Ohio State says boycott would ‘limit human potential’ (What about Palestinians’?)

Israel/Palestine

Last last year, Ohio State University joined the zombie swarm of higher-ed administrations condemning the historic American Studies Association vote to boycott Israel. The university’s anodyne title — “Statement on proposed boycott of Israeli higher education” — was belied by the seeming urgency of the Dec. 24, 2013 announcement, located top-left under “News and Events” on OSU’s “Welcome” page, where it looms even now.

Though the headline is anemic, the disavowal muscles away debate. It conflates “any boycott of Israeli higher education” with “limit[ing] human potential.” And the University’s “opposition to this proposed boycott” represents “a fundamental and abiding commitment to free and open inquiry.”

But that openness does not extend basic human rights, let alone “limit[less] human potential,” to occupied Palestinians.  The administration actually sides here with a foreign government, Israel, which deprives all of the “unfettered capacity” to “partner with other scholars and students around the world” in Palestine.  The refusal to countenance honest discussion comes from an interim administration.  OSU’s former president resigned, following uproar over his own record of bigoted quips.

Hope that a new leader would nurture enlightened conversation dimmed when the new president was named at the end of January: Michael V. Drake, MD, former Chancellor of the University of California, Irvine. Drake presided over the prosecution of the Irvine 11. Drake had already gone on record buttressing Israeli-institutional policy, signing the “AAU statement on boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”  In fact, OSU cited that statement:

We join with the Association of American Universities and others in strongly opposing any boycott of Israeli higher education. The principle of academic freedom includes the unfettered capacity to partner with other scholars and students around the world, and this proposed boycott is the antithesis to academic freedom. Put simply, we believe that to limit the exchange of ideas is to limit human potential. As a public research and land-grant university, Ohio State was founded with a fundamental and abiding commitment to free and open inquiry, and our opposition to this proposed boycott underscores that commitment.

We’ve already mentioned how the Campaign for BDS at Ohio State has called on the university “to retract its condemnation of the ASA.” Now, in a Letter to the Editor of The Lantern (OSU’s student newspaper) in support, grad student Vidar Thorsteinsson argues that “Support For BDS Is Support For Academic Freedom.” 

Thorsteinsson allows us to re-publish his essay.

Letter to the editor: “Support for BDS is support for academic freedom.”

March 16, 2014


[email protected]

Almost 200 people took part in a demonstration held outside the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Dec. 29, 2008, protesting the military operation in the Gaza Strip. The demonstrators held signs reading ‘Free Gaza’ and ‘Free Palestine’ and waved Palestinian flags.

New online caption: Author Vidar Thorsteinsson writes the call for academic boycott of Israel is a call for the responsible and ethical exercise of academic freedom. Credit: Courtesy of MCT

One of the arguments frequently made against the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, is that it poses a threat to academic freedom. This fails to acknowledge that one of the casualties of Israel’s decades-long illegal occupation of Palestinian land is precisely what critics of BDS proclaim to defend: academic freedom and the right to education.

Israel’s military rule over Palestinians, described as ‘apartheid’ by South African veteran activists, entails an ethnically-based discrimination against the original inhabitants of the Palestinian lands occupied by Israel in 1967. Since 1967, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been subject to daily acts of military violence, encroachment on their land by lawless Israeli settlers, and the construction of massive, prison-like structures such as the separation wall. Looking at threats to higher education is one way of grasping the urgency of ending Israel’s occupation of the West Banks and Gaza.

Consider the case of Palestine’s leading research university, Birzeit University, located near the major West Bank city of Ramallah. The university cannot be approached without going through checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers, where students are interrogated, searched and frequently subjected to violence and humiliation. The Israeli military has on multiple occasions made incursions onto the Birzeit campus itself, made arrests there, and even used blockades to close down the entire university for extended periods.

Because they do not hold actual citizenship, have no state, and hence no passports, Palestinian scholars or students who seek to study, lecture or teach outside the territories can only hope for travel documents, issued at the Israeli government’s discretion. Even if granted travel documents, they live in fear they will ultimately be denied permission to exit the territories, the internal borders of which are under Israeli control. Similar obstacles are imposed on foreign faculty or exchange visitors wishing to collaborate with Palestinian universities. The uncertainty of whether or not they will be granted entry into the occupied territories is a constant threat, with the consequence that normal cross-national collaboration cannot be maintained.

The BDS campaign, founded in 2005 by multiple Palestinian civil society groups, is currently finding increasing support around the world. Following decades of failed peace negotiations, BDS might emerge as the most effective tool in ending the human rights abuses suffered by Palestinians, including the right to education and academic freedom.

This brings me back to the accusation made, in a recent statement made by Ohio State, that BDS is “the antithesis to academic freedom.” The statement, issued in response to the decision of the American Studies Association to endorse BDS, fails to acknowledge the brutal suppression of academic freedom which takes place on a daily basis in the occupied territories. In contrast, BDS does not entail a violation of the academic freedom of individuals, nor does it mean barring them from their right to education.

The call for an academic boycott of Israel is a call for the responsible exercise of academic freedom, one of those freedoms being the right to choose on ethical grounds which institutions and governments with which to be partnered.  By withdrawing from voluntarily collaboration at the institutional level, BDS sends a strong message to the Israeli state, and to the world, that academic communities will not stand idly by as fellow students and faculty are deprived of their basic freedoms.

Vidar Thorsteinsson
Ph.D. candidate in the Department of
Comparative Studies
[email protected]

As you can see, The Lantern published Thorsteinsson’s defense of BDS, but originally in a context that distracted from his thesis: changing his headline to “Palestinians met with injustice” (p. 4); cutting his suggestions for “further reading”; and illustrating all with an unrelated first still of a 2008 video taken during Israel’s Cast Lead attack on Gaza, capped by a dubious caption:

Almost 200 people took part in a demonstration held outside the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Dec. 29, 2008, protesting the military operation in the Gaza Strip. The demonstrators held signs reading ‘Free Gaza’ and ‘Free Palestine’ and waved Palestinian flags. Credit: Courtesy of MCT

The Lantern acted honorably, following an emailed objection from Thorsteinsson. The paper promptly altered the online edition, reinstating Vidar’s original title and re-writing the caption.  In a time when large media often fail to report justly or fix errors, I’m grateful for The Lantern‘s fine journalistic ethics and ready correction of inaccuracy.

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