Why American academics must join boycott of Israel

A student in Gaza enrolled in a US university is unable to travel to the US because of Israel’s border closure. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)


On Friday 16 January, Israeli occupation forces bombed the headquarters of the University Teachers Association-Palestine (UTA), in Gaza, during their indiscriminate, willful destruction of the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) noted that “the UTA, together with other Gaza-based civil society organizations, called on 15 January for a wide campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel in response to its well-documented, premeditated war crimes in Gaza. The Israeli bombing of UTA’s headquarters occurred on the exact following day, 16 January.”

On 28 December, Israel had already bombed the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), with American-made F-16s destroying six buildings including research laboratories and a women’s dormitory. IUG, like all Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has no political affiliation. Like the rest of the society, the faculty and students are a composite of various political factions ranging from Communist to Islamist to unaffiliated. IUG is a flagship university, one with connections to the United States; Americans have taught at the university as Fulbrighters, and professors from the university have been Fulbrighters in the US.

The attack on Gaza is the latest in a long line of Israeli massacres and ethnic cleansing perpetrated with impunity since 1948. Often overlooked but as devastating to a society is Israel’s systematic attack on Palestinians’ right to education.

These realities must inform debates about the academic boycott campaign.

The IUG and UTA were only two of hundreds of civilian institutions Israel has bombed in the Gaza Strip since 27 December, primarily with American-made weapons. The first bombs were dropped at the precise time when children’s school shifts change and students were among the first victims.

Israel has attacked several UN schools killing dozens of people seeking refuge from the onslaught.

As of this writing, 1,400 Palestinians, hundreds among them children, have been killed, and almost 6,000, the vast majority of them civilians, have been injured in a relentless attack. On the ground, officials of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross have warned of humanitarian catastrophe and observed actions by Israel that may constitute war crimes, including deliberately shelling civilian homes and denying medical care to injured civilians.

But Israel’s war against Palestinian civilians began long before the first bombs exploded. For almost two years, Israel has imposed a crippling blockade on the Gaza Strip. This has caused a severe shortage of food, medicine, surgical supplies, fuel, electricity and other basic necessities supplies of which Israel, as the Occupying Power, is obliged to assure under international law.

Israel’s attack on education

Israel’s total siege on Gaza has devastated the educational sector. Students in Gaza are systematically prevented from traveling to the West Bank or abroad to attend universities. Students already abroad are unable to return home to visit their families.

Last fall, Khaled al-Mudallal was one of those students trapped inside Gaza and prevented from returning to Bradford University in the United Kingdom; his case symbolizes the struggle for Palestinians’ right to education. The “Let Khaled Study Campaign,” which emerged from student organizations at Bradford, organized various petitions on his behalf; he finally returned to England last fall. However, hundreds of other university students remain trapped in Gaza. These violations of educational rights by Israel have a long history.

In 1975, Birzeit, a venerable college that dates back to the 1920s, became the first Palestinian university. Throughout its history it has never been free of Israel’s systematic infringements. In 1974, the university’s founding president, Dr. Hanna Nasir was arrested by Israeli occupation forces and expelled to Lebanon. For years, curricular materials as well as locally-produced and imported intellectual materials were subject to Israeli military censorship.

During the nonviolent Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that began in 1987, Israel ordered the closure of all Palestinian universities, schools and kindergartens, ostensibly rendering the acts of teaching and learning illegal.

Between 1988-92 Palestinian education was forced underground as classes were held in homes, mosques, churches and community centers which were repeatedly raided.

Even after universities were allowed to reopen in 1992, Palestinians have faced an ever more difficult struggle to reach their places of learning as a result of curfews, closures, checkpoints.

Since Israel began its violent suppression of the second Palestinian uprising starting in 2000, eight universities and over three hundred schools have been shelled, shot at or raided by the Israeli army. Since 2004, the wall Israel is building on West Bank land, illegal according to a 2004 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice, has made the work of educational institutions even more difficult.

This history forms the backdrop for PACBI, modeled on the strategy successfully used by the South African anti-apartheid campaign. In 2004, PACBI appealed to academics around the world to “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions” as well as to urge universities to divest from Israel.

While various unions in England and Canada have worked to endorse and support PACBI’s initial call since 2005, since the recent siege on Gaza Canadian and Scottish academics have mobilized to support the boycott campaign. In contradistinction, American academics have remained silent.

On 9 January, 300 academics from across Canada called on their government to condemn the Israeli incursion and demanded that Prime Minister Stephen Harper impose sanctions on Israel. While a group of 900 American academics signed on to an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama, their letter did not demand sanctions; it merely asked for a different approach to the US relationship between Israel and Palestine.

Thus, while progress has been made in Canada and the UK in building support for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), in the US advocates of BDS have not yet overcome the knee-jerk, empty charges of anti-Semitism. Yet, it is US advocates that need to be the loudest particularly since the US is the main financier and diplomatic backer of Israeli apartheid and war crimes.

While we are calling on our colleagues to boycott Israeli academic institutions, we are not singling out academia. The academic boycott is connected to the larger BDS campaign, which addresses all forms of institutional boycott of Israel, economic, athletic, and political forms of normalization. All institutions, including academic institutions are complicit in the Israeli colonial project. But Israeli academic institutions —- all of which are state-funded —- produce the knowledge that enables this colonial regime.

Moreover, like the rest of society it is not immune to waging war itself; indeed many of the reservists now called up to serve in Gaza are Israeli faculty, staff, and students and many Israeli universities engage in weapons research for the government.

In the midst of this carnage in Gaza, in solidarity with Palestinian civil society organizations that have called on the international community to support BDS, we urge our fellow American academics to work towards this end on their university campuses. Before its office in Gaza was bombed, the Palestinian University Teachers Association called for those in the international community to enact BDS in all its forms and to demand the enforcement of all United Nations resolutions, particularly UN Resolution 194 calling for the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, and to demand that Israel comply with the Fourth Geneva Convention and international humanitarian law.

We urge our fellow academics to not only support this statement in theory, but also in practice by pushing for academic boycott on your campuses. Supporting the human rights of Palestinians is not anti-Semitic; it is about human rights: Palestinian human rights. If this were any other captive population besieged for nineteen days with US-made materiel, we would be outraged and acting. So we are asking you to act now. It is our tax dollars at work that enables this massacre to take place. Let us make apartheid, in all its forms, only present in history books.

Rania Masri is Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Balamand, Lebanon. You may follow her writings at http://greenresistance.wordpress.com/. Marcy Newman is Associate Professor of English at An Najah National University, Nablus, Palestine. You may follow her writings at http://bodyontheline.wordpress.com/.

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