Academic freedom in context

From the archive (legacy material)

Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki | Al-Ahram Weekly | 16-22 June, Issue 747

The boycott of Israeli universities remains a moral imperative, write Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki*
The Association of University Teachers (AUT) in Britain has reversed its 22 April decision to boycott Israeli universities. If misinformation, intimidation and bullying were among the tactics used by boycott opponents to achieve this result the tool they most persistently used was the claim that the academic boycott infringes academic freedom. Freedom to produce and exchange knowledge and ideas was deemed sacrosanct regardless of the prevailing conditions. There are two key faults in this argument. It is inherently biased — regarding as worthy only the academic freedom of Israelis. The fact that Palestinians are denied basic rights as well as academic freedom due to Israel’s military occupation is lost on those parroting it. And its privileging of academic freedom as a value above all other freedoms is antithetical to the very foundation of human rights. The right to live, and freedom from subjugation and colonial rule, to name a few, must be of more import than academic freedom. If the latter contributes in any way to suppression of the former, more fundamental rights, it must give way. If the struggle to attain the former necessitates a level of restraint on the latter, then so be it.
Are academic freedom and basic human rights mutually exclusive? In most cases, no, though in situations of persistent oppression and enduring breach of international law supported — explicitly or implicitly — by academic institutions, the answer is a resounding yes. Towards the end of the Apartheid era, when the world boycotted South African academics as part of the overall regime of sanctions and boycotts endorsed by the United Nations, a degree of violation of academic freedom was entailed. This was accepted by the international community as a reasonable price to pay for contributing to the defeat of Apartheid and the attainment of more basic freedoms denied black South Africans for generations. Freedom from racism and colonial subjugation was correctly perceived as more important than the unwanted side-effects on the academic and other freedoms of individual academics opposed to Apartheid.
In the Israeli context what is being defended by the opponents of the boycott is not only the unfettered access of Israeli academics to the global community of scholars and participation in the free exchange of ideas, but also the material and symbolic privileges of academic life. In this sense, rejecting academic boycotts in order to preserve Israeli academics’ freedoms and privileges, while ignoring the more vital rights and freedoms of Palestinians — whether academics or not — is a blatant case of double standards.
The concept of academic freedom has been abused by opponents of the boycott and misunderstood by many others. In democratic societies the academy takes a grave view of scholars whose writings and activities can be interpreted as inciting racial hatred. For example, academics in the United States and Europe who have denied that the holocaust occurred, or who have otherwise challenged accepted facts about it have faced harsh disciplinary measures from universities and censure from colleagues and professional associations. In Israel, however, where racism against Palestinians and Arabs is a feature of everyday discourse and practice, the concept of academic freedom is so elastic as to include the freedom to propound racist theories and incite hatred, support ethnic cleansing, and worse.
Boycotts and sanctions are not exact sciences. They affect real institutions providing jobs and services to real people, many of whom may not be directly implicated in the injustice that motivated the punitive measures. Any boycott, intended to redress injustice, will in the process harm some innocent people. That goes without saying. One must therefore resort to clear, morally consistent criteria of judgement to arbitrate whether the cause of the called-for boycott and its intended outcome justify that unintended harm. In the case of Israeli universities the weight of the causes could not be more morally imperative or politically pressing.
For decades Israeli academic institutions have been complicit in Israel’s colonial and racist policies. Funded by the government, they have consistently and organically contributed to the military-security establishment and, therefore, to perpetuating its crimes, its abuse of Palestinian human rights and its distinct system of Apartheid.
Contrary to the image — created and skillfully marketed by Israel and its apologists, academics included — of the Israeli academy as a bastion of enlightenment and a solid base for opposition to the occupation, Israel’s academy is in fact part of “the official Israeli propaganda”, according to Ilan Pappe, one of the leading Israeli “new historians” who exposed the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestinians during the nakba.
Not only do Israeli academics defend their state’s colonial narrative, but they also play a more active role in the oppression process. Almost all of them serve in the occupation army’s reserve forces , thereby participating in, or at least witnessing in silence, crimes committed with impunity against Palestinian civilians. In the last 38 years of illegal occupation few academics have conscientiously objected to military service in the occupied territories. Those politically opposing the colonisation of Palestinian land remain a depressingly tiny minority.
The academic freedom on campuses is grossly exaggerated. It is constrained within limits set by the Zionist establishment and dissenters who dare challenge these boundaries are ostracised.
Another purpose of the proposed academic boycott is to “provide a means to transcend the publicly-sanctioned limits of debate”, in the words of Oren Ben-Dor, a British academic of Israeli origin. “Such freedom is precisely what is absent in Israel,” he adds.
From this angle the boycott is seen as generating true academic freedom. “The Zionist ideology which stipulates that Israel must retain its Jewish majority is a non- debatable given in the country — and the bedrock of opposition to allowing the return of Palestinian refugees. The very few intellectuals who dare question this sacred cow are labelled ‘extremists’.” Ben-Dor attacks those on the Israeli “left” who opposed the boycott as “sophisticated accomplices to the smothering of debate”.
Irrespective of the individual accountability of Israeli academics a judicious and methodical scrutiny of the culpability of Israeli academic institutions in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people will reveal an abundance of incriminating evidence. Even Baruch Kimmerling, a renowned Israeli academic opposed to the academic boycott, writes: “I will be the first to admit that Israeli academic institutions are part and parcel of the oppressive Israeli state that has… committed grave crimes against the Palestinian people.”
Israel’s hysterical reaction to the possibility of boycotts — recently manifested in charging Benjamin Netanyahu with the task of fighting academic boycott — and the profound debate that has ensued around the world on Israel’s illegal occupation and other forms of oppression show that the success in portraying Israel as boycottable has touched a raw nerve. By winning this round in the boycott process Israel has proven yet again what is already widely recognised: the Israeli lobby has enough influence in the media and the academy to avoid carrying out Israel’s obligations under international law. The facts on the ground will remain, however. Israel’s colonial wall, its ever expanding settlements, its indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians, its relentless land and water theft and its abuse of Palestinian human rights are too real to be ignored by the international community.
Just as in the South African case, a comprehensive regime of boycotts, divestment and sanctions remains not only the most politically effective but also the most morally sound, non-violent strategy in forcing full Israeli compliance with international law.
* Omar Barghouti is an independent researcher. Lisa Taraki teaches sociology at Birzeit University. They are founding members of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.