Academic freedom in Israel and Palestine

While I mostly try to keep this blog focused on professional concerns, I do think academic freedom is a professional concern for librarians, and I’m going to again use this platform to write about an issue of concern to me.

On December 17th, 2013, the American Studies Association membership endorsed a Resolution on Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. This resolution endorses and joins in a campaign organized by Palestinian civil society organizations for boycott of Israel for human rights violations against Palestinians — and specifically, for an academic boycott called for by Palestinian academics.

In late December and early January, very many American university presidents released letters opposing and criticizing the ASA boycott resolution, usually on the grounds that the ASA action threatened the academic freedom of Israeli academics.

Here at Johns Hopkins, the President and Provost issued such a letter on December 23rd. I am quite curious about what organizing took place that resulted in letters from so many university presidents within in a few weeks. Beyond letters of disproval from presidents, there has also been organizing to prevent scholars, departments, and institutions from affiliating with the ASA or to retaliate against scholars who do so (such efforts are, ironically, quite a threat to academic freedom themselves).

The ASA resolution (and the Palestinian academic boycott campaign in general) does not call for prohibition of cooperation with Israeli academics, but only against formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions — and in the case of the ASA, only formal partnerships by the ASA itself, they are not trying to require any particular actions by members as a condition of membership in the ASA.  You can read more about the parameters of the ASA resolution, and the motivation that led to it, on the ASA’s FAQ on the subject, a concise and well-written document I definitely recommend reading.

So I don’t actually think the ASA resolution will have significant effect on academic freedom for scholars at Israeli institutions.  It’s mostly a symbolic action, although the fierce organizing against it shows how threatening the symbolic action is to the Israeli government and those who would like to protect it from criticism.

But, okay, especially if academic boycott of Israel continues to gain strength, then some academics at Israeli institutions will, at the very least, be inconvenienced in their academic affairs.  I can understand why some people find academic boycott an inappropriate tactic — even though I disagree with them.

But here’s the thing. The academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students has been regularly, persistently, and severely infringed for quite some time.  In fact, acting in solidarity with Palestinian colleagues facing restrictions on freedom of movement and expression and inquiry was the motivation of the ASA’s resolution in the first place, as they write in their FAQ and the language of the resolution itself.

You can read more about restrictions in Palestinian academic freedom, and the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in these restrictions, in a report from Palestinian civil society here; or this campaign web page from Birzeit University and other Palestinian universities;  this report from the Israeli Alternative Information Center;  or in this 2006 essay by Judith Butler; or this 2011 essay by Riham Barghouti, one of the founding members of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

What are we to make of the fact that so many university presidents spoke up in alarm at an early sign of possible, in their views, impingements to academic freedom of scholars at Israeli institutions, but none have spoken up to defend significantly beleaguered Palestinian academic freedom?

Here at Hopkins, Students for Justice in Palestine believes that we do all have a responsibility to speak up in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues, students and scholars, whose freedoms of inquiry and expression are severely curtailed; and that administrators silence on the issue does not in fact represent our community.  Hopkins SJP thinks the community should speak out in concern and support for Palestinian academic freedom, and they’ve written a letter Hopkins affiliates can sign on to.

I’ve signed the letter. I’d urge any readers who are also affiliated to Hopkins to read it, and consider it signing it as well. Here it is.

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