Don't use academic freedom as a rhetorical tactic
By David Green
A panel discussion was convened on May 13 at the Illini Union by the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, addressing the academic boycott of Israeli universities that is currently being promoted by the BDS — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — Movement. This movement originated in 2005 with explicit parallels to the boycott of apartheid South Africa.
Two faculty members responded to the recent decision of the American Studies Association to "honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions," and the national AAUP's subsequent rejection of this call.
The ASA resolution makes a clear distinction between formal institutional relationships and academic freedom: "We are expressly not endorsing a boycott of Israeli scholars engaged in individual-level contacts and ordinary forms of academic exchange, including presentations at conferences, public lectures at campuses, and collaboration on research and publication."
The ASA's justification is clearly stated: "Whereas there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students."
This distinction has clear relevance beyond the issue of Palestinian education. Many institutional agreements between American and Israeli universities involve the development of technologies of surveillance, control, oppression and violence. Israel's occupation of Palestine has served as a "research laboratory" for such technologies, and American law enforcement officials go to Israel to learn how to apply these techniques to our own citizens and others in often discriminatory ways.
Meanwhile, joint research on water resources — such as promoted by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2011 — is conducted in a colonialist context in which Israel systematically confiscates or pollutes the water resources of occupied Palestinians. The hypocrisy of such relationships is implicitly challenged by the ASA resolution and the BDS movement.
BDS is a tactic in the struggle for justice in Palestine, and its effectiveness can be debated in good faith by movement supporters. It is unfortunate that BDS provides an occasion for campus officials like Chancellor Phyllis Wise to avoid a discussion of settler colonialism and its attendant racism — materially supported by the governments of the U.S. and Israel, our university, and our tax dollars — in favor of a case-closed assertion of academic freedom for privileged individuals on American and Israeli campuses. But university officials never wanted to have a substantive political/moral discussion, and in some contexts BDS has changed that.
This event reflected these concerns. On the one hand, it was perhaps the first panel ever sponsored by an academic organization on this campus that concurrently presented meaningfully diverse views on the conflict. I applaud Robert Warrior for ably representing the pro-BDS and anti-apartheid perspective. He justifiably relates his Native American heritage to settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing — ongoing — in Palestine.
In opposition, Richard Ross dismissed the principled nature of BDS and the centrality of U.S. support for the occupation. He rejected the notion that the relationship between Israeli Jews and Palestinians is one of oppressors to victims. Israeli "settlers" and Palestinian "terrorists" are, according to Ross, equally culpable for this conflict, regardless of the fact that settlement is a policy of the Israeli government and its high-tech military, and that Palestinian civil society uniformly supports nonviolent resistance. Ross also ignored the relentless violence of the settlers themselves, always unpunished, which is indeed terrorism on a daily basis by the strong against the weak.
I would conclude with three observations. First, in formal academic contexts on this campus in which Palestinians are talked about, their own voices are rarely if ever heard. This is not meant as criticism of Warrior's conscientious effort. Nevertheless, Palestinian voices have been systematically denied any official and respectful presence on this campus and this event continued that deep-seated institutional pattern, the origins and development of which are no mystery in terms of Zionist influence.
Second, those who oppose academic boycotts in terms of academic freedom are entitled to assert their principles — I should say our principles — and they are indeed honorable ones. But if they wish to credibly promote academic freedom, they should examine their tendentious and denigrating views of Palestinians. Academic freedom can allow for bigotry, but there's no reason to flaunt it.
Proponents of BDS have taken care not to violate academic freedom; it is the opponents of BDS who appear to be employing it as a rhetorical and legalistic tactic rather than a principle.
Finally, in this era of alleged diversity and respectful treatment for all groups on campus, powerful political forces still dictate that Israeli occupation and apartheid remain acceptable and indeed desirable, for "geopolitical" (read oil and hegemony) reasons. It isn't that we are powerless to challenge Israel's behavior; it's that we materially and rhetorically choose to encourage it and support it.
It's hard to understand how anyone who truly understands this conflict and our historical relation to it can in good faith argue that the stakes for academic freedom are higher than the moral imperatives for human rights and social justice. But then again, we are talking about the Palestinians.
David Green lives in Champaign and is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.