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PACBI-Academic Freedom or Academic Privilege: In defense of the Academic Boycott of Israel


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PACBI | 5 October 2013

Academic Freedom or Academic Privilege: In defense of the Academic Boycott of Israel

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) dedicated volume 4 (2013) of its Journal of Academic Freedom to the issue of academic boycotts in general, and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in particular [1]. We shall address here two of the most important arguments in this volume challenging the academic boycott on the conceptual and practical levels.

 

The first argument contends that academic boycotts are inherently antithetical to academic freedom as these unjustly target innocent scholars through imposing political litmus tests. Following the AAUP’s historical position, this argument asserts that economic divestments are more effective 'ethical’ means to pressure institutions compared to academic boycotts because divestments do not apply political tests on institutions and individuals. The second argument claims that in the Palestinian context and under PACBI’s guidelines, it is not clear who is the party applying the litmus test. In addition, this argument claims that PACBI’s guidelines are unclear with regards to 'what would constitute proof that an institution is not “complicit in maintaining” the occupation and denying Palestinian rights’ [2].  

 

On the first argument, there remains a misunderstanding, or an intentional misrepresentation, that the boycott targets individuals, even when critics have acknowledged that it is an institutional boycott.  The guidelines for the academic boycott of Israel adopted by Palestinian civil society have specifically exempted “mere affiliation” in order never to get involved in the business of creating litmus tests for Israeli academics.  An Israeli academic is not boycotted from a conference and his/her work not denied publication, so long as participation in the conference is not accompanied by official Israeli – or Israel lobby -- institutional sponsorship, or publication is not supported by a complicit Israeli – or Israel lobby -- organization.  Thus, an Israeli, no matter what he or she is working on, can attend a conference in the US, for example, but the conference itself would be subject to boycott if an Israeli university was co-sponsoring the conference.  The Israeli academic may, of course, use funds from his/her university to travel as part of allocated research funds and as part of the benefits of affiliation.  “Mere affiliation” can, and is, seen by some as a form of complicity.  However, the academic boycott guidelines exempted this specifically to avoid litmus tests on individuals.  Three caveats must be considered:

 

1) Once an academic becomes a representative of a complicit institution, such as a dean or president, then he/she is subject to a boycott

 

2) An academic receiving funds from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israeli diplomatic missions, or lobby groups, as part of Brand Israel (or similar propaganda campaigns) to speak at international fora is subject to boycott as he/she is regarded as an “academic ambassador” of Israel, as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe puts it, not merely an academic.

 

3) Activists around the world can use their judgment to go beyond the guidelines if they decide that a specific academic has committed grave human rights violations, incites to violence, defends war crimes, or advocates racial hatred, among other grave offenses.  Lawyers who provided the Israeli military with the legal basis for attacking Gaza, or military generals, all now turned university professors, may fall into this category.  On our part, we do not consider such people to be academics, but rather, war criminals taking cover behind academic institutions.  We imagine this last point, at least, should not be controversial except to those who have truly lost their moral compass. 

 

In no way does the BDS movement target individual professors simply because they are Israeli.  Will they be affected by the boycott because a conference in Israel is canceled?  Perhaps. But is this an infringement of their academic freedom or a loss of academic privileges? Even if the former is assumed, the privileging of academic freedom above other, more fundamental, rights flies in the face of the idea of universal human rights. How can the academic freedom of a sector of Israeli society be more important than the basic right to a free and dignified life for all Palestinians, academics included? Is upholding the “academic freedom” – or academic privileges, one should say -- of Israeli academics a loftier aim than upholding the freedom of an entire people being strangled by an illegal occupation? And do Palestinian universities somehow fall outside the purview of the 'universal’ principle of academic freedom? These are just some questions to ask and impacts to think about when we think of the effect of a boycott on Israeli scholars.

 

Furthermore, asking Palestinians to give up a comprehensive boycott of the Israeli regime that is oppressing them simply because it might have an adverse effect on Israeli academics not only privileges the interests of the colonizers over the basic freedom and rights of the colonized; it limits our scope of resistance to economic boycotts and divestment.  One wonders if this stems from a colonial logic whereby those in the seats of power and privilege consider themselves entitled to dictate to the oppressed around the world how to resist oppression. 

 

Israeli universities, embodied in their administrations, departmental governing bodies, senates, unions, staff associations, student governments, tenure and promotion committees are part and parcel of the prevailing ideology that accepts and treats the political regime in all its aspects—the military, the intelligence agencies, the government--as a benign feature of the social-political landscape. They also do not question in any significant or critical way the role of their institutions in upholding the oppression of the Palestinian people through myriad military, bureaucratic, and legal measures and policies. The regime and its organs—security and intelligence agencies, and the occupation army in particular--are accommodated, legitimized, and their presence as well as their unquestionable authority normalized by the academy.  The academic (and cultural) spheres of life in Israel are somewhat equivalent to the sphere of sports in South Africa.  Had Israel been using sports as effectively as it uses culture and academia, the priorities of Palestinian boycotts may have been elsewhere.  But Palestinian resistance must speak to Israeli strategies of oppression, and academia is, by and large, Israel’s most effective propaganda tool to colonize people’s minds and falsely project the state as a normal country on the world stage despite its violations of international law, and its occupation, apartheid and colonialism.

 

As to the second argument, the Palestinian BDS movement, the largest coalition in Palestinian society, rejects any accusation of applying litmus tests, with all the, rightly, negative implications this connotes. The BDS National Committee (BNC), a coalition of more than 170 organisations, including political parties, civil society networks, trade unions, student and women groups, refugee advocacy entities, leads the BDS movement locally and internationally. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is the part of the BDS movement that deals with academic and cultural boycott issues. Since these bodies represent the voice of the indigenous oppressed Palestinians, they are in a position to articulate their resistance mechanisms, including boycotts and divestment.  In order to build a movement, rather than simply have a collection of individuals act according to their own personal beliefs about boycott, there needs to be collectively developed guidelines and mechanisms that can empower the oppressed and their supporters worldwide to level the playing field. This was a key lesson learned by the BDS movement from the South African anti-apartheid struggle.  It has been Israel’s strategy all along to break the Palestinian will to collective action and inscribe a sense of individuality over any value of communal solidarity.  Yet, guidelines are useless if there is no one to promote them and maintain consistency in applying them. 

On the academic and cultural boycott front, PACBI has been tasked with providing advice and interpretations to these guidelines, especially in blurry circumstances.  PACBI does not blacklist, and it has no mechanism of “enforcing” these guidelines except through moral pressure.  In all this, however, it has ensured that it is not the individual who is the target but the institution.  And the complicity of Israeli institutions is taken as a given unless explicitly proven otherwise by accepting the three basic, UN-sanctioned rights in the BDS Call: the rights of the Palestinians to live free of occupation, the right of return to the Palestinians who have been ethnically cleansed from Palestine in the process of the creation of the state of Israel and ever since, and the right of the Palestinians inside Israel to full equality.

It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the Palestinians are using boycotts, divestment and sanctions as a resistance mechanism against Israeli colonialism and apartheid. What is at stake is not the rigor or otherwise of academic arguments in support of privileged academics, rather, the lives and livelihoods of the Palestinian people. Solidarity with this resistance is the responsibility and duty of every conscientious individual around the world. 

 

Notes:

[1] http://www.aaup.org/reports-publications/journal-academic-freedom/volume-4

[2] http://www.aaup.org/sites/default/files/files/JAF/2013%20JAF/Heins.pdf

 

Posted on 05-10-2013


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