Defending Zionism under the cloak of academic freedom

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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In a widely circulated Los Angeles Times op ed piece, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth denounced the American Studies Association’s (ASA) resolution to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as “a repugnant attack on academic freedom.” Parroting near-identical responses by other American university presidents, Roth’s ill-informed, grossly distorted polemic took me by surprise. While I do not expect him to agree with our stance, I did expect a more considered and intellectually honest disagreement from the president of Wesleyan University—a world-class institution with a long and distinguished record of teaching (and doing) social justice, grounded in an internationalist, humanist vision of liberal arts education; a school to which I gave nearly a quarter of a million dollars of my hard-earned academic salary so that my daughter (class of 2012) could learn what it means to be an informed, critical, engaged citizen of the world.

Roth either misread or deliberately misrepresented the resolution’s carefully considered language. He asserts that the ASA targets Israeli academic institutions merely for their “national affiliation.” This is not true. They are targeted for their complicity in the illegal occupation and government policies of dispossession, repression, and racism. He also claims that the resolution extends to individual faculty. It does not. It strongly condemns any attempts to single out and/or isolate Israeli scholars or any scholar of any nationality. On the contrary, the resolution and its authors encourage collaboration and dialogue, but outside the official channels of the Israeli state-supported institutions that continue to directly benefit from or support the occupation.

Roth repeats the well-worn argument that Israel is being singled out because the ASA has not boycotted countries with documented human rights abuses. But countries such as North Korea have no formal institutional ties to the ASA, and in most instances our own government has taken action, imposing sanctions and trade barriers or openly condemning violations of human rights or war crimes. Of course, there are egregious exceptions such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain—U.S.-backed repressive regimes that some of our most prominent ASA members have subjected to sharp criticisms.

But all of this is beside the point: Israel and the U.S. have a “special” relationship. As Carolyn Karcher recently reminded us in her rebuttal to Roth’s op ed, “the U.S. not only gives far more military aid to Israel than to any other country, but has also vetoed all U.N. resolutions in recent memory that condemn Israel’s abuses of human rights. The ASA resolution specifically cites the ‘significant role’ the U.S. plays in underwriting Israel’s violations of international law.” Three billion dollars a year, every year, is an awful lot of money. The money flows despite the fact that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, the source of the region’s immense poverty, is a clear violation of Articles 33, 55, and 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention prohibiting the collective punishment of civilians and requiring an occupying power to ensure access to food and medical supplies, and to maintain hospital and public health facilities.

Roth, who takes great pride in being a historian informed about and even critical of Israel’s policies, knows that these intermittent wars in Gaza, not to mention IDF attacks and home demolitions in the West Bank, violate our own Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits the use of U.S. weapons and military aid against civilians. And the most recent violent racist attacks on African immigrants in Israel represent some of the worst examples of human rights violations. Some 60,000 undocumented workers, many having fled war-torn or economically devastated countries such as Sudan and Eritrea, are denied refugee status, subject to deportation and imprisonment for up to a year without trial, and endure horrifying violence from racist mobs. The entire community is accused of committing rape, robbery and other crimes, and in Binyamin Netanyahu’s words, threatening to destroy Israel’s “image as a Jewish and democratic state.”

“Under the guise of phony progressivism,” Roth writes, “the [ASA] has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom.” It is not clear what Roth means by “phony,” but the academic and cultural boycott is a legal, legitimate, non-violent form of protest that targets institutions only. The original call for an international campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) came from Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005, inspired by the global solidarity movement that helped end apartheid and bring nonracial democracy to South Africa. Since then, the movement has gained support globally as well as from Israeli organizations such as Boycott from Within and Who Profits? The ASA membership voted overwhelmingly to support the resolution, but it did not come to this conclusion cavalierly. The implication that some deep-seated anti-Israel or anti-Semitic sentiment was behind it is downright insulting. The resolution resulted from a long process of debate and deliberation within our organization over how to respond to the ongoing 46-year occupation (the longest military occupation in modern history), the deadly blockade of Gaza, the escalation of violence, the expansion of illegal settlements, the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians and some Israeli scholars critical of their government, and the massive U.S. military aid to Israel that ultimately underwrites ongoing dispossession and an entrenched system of apartheid. These discussions began some six years ago, and they have not been easy.

Had Roth taken time to read discussions leading up to the resolution, particularly the extensive critical analyses by Judith Butler or the special issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom devoted to the question of academic boycotts, he may not have been so quick to indict the resolution as an “irresponsible attack on academic freedom.” As a matter of fact, the boycott will have no direct impact on the ability of individual Israeli scholars to teach, conduct research, and participate in meetings, symposia, or conferences around the globe. And ASA members are not required to abide by the resolution—it really only applies to official association business. The most important point, however, is that the resolution expresses a fundamental demand that the privileges of academic freedom extend to all: Palestinian teachers, researchers, students of all ages, as well as Jewish and Arab Israeli scholars, writers, intellectuals, artists, and students critical of the regime. Roth is silent when it comes to the academic freedom of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and within Israel itself.

While cognizant of the limited space afforded opinion pieces, I still find it baffling that an intellectual historian who has written about the Holocaust can treat academic freedom as an autonomous category separate and above other freedoms. As Sarah T. Roberts so eloquently explained:

It is a peculiar sort of academic elitism that puts academic freedom, a somewhat abstract concept in itself, in a position of primacy before other types of very real and tangible physical freedoms: the freedom to circulate unimpeded, the freedom to be treated as an equal citizen, the freedom to even access spaces of higher education, which must certainly be a prerequisite for the much-lauded academic freedom that is causing so much consternation. 

Palestinian people living in lands occupied by Israel are barred from these things. There are precious few freedoms for Palestinians, academic or otherwise, in Israel and in occupied Palestine. In this sense, the boycott is, in fact, a response to an actual lack of academic freedom for an entire people, not the creation of a potential for loss of some higher-order freedom for relatively few individuals. Supporters of academic freedom must side with Palestinians or their position makes little sense and loses its meaning completely.

The boycott is one of many actions in defense of Palestinians who are denied the right to travel freely because of checkpoints and roadblock. Palestinian students and teachers risk harassment, arrest, detention, injury and even death just to get to their institutions to perform basic tasks like teaching, research, and learning. In fact, in the first half of 2013 alone, 13,064 students were affected by access denial, and UNICEF documented egregious incidents of Israeli settlers in the West Bank attacking Palestinian students. In the realm of higher education, Palestinian scholars are routinely denied the right to travel abroad to participate in conferences and symposia, let alone travel between Gaza and the West Bank.

Any consideration of “academic freedom” must acknowledge the ongoing history of Israeli raids, closures, and constant disruptions of Palestinian universities such as Birzeit and Al Quds, as well as the hundreds of students currently detained in Israeli prisons for political activity, or for reasons unknown based on “secret evidence.” Israel can detain Palestinians for up to six months without charge or trial, with no limits on renewal. Administrative detention, as it is called, is based on three laws: Military Order 1651 which empowers the army to issue orders to detain civilians in the West Bank; the Unlawful Combatants Law which applies to Gaza residents; and the Emergency Powers Detention Law used against Israeli citizens. These laws violate Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prohibits arbitrary detention, requires that detainees be told why they are being held, and stipulates that every person has the right of habeas corpus.

Violations of Palestinian academic freedom in higher education are legion. In 2008, filmmaker and professor Nizar Hassan was suspended from his teaching position at Sapir College because he asked an Israeli student not to carry his firearms and wear his military uniform to class. The administration appointed a committee to investigate Hassan’s alleged anti-Israel teaching, but he argued before his interrogators that he had acted out of the very humanist values that undergird a liberal arts education. “They wanted to believe that I object to the army uniform because I am Palestinian,” he explained. “But I reject the uniform because it is opposed to my universal and human values. I acted as I did because I am a teacher and a human being.” However, the committee thoroughly rejected Hassan’s argument. An “Arab” humanist was simply inconceivable. The report concludes: “Nizar [sic] abused his status and his authority as a teacher to flaunt his opinions, feelings and frustrations as a member of the Arab national minority in Israel, cloaking himself in a ‘humane’ and ‘universal’ garb, whereas in fact he demonstrated a stance of brute force bearing a distinctly nationalist character.”1 The administration threatened dismissal if Hassan did not apologize to the student and submit a written statement promising to respect and honor the uniform of the Israeli Defense Forces. Hassan refused. The administration eventually backed down in the face of international pressure; Hassan returned to his post after a one-semester paid suspension.

Academic freedom includes the right to free speech and assembly. In November of 2012, during Israel’s bombing of Gaza [Operation Pillar of Defense], Palestinian students at Hebrew University were arrested for holding peaceful demonstration in front of the campus, and at Haifa University Palestinian students were banned from further protests after gathering to observe a minute of silence in solidarity with the people of Gaza. Following the ban, Zionist students and staff were allowed to assemble in support of the bombing and many chanted “Death to Arabs” and other virulently racist slogans.

One of the worst examples of state suppression of academic freedom is the notorious “Nakba Law,” passed in the Knesset in March 2011. The Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) refers to the violent expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from 380 villages during the 1948 war, and the barring of the refugee population from the right to return or reclaim lost land, homes, personal property, bank accounts, etc. The law permits the minister of finance to reduce government funding to any institution (including schools and universities, civic organizations and local governments) that commemorates either independence day or the anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel as a day of mourning (‘Nakba Day’), or mentions the Nakba in school textbooks. Besides the Nakba Law, right-wing parties have passed laws that directly infringe on the freedom of speech and academic freedom of Arab and Jewish citizens, including the so-called ‘boycott law’, which allows citizens to file a civil suit against anyone in Israel who calls for a boycott against the state or Israeli settlers in the West Bank – whether or not any damages can be proved.

In other words, many of us support the boycott out of concern for academic freedom—though, as I pointed out above, this does not supersede the main objective: to end the occupation and extend civil and human rights to all. The university presidents who have come out so strongly against the resolution betray a pedestrian understanding of academic freedom, both here and inside Palestine/Israel. Indeed, I was a bit surprised that neither Michael Roth nor Larry Summers nor any of the American university presidents who are so concerned about academic freedom mentioned the important document issued five years ago by Israeli scholars Menachem Fisch, Raphael Falk, Eva Jablonka, and Snait Gissis of Tel-Aviv University. They called on the broader academic community—especially senior scholars—to protest government and university policies that deny academic freedom to Palestinian students and faculty in the Occupied Territories:

We, past and present members of academic staff of Israeli universities, express great concern regarding the ongoing deterioration of the system of higher education in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We protest against the policy of our government which is causing restrictions of freedom of movement, study and instruction, and we call upon the government to allow students and lecturers free access to all the campuses in the Territories, and to allow lecturers and students who hold foreign passports to teach and study without being threatened with withdrawal of residence visas. To leave the situation as it is will cause serious harm to freedom of movement, study and instruction – harm to the foundation of academic freedom, to which we are committed.

Nor have the university presidents much to say in defense of Jewish Israeli scholars, whose criticisms of government policies have left them vulnerable to blatant violations of their academic freedom. In December of 2012, Rivka Feldhay, a professor at Tel Aviv University, was banned from participating in a scientific conference in Berlin because she signed a petition four years earlier supporting Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the West Bank. The right-wing Zionist group, Im Tirtzu (Hebrew for “if you will it”) launched a virulent campaign against Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Anat Matar for her opposition to Israel’s administrative detention of Palestinian prisoners. Dr. Matar is also a member of “Who Profits?: Exposing the Israeli Occupation Industry,” whose son spent two years in prison for refusing to enlist in the military. Im Tirtzu mobilized dozens of students to file complaints against her to the university, but rather than defend her right to free speech and intellectual freedom, the university decided to investigate her.

Another Tel-Aviv professor, Yehuda Shenhav, experienced similar attacks for statements he made in his anthropology class. A particularly high profile case involved the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University, where what began as an Im Tirtzu-led campaign largely against Professor Neve Gordon turned into a state-sponsored witch hunt against the entire department. As early as 2008, Im Tirtzu accused some of the politics faculty of anti-Zionism. Then in August 2009, Professor Gordon published an op ed piece in the Los Angeles Times in support of the BDS movement in an effort to force Israel to move toward a two-state solution. Attacks on Professor Gordon coincided with a national review of all politics departments. After a couple of high profile resignations and administrative reshuffling, a reconstituted review committee issued a damning report on Ben Gurion’s politics department that pointed to “community activism” as a central problem. Although the university acceded to the committee’s recommendations, the government’s Council for Higher Education appointed another committee and concluded that the department had to be shut down altogether. Only international pressure, including a powerful op ed piece in the L.A. Times by my colleague David Myers, compelled Israel’s Minister of Education to withdraw the order for closure.

To put it bluntly, under the current regime academic freedom and civil liberties for all—Palestinians, Bedouins, and African immigrants more than others—are in jeopardy, and will remain in jeopardy so long as Israeli society is rooted in occupation, dispossession, militarization, racism and segregation. Some might argue that violations of Jewish Israeli academic freedom make the case against an academic boycott because, as Roth argues, there are Israeli scholars critical of the regime. Of course, the defense of a segment of academia at the expense of everyone else contradicts the principles of academic freedom. But equally damning is the evidence that Israeli universities have refused or are unable to protect their own faculty and students. The facts are unequivocal: in every case, it is the university administration that backs up state repression, that participates in denying the very intellectual freedoms Roth and his friends hold so sacrosanct. As the ASA resolution makes clear, Israeli institutions are complicit, and in defense of all of our colleagues they must be challenged.

Let me end with a very recent example of an assault on intellectual freedom from right here in the U.S. Just this fall, the artistic director of Washington D. C.’s Theater J and brilliant playwright Ari Roth, decided to produce Motti Lerner’s controversial play, “The Admission.” It tells the story of Teddy Katz, a graduate student whose master’s thesis uncovered an attack by an Israeli brigade on the village of Tantura during the 1948 war. Although Katz never called it a massacre, 240 unarmed Palestinians were killed and were never given the opportunity to surrender. The play explores not only the massacre at Tantura but the state’s attack on Katz and his defender and teacher, historian Ilan Pappe. Despite presenting solid scholarly evidence within the standards of academic history, Katz was forced to stand trial, his thesis withdrawn from the University of Haifa, and Pappe was eventually driven out of Israel. What is interesting is that a play about a gross violation of academic freedom suddenly became the object of a boycott by a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA). COPMA waged a vicious campaign against Ari Roth and Lerner; Jewish Federations of Washington even threatened to pull $250,000 in donations if the play were staged. Roth refused to back down, just as he had a few years earlier when he produced the controversial play “Return to Haifa.” But he was compelled to move the play from the main stage to a workshop.

Where were Michael S. Roth or Richard Slotkin or Larry Summers or any other gallant defenders of academic freedom when Ari Roth was battling boycotts and pickets? The truth of the matter is that Michael S. Roth and many of the most high profile, vocal critics of the ASA resolution are less interested in defending academic freedom than defending the occupation, the expansion of settlements, the continued dispossession of land, the blockade of Gaza, the system of separate roads, the building and maintenance of an apartheid wall – no matter what the cost. Nothing in Roth’s editorial or similar statements directly criticizes these policies or suggests a different strategy to compel Israel to abide by international law and to end human rights violations. I don’t expect to persuade Roth or other university presidents to support the boycott, but I do wish they would come clean and admit that unconditional support for Israeli apartheid and occupation is not about academic freedom or justice. I’m not holding my breath.

1 Quotes take from Jonathan Cook, “Academic Freedom? Not for Arabs in Israel,” The Electronic Intifada (March 4, 2008), http://electronicintifada.net/content/academic-freedom-not-arabs-israel/7398 For an excellent account and critical analysis of Hassan’s case, see Leora Bilsky, “Muslim Headscarves in France and Army Uniforms in Israel: A Comparative Study of Citizenship as Mask,” in Maleiah Malik, ed., Anti-Muslim Prejudice: Past and Present (Abingdon, UK and New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 79-103.

About Robin D. G. Kelley

Robin D. G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of U.S. History University of California at Los Angeles. His books include the prize-winning, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009);Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard University Press, 2012); Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (University of North Carolina Press, 1990);Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class (The Free Press, 1994); Yo' Mama's DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon Press, 1997); Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Century, written collaboratively with Dana Frank and Howard Zinn (Beacon 2001); and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002). He also edited (with Earl Lewis), To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (Oxford University Press, 2000), and is currently completing a general survey of African American history co-authored with Tera Hunter and Earl Lewis to be published by Norton.

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