meeting with the educational minister and academic leaders, the university presidents also met with “military experts.” Presumably they did not exchange views on Aristotle with the Israeli generals. While we are now accustomed to our elected officials participating in such tours, the university is, I agree with Casteen (a member of the delegation to Israel), supposed to serve the public in a unique way. While I’m not saying that some educational purpose and “free exchange of ideas” did not occur during the presidents’ visit, I remain stumped by the meeting with the Israeli military. The Haaretz correspondent, Tamara Traubmann, pinpoints a political agenda in the timing of the trip, writing that “The visit takes place amid attempts to impose an academic boycott of Israel and controversy over Israel on US campuses between the right and the left.” If this trip was designed to target university presidents in an attempt to pre-empt debate on campus, then we must ask whether the universities have succumbed, in Bollinger’s ominous phrase, to “politically biased attempts to hijack the central mission of higher education.”

The university presidents might argue that they are prepared to defend the rights of any group, not just Israelis, to academic freedom. As Tom Traves, President of Dalhousie writes in his statement, “Universities do not have foreign policies and they must assert their right always to be independent of government dictates in the name of short-term political agendas.” Yet, when university presidents have allowed numerous violations of academic freedom to Palestinians to pass without comment, they must realize that their statements, rather than “defending the freedom of individuals” as they claim, function precisely as politicized pronouncements in support of the Israeli regime. You cannot let decades of gross injustices to one side pass and then suddenly leap to the defense of the other side without implicating yourself in a political position.

It strikes me as particularly unfortunate, though given the recent mistreatment of Middle East Studies professor Joseph Massad, not unexpected, that Columbia’s president should be leading the charge. In 1968, as Hebrew University busied itself in confiscating Palestinian land in East Jerusalem, on the west side of Manhattan, Columbia University was doing something similar. In April of that year, Columbia broke ground in Morningside Park, a neighborhood park adjacent to its main campus, in order to build a gym. The neighborhood outcry was immense and students immediately organized to stop what they saw as an arrogant appropriation of neighborhood space for largely private use. A long protest followed, which though at first violently suppressed by police, was ultimately effective in achieving its goal. The plan for the gym was abandoned and the students’ demand for Columbia to sever ties with the Institute of Defense Analysis was also met, a step that surely allowed its scientists to work with greater “openness” and “free exchange of ideas.” This was a galvanizing event in Columbia’s history and the effectiveness of the protest and ultimate good it achieved in respecting the neighborhood’s rights and highlighting the complexity of the racial relations of its residents with the university is now told as a proud moment in Columbia history and nicely archived on its website. This is a history Bollinger and others might learn from, for institutions do need motivation to move forward and transcend their sometimes less-than-illustrious pasts. Supporting a boycott of a university can help those dissidents within the university more effectively work towards change, for the wish to make a favorable impression in the world has frequently served as a catalyst for positive transformation. World opinion was absolutely central to pressuring the US government during the Civil Rights era and to dismantling Apartheid in South Africa. Since the boycott is aimed at institutions not individuals, rather than isolating Israeli academics, the boycott could provide a sort of support to those academics who wish to reform their universities.

There are other tactics aside from a boycott open to us as academics for addressing the suffering of Palestinians in the occupied territories. A university community might well decide upon a different strategy. Recently New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggested that universities would do better to educate Palestinian students, establish exchanges, and send faculty to teach in Palestinian universities. I think that these are great ideas and hope that Israel will agree with Friedman and no longer refuse to issue or arbitrarily revoke visas of visiting faculty and prevent Palestinian students and academics from attending meetings abroad. I am certain that “an open exchange of ideas” on university campuses will lead to a lot of different and creative suggestions for considering how we, as academics, can contribute towards improving the plight of our Palestinian colleagues and supporting our Israeli colleagues in doing the same. But let’s not condemn the boycott out of hand before that discussion has taken place.

To this end, I have created a petition at my university to ask the principal to retract her statement and support the organization of a forum to discuss the issues relating to the proposed boycott. This is the very least that a university should do. I urge my colleagues at other universities to do likewise.

[1] All quotations from university presidents, principals, chancellors, etc. that I cite are taken from their statements posted on their university websites.
[2] “Israel/Palestine and the paradoxes of academic freedom,” Judith Butler, Radical Philosophy 135, January/February 2006, p. 11.
[3] “U.S. university presidents visit Israel to strengthen academic ties,” Tamara Traubmann, Haaretz, 3 July 2007.

Margaret Aziza Pappano is an Associate Professor of English at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario; her specialty is medieval literature. In 2006 she visited the West Bank as part of the institute, “Connecting Dearborn and Jerusalem,” sponsored by the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

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