On Academic Freedom and Human Rights

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Despite strong personal opposition, I’ve until now managed to refrain from commenting on and writing about the American Studies Association’s recent decision to boycott Israeli institutions. I made the decision to do so in part because I felt I had a responsibility to learn more about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian claimed territories in order to check any biases which I may have as an American Jew. An even more compelling reason for me to remain relatively silent on this controversial issue, was that I felt as if other academics (including the President of Kenyon University, Sean Decatur) were able to much more eloquently and cogently express the very same ideas which I wanted to express. I was confident that the growing chorus of voices which came out in opposition to this boycott would provide sufficient critiques of this myopic boycott.

Today, however, I came across an article published in Al-Jazeera by Colin Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren professor in the humanities at Vanderbilt University. In her opinion piece, Professor Dayan makes the most compelling arguments I’ve heard thus far in defense of the ASA’s decisions and her piece is worth reading in it’s entirety. Nonetheless, her arguments have only served to clarify my own thoughts on the matter and I want to take this opportunity to respond to her arguments, some of which I’ve excerpted below.

Who has the right to “morality”? And who gets to claim rights to “academic freedom”? To speak out against the blatant persecution and abuse of Palestinians is to be tarred with the brush of hatred, and worse. The boycott responds to the call of Palestinian academics. They do not have academic freedom. Israeli authorities deny them and their students the right to travel within Palestine and between Gaza and the West Bank or Israel or anywhere else. Israel has closed universities in acts of collective punishment. It has denied freedom of movement to students and to Fulbright scholars who cannot take up their scholarships in the United States. It has prevented academics from leaving the country; and if they leave, it has prevented them from returning.

I neither can, nor will, deny that there is a bona-fide human rights crisis occurring on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinean border. Neither Mahmoud Abbas or Benjamin Netanyahu are able to wash their hands clean of the blood which has been spilled during their terms in office. The suppression of academic rights by the Israeli government is a legitimate concern that many people believe to be worthy of protest. I have no problem with this and do not mean to categorically reject all forms of protest against the Israeli government’s actions concerning academic freedom for Palestinian scholars.

However, even if one is to take Professor Dayan’s arguments at their face value and determine that yes, the Israeli government’s actions are ones which should be protested,  that wouldn’t provide individuals and organizations with carte blanche authority to boycott anything Israeli regardless of the consequences which such a boycott may have.

All too often, individuals and groups (many times those groups happen to be legislative bodies) are willing, even eager, to support sanctions or boycotts for the symbolic value they represent. The result of this has been the proliferation of  sanctions and boycotts which not only fail to bring about the social or political change with which they were tasked with initiating, but also exert consequences on third parties. With this current boycott, the third parties which are adversely effected are the Israeli academics and researchers who have played no role in their government’s decisions regarding Palestinian occupation or academic freedom. Numerous Israeli scholars have even gone as far as to speak out against the actions of their government. Yet they too are lopped in with the rest because of the indiscriminate nature of the ASA’s boycott which places a greater emphasis on the national affiliation of these universities and institutions than it does on the actual values and actions of the institutions.

The Israeli government has shown both their willingness and their ability to withstand boycotts and sanctions which are far more powerful economically and politically than the one which the ASA is currently engaged in. Taken alone, the ineffectiveness of a boycott does not necessarily qualify as a reason to oppose it. However, the reality that the boycott has no meaningful chance of effecting a change in the Israeli government’s stance, coupled with the tangible and almost certain harms it causes for Israeli scholars should be more than enough reason for professors, administrators, and university presidents to come out in opposition to this misguided boycott -a boycott which is itself an affront to the very values which the ASA has declared to be sacrosanct.

Even though I oppose the ASA’s boycott, I still believe that the academic community should take a stance against the Israeli government’s actions concerning the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars. If the ASA wants to send a powerful message of support and solidarity for scholars whose voices are being silenced, then the most noble form of action for them to take would be to help those voices speak once again, rather than work to silence even more academic voices.  If Professor Dayan and the American Studies Association’s primary concerns are for the human rights and academic freedom of Palestinians, then the course they should pursue is one which empowers Palestinian researchers, scientists, and scholars. Such a task should be the focus not only of the ASA, but of all members of the international academic community. The promotion of collaborative research opportunities is a far more powerful – and more effective – remedy for academic suppression than a boycott which only further harms academic freedom.

Collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian scholars isn’t merely a pipe dream which critics of the ASA boycott throw out in an attempt to offer up an alternative to the boycott. Rather, Israel-Palestinian academic cooperation is a viable approach towards bridging the divide between scholars in both nations and allowing for the unfettered transmission of knowledge  between the best and the brightest that both nations have to offer. In a 2009 paper for the Journal of Research Practices, Julia Chaitin of Sapir Academic College wrote this about academic collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian researchers:

One of the hallmarks of collaborative Palestinian-Israeli research is that there will always be grave interferences from the outside, such as Israeli military operations, wars, terror attacks, or rocket and Qassam attacks. These external events make the joint work very difficult and also negatively influence the relations between the partners. In spite of the fact that researchers will spend much time and energy writing the proposal, looking for funding, and undertaking field work, as soon as there is a resurgence of violence, the Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian colleagues will not be able to ignore these events and carry on as usual. During times of an escalation in the violence, the partners will need to respond to what is happening and reorganize their work. At certain times, an open discussion between the partners is enough to get the work back on track. However, at times, the researchers may need to take a time-out from their joint endeavor.

In her paper, Mrs. Chaitin details times in which collaborative research with Palestinian colleagues allowed her to adopt a more critical and informed view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her collaborative research does not stand alone either. Only three months ago, researches from Al-Quds University’s College of Pharmacy and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology began working together on a two year long project aimed at removing pharmaceutical materials from waste water. Additionally, there are a number of joint ventures including the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information and the Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics, and Culture which serve as exemplary models for the type of collaborative projects which the ASA should encourage rather than inhibit.

Having made clear why I feel as if the ASA boycott as well as Professor Dayan’s support for it are misguided, I’d like to address another point raised by Professor Dayan.

The debates inspired by the academic endorsement of “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) against Israeli academic institutions allow all kinds of people to see what has been hidden, to speak out, collectively and freely, young and old, tenured or not, for and against the boycott. This freedom to disagree or agree, the collision and conflict necessary to critical thinking, is what counts. Against such exchange, the negative reactions stand out. They are vehement in their threat: the virtual excommunication of those who speak on behalf of a boycott from the community of right-thinking scholars. When Foxman and other critics, including the American Association of University Professors, speak of academic freedom as the greatest casualty of this boycott of Israeli academic institutions, we need to reconsider what it means to be part of the academy. Does it mean that we as professors must disregard human activity outside its groves? Must the actual separation wall in Israel become a reality in our institutions, blocking our view, disappearing Palestinians and burying the realities of the occupation?

Almost immediately I’m drawn to the line “the virtual excommunication of those who speak on behalf of a boycott”. The irony here is that the boycott itself is the literal excommunication of scholars and researchers who are guilty only of being affiliated with universities and academic institutions which happen to be located in a specific country – an even lower level of culpability than speaking out on behalf of an action or policy.

In the second excerpted paragraph, Professor Dayan advances the idea that that academic dialogue and the actions of the academic community do not exist within a vacuum. This notion, is not only a powerful one, but one with which I agree. From student protesters in Mexico City in 1968 to the students in Egypt today who are risking their lives in order to demand basic freedoms and civilian rule, the world has seen countless examples which suggest that the academic community can and has been a powerful force for social and political change.  In light of this, it’s necessary to recognize the distinction between using  academic dialogue and protest as a tool to bring about sociopolitical change and punishing institutions as retribution for actions for which they have little, if any, responsibility for. The ASA boycott unfortunately does the latter.

Why “single out” Israel, some commentators have asked? Why hold the “only democracy in the Middle East” responsible when other tyrannical countries go un-censured? The Zionist dream became reality in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust. It offered Jews a home,an escape from persecution and hope for dignity. But even then the struggle and the promise took place through an ideology that excluded and ignored. What the call for a boycott has done is to give us the chance, at last, to realize what Jewish nationalism had always claimed as its boon but never achieved: the universality of learning and the passion for justice.

It’s this concluding paragraph which I believe best elucidates the underlying reason for Professor Dayan’s support of the ASA’s boycott. As I understand her, Professor Dayan holds a sincere belief that the state of Israel is engaged in the reprehensible and unconscionable abuse of human rights. Portions of Professor Dayan’s op-ed for Al-Jazeera could most certainly double as a stinging condemnation of the Israeli occupation of disputed territories and the ongoing conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian people. Opposition to (or support for)  Israel’s occupation and the actions which both governments have undertaken are topics that are worthy of debate and are likely to incite intense emotions and deep disagreements. These issues are the very same ones which have divided people of so many different backgrounds since long before the ASA called for this current boycott. What we must remember is that these issues, as real as they may be for the millions of men, women, and children who are affected by them, are immaterial in the debate over academic freedom. They are not policies created at the behest of Israeli universities nor are they policies which will be changed by boycotting Israeli universities.

Academic freedom is not a pillar which holds up other freedoms. It is not a pillar which supports a healthy civil society. It is not a pillar which democracy rests upon. Academic freedom is the very foundation upon which all else lies. It is a right which no person should be deprived of. I can only caution those who continue to support the ASA’s boycott to be wary of erecting figurative walls as you protest the all too literal walls which are being erected in the Middle East.

3 Comments

  1. Nice well thought out essay which address a complex set of issues. I would suggest that Professor Dayan takes a couple of undergraduate courses in logic and ethics.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. As an American Liberal Jewish person, it is very hard for me to balance Israel and my liberal views. I think that this article helps to bridge the conflicting passions in the average Liberal Jewish person’s conscience. I think that this idea of increasing collaboration between academics among both of these two great groups of people, the Israelis and the Palestinians, will not only prevent boycotts of Israeli institutions, but they will also encourage the building of peace between the two nations.

  3. tl;dr

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