Open door to boycott debate and uphold academic freedom

Palestinians attend a graduation ceremony of Al-Quds Open University in the West Bank city of Qalqiliya, where access to education has been severely hindered by the construction of Israel’s wall, September 2007. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) welcomes the historic resolutions passed by the UK’s University and College Union (UCU) at its first Annual Congress in May 2007. In particular, PACBI applauds the Congress for passing resolutions deploring the denial of educational rights for Palestinians; condemning the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation; noting that in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable; recognizing that criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic; calling for the circulation of the full text of the PACBI Call for Boycott for information and discussion; and encouraging members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions.

While British colleagues prepare to discuss the Palestinian boycott call and consider the implications of normal academic links with the Israeli academy during the coming academic year, a disturbing development has been noted in the United States and Canada. No sooner had the UCU motion been passed than dozens of American and Canadian university presidents and rectors rushed to condemn the Union, basing their attacks on mostly false or inaccurate data. Such enthusiasm in denouncing the British academic union’s resolutions, particularly during the summer holidays when university life slows down, is difficult to understand. What these university presidents have done in effect is to shut the door to debating any issues specifically pertaining to Israel, without consultation with their colleagues and without any public discussion whatsoever having taken place about the merit of the UCU resolutions. Furthermore, the fact that none of these — now exceeding 300 — university presidents has ever even criticized Israel’s persistent suppression of Palestinian academic freedom, not to mention its grave violation of Palestinian human rights, sheds serious doubts on their consistency and fairness.

We appeal to our American and Canadian colleagues to challenge what appears to be an organized effort to stifle debate in the academy, and to urge their presidents, faculty associations, professional bodies, and colleagues at large to follow the example of British academics and initiate a robust debate about Israel’s military occupation and other forms of oppression of the Palestinians and the most effective ways to counter them. The complicity of the US government, in particular, in perpetuating Israel’s occupation and violation of basic human rights through unconditional and uniquely generous financial, political and diplomatic support makes Israeli policies clearly relevant to all American tax payers, academics included. It is worth noting, in this context, the principled stand of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) when it went ahead last year with its plan to publish various pro and con position papers concerning the academic boycott of Israel in its journal Academe after its conference on academic boycotts was hastily cancelled due to political pressure. We also recall the decision of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to hold a panel discussion on the boycott at its annual meeting last November. We also vividly remember the brave role that North American academics and institutions of higher learning played in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It is in this spirit of encouraging free debate about controversial issues of concern to academics that we urge our colleagues to call for a careful consideration of the case for the academic boycott against Israel.

PACBI notes that university presidents and provosts in North America have been deploying the notion of academic freedom in order to justify their condemnation of the boycott. However, in their attempt to forestall debate on their campuses by issuing these statements, they can themselves be viewed as infringing upon the academic freedom of their constituencies — students, faculty, and staff — to decide for themselves where they stand on this important issue.

We feel that a principled, reflective, and representative debate on university campuses will bring into focus the dire situation in Palestine that prompted the UCU to issue their call to give serious consideration to supporting an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli academic institutions. There has been much misinformation about the boycott, and the statements by university presidents show them to be ill-informed about some of the basic issues pertaining to the rationale for the boycott and its implementation. It is particularly important to stress that the boycott targets institutions rather than individuals, thus creating the necessary space for the free exchange of ideas to continue amongst academics on an individual basis.

Background

There is ample evidence showing that Israeli universities, research centers, and think tanks are an integral part of the structures of oppression in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. They have played a direct and indirect role in promoting, developing or supporting the state’s racist policies and persistent violations of human rights and international law. It is significant that no Israeli university has ever taken a public stand against the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, nor have academic institutions or representative bodies of Israeli academics ever criticized their government’s long-standing siege of Palestinian education and the denial of Palestinian academic freedom.

The achievements of Palestinian institutions of higher education under Israel’s military occupation have been realized despite the enormous obstacles the Israeli army and security establishment have placed in their path. Over the past few decades, tens of thousands of students and faculty have been imprisoned, exiled, tortured, or wounded by the occupation forces. University campuses have been routinely shut down — for several consecutive years, in some cases — by military order as punishment for student activism against the occupation. Under the current regime of closures, curfews and the vast network of military roadblocks and the Wall, normal life, including the pursuit of education, has become impossible for Palestinians.

The Palestinian call for boycott of Israeli academic institutions, like the Palestinian civil society’s widely endorsed call for boycott, divestment and sanctions, is based on the same moral principle embodied in the international civil society campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa: that people of conscience must take a stand against oppression and use all the means of civil resistance available to bring it to an end.

We appeal to you, colleagues in the American and Canadian academy, to urge your institutions to open their doors to the open exchange of ideas about the situation in Palestine and to consider the ways you can respond to the human and moral challenge the Israeli system of oppression presents to all people of conscience. It may be particularly relevant to address your educational unions and professional organizations to hold panels and discussions on this issue.

We urge you not to allow powerful political forces to dictate to your presidents and provosts how the academy deals with controversial issues pertaining to Israel. As Roger Bowen, the General Secretary of the AAUP and one of the organizers of the ill-fated AAUP conference on academic boycotts (in which two PACBI members were to participate) said after the cancellation,

The AAUP is honoring its nearly hundred-year legacy of defending academic freedom by not excluding our opponents from participation in debate. If only we could require that critics of the originally planned conference join the AAUP and embrace our principles of academic freedom. Alas, we do not manage the American academy, let alone global higher education. But maybe, just maybe, we, or the principles we espouse, should.
We hope that the coming academic year will witness the launching of a serious and responsible public debate about the merits of academic boycott of Israel at American and Canadian universities. It is only through an open discussion in the spirit of the free exchange of ideas that informed opinion can emerge.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel was launched in Ramallah in April 2004 by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals to join the growing international boycott movement. The Campaign built on the Palestinian call for a comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel issued in August 2002 and a statement made by Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the occupied territories and in the Diaspora calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions in October 2003.

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