My current Academe article, “Palestinian Universities and Everyday Life Under Occupation,” is not an article that describes causes, but rather the consequences of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territory (OPT) for Palestinian faculty and students. Since this article went to press, the European Platform for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has issued its report on “Palestinian Universities under Occupation” with parallel observations to mine. In a short piece like this, it is not possible to describe in much detail the formal political and legal structure of the occupation. But it is important to remember that the occupation thrives not only on state or structural violence, but on the repression of free exchange, debate, and criticism of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians which violate all accepted international norms.
The Boycott-Divest-Sanctions (BDS) movement led by 170 Palestinian civil society organizations, and joined by groups like Jewish Voices for Peace and American Jews for a Just Peace, emerged out of these violent conditions of repression and focuses on boycott as a non-violent tool to address those very conditions. An academic boycott of Israel does not take away a scholar’s academic freedom or right to free speech; it rather emerges as a tool to expose the lack of Palestinian freedoms of all kinds, including the right to education and freedom of speech about the inequities and everyday experience of occupation that make it difficult for Palestinians to get an education from, or teach effectively in, Israeli and Palestinian universities. American universities and academic professional organizations are a crucial part of civil society debate about BDS. The American Studies Association, the Asian American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, have all passed academic boycott resolutions; the American Anthropological Association and Middle-East Studies Association will discuss academic boycotts at their annual meetings in November 2015.
An academic boycott prohibits international collaborations with Israeli academic and state institutions that actively refuse, or are otherwise unable, to separate themselves from the occupation. How would an academic boycott impact Israeli academics? Anthropologists campaigning for academic boycott advise that, “The boycott does not apply to Israeli scholars acting in their individual capacities.”
Mere affiliation of an Israeli scholar to an Israeli academic institution is not grounds for boycotting them. Similarly, the fact that an Israeli academic receives funds from his or her government or institution in support of academic activities, such as attendance at international conferences, is not itself grounds for boycotting them.
Collaboration with individual Israeli scholars on projects receiving funding from the state of Israel or Israeli academic institutions is generally covered by the boycott. Such collaborations, however, are not covered by the boycott if the official funding goes only to the Israeli participants and if the project does not legitimize Israeli institutions by publicly acknowledging or thanking them for the support.
An academic boycott does not impair the ability of Israeli academics to travel to international meetings and conferences. Israeli officials and academics routinely lecture at, and participate in, a variety of U.S. university fora. By contrast, it is very difficult or impossible for Palestinian scholars from the West Bank or Gaza to lecture at, or participate in, any U.S. university fora. Israeli academics are routinely hired and tenured in the U.S. without their political views impacting their tenure cases. By contrast, scholars like Norman Finkelstein and Steven Salaita are denied appointment or tenure when their scholarship or free speech is critical of Israeli policies. Palestinian and Palestinian-American scholars in the U.S. who research or publish on Israel/Palestine are few in number and meet obstacles at any level of hiring or promotion. Nadia Abu-el Haj and Joseph Massad faced organized political campaigns attempting to derail their promotions to tenure. Other scholars who teach and write about Palestine, or who have signed onto some part of the BDS call, are subject to ongoing campaigns of harassment and intimidation. My article describes the impact of the occupation on higher education in the West Bank and Gaza; but Israel’s occupation of Palestine is a transnational one, and its effects are also felt in the U.S. academy.
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