Academic Freedom in Palestine Matters, Too

While many liberals agitate furiously against any boycott of Israeli universities, few pay attention to the ways in which academic freedom is already severely curtailed in Palestine.

Trinity College Dublin in 2012. William Murphy / flickr

In Ireland, the history of boycott is a mixed one. The term has its origins in an episode in the Land War, a series of agrarian struggles in Ireland in the 1880s. Captain Charles Boycott, the agent for Lord Erne in County Mayo, sought to evict tenant farmers for nonpayment of rent. The farmers, organized by the Irish National Land League, reacted by ostracizing Boycott and his household. His workers went on strike, local traders refused to deal with him, and even the local post office refused to take his mail. The technique then became a central part of the rural struggles that drove land reform and fed ultimately into the ferment of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish War of Independence.

But the politics of boycott have more contemporary resonances in Ireland, too. Anti-apartheid campaigning was an important part of the Irish political landscape in the 1980s, and at one point, the Irish Anti-Apartheid Campaign could claim to have leading politicians on its membership lists. In 1984, a group of mainly female workers at a supermarket chain, Dunnes Stores, struck in compliance with a union decision for workers to avoid handling South African fruit. Despite facing isolation and poverty, these low-paid workers stood by their principles, and their strike lasted three years, until the Irish government banned imports from South Africa generally.

Conversely, in 1986, the politician and writer Conor Cruise O’Brien, a prominent liberal voice in the era of African decolonization, cemented his turn toward a Naipaulian contempt for liberation movements by deliberately flouting the academic boycott of South Africa. He took up an invitation to lecture at the University of Cape Town, cynically selling the story to the Sunday Times before he left London and bringing his adopted Congolese son Patrick with him. Student protests rapidly closed the UCT campus and halted his talks, but O’Brien’s arrogant maneuver was portrayed in the mainstream press as the muzzling of liberal dissent by Maoist fanaticism and as a crass attack on academic freedom. It may not be coincidental that O’Brien was writing his vast and uncritical potboiler history of Zionism and Israel, The Siege, at the time.

BDS in Ireland

In September 2017, David Landy, Ronit Lentin, and I held a conference at Trinity College Dublin (where O’Brien was a pro-chancellor from 1972 until 1994). The event was entitled “Freedom of Speech and Higher Education: The Case of the Academic Boycott of Israel.” Our intention was to explore the idea of academic freedom in a context which pushes that concept to its limits — the imbrication of Israeli academia in that country’s century-long war against the Palestinians, including the continuing occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and the international boycott campaign in support of Palestinian freedom and equality, including the academic boycott campaign.

The conference was opened by Professor Steven Salaita, who had, after being offered a tenured position at the University of Illinois in 2014, had the offer withdrawn due to tweets of his that were critical of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza being brought to attention. Irish, American, Palestinian, and European speakers addressed matters as various as the politics of “civility” in public speech, the various legal methods used by so-called friends of Israel to suppress critique of Israel, the risks attendant on boycott activism by the academic precariat, and the complex constitutional and funding situation of the American University of Beirut as it touches on campus boycott activism. The conference passed off successfully, though not, as we later learned, without efforts made to impede its happening or to derail its smooth running. A collection of essays arising from those conference papers was subsequently published by Zed Books.

Arguments about academic freedom and the academic boycott of Israeli universities tend to divide in certain ways. Critics of boycott who claim that it is antisemitic or that it damages dialogue with Israeli liberals are conducting a wider political project and neglecting the crucial issue. For us, the crux is how, so often, Israeli academic freedom is prioritized over Palestinian academic freedom in mainstream discussion. Putative liberals, such as Cary Nelson and Martha Nussbaum, agitate furiously against the boycott of Israeli universities, while paying no attention to Palestinian academic freedom. Palestinian academic freedom, and the right to education more broadly, are catastrophically disrupted and interdicted by the occupation. Palestinian academics and students suffer blockade, harassment, campus invasion, the denial of the right to travel, and an immiseration of resources. Hannah Arendt’s famous maxim in The Origins of Totalitarianism that one must have the “right to have rights” is instructive here: rights are not natural, but rather rely on practical conditions for their possibility.

Those who argue that the academic boycott of Israel betrays the liberal principles of academic freedom often appear to assume that academic freedom is synonymous with what we might call “academic entitlement.” But, as Rima Najjar Merriman has cogently argued, one scholar’s academic freedom does not place an obligation on her peers always and everywhere to engage her in scholarly debate, cooperation, publication, conferencing, grant application, teaching, and other academic activity. The concept of academic freedom covers the right to noncooperation, too.

Academic Boycott

Various forces and techniques are arrayed against those who campaign for the academic boycott — or even who engage in critique — of Israel. The risks are increased where precarity among academics is rife. In the United States, where the marketization of education is most advanced, Ivy League universities show no compunction in disciplining vulnerable academic workers, as the history of union busting at Yale shows all too clearly.

Another bureaucratic weapon used against both academic programs and conferences is the idea of balance: the assumption that all debates have two sides of equal worth, that head counts of scholars of opposing positions offer the conditions for illumination and knowledge, that such notional “equality” somehow produces an overall objectivity or neutrality. Where, in this bland bureaucratic landscape, lie the paramount values of truth and critique?

The extraordinary smear campaign that was waged against the conference “International Law and the State of Israel,” held earlier in 2017 at University College Cork, reveals the necessity of continuing to ask questions about academic freedom and its limits. Watching the events in Cork made clear to us that such extreme tactics are a much greater threat to academic freedom than any boycott. Yet such campaigns (the Cork conference was originally to be held at the University of Southampton in 2015 but was forced to postpone and then to move by a comparable campaign in England) rarely are held up to scrutiny and condemnation, partly because they act in defense of the state of Israel, which brings formidable diplomatic, legal, commercial, and propaganda resources to bear against Israel-critical scholars.

In the wake of our conference, we learned of concerted efforts by the Israeli academic establishment, first, to pack the attendance with Israel-friendly, anti-boycott scholars; and, when that failed, to persuade Trinity College to distance itself officially from the conference. Fortunately, the university, which has an impressive official commitment to academic freedom, did not bend to this pressure. Clearly, true academic freedom requires constant vigilance. We offer our book and the work of our contributors as part of that perpetual watch.