Whose academic freedom?
Dear President Brodhead,
As we’re both aware, the American Studies Association recently passed a resolution to endorse the academic boycott of Israel. They join the Association of Asian-American Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association as peer associations that have answered Palestinian civil society’s call for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) of Israel. You’ve expressed your disappointment with the resolution, which has left me with a question: If an academic boycott is an unacceptable form of resistance to Israeli occupation, colonization and apartheid, then what do you propose?
I’ve often heard individuals offer “deep concern” for the conditions Palestinians live in. That’s all well and good, but concern doesn’t stop settlements from being built in the West Bank. It doesn’t permit the return of over five million refugees and their descendants to their rightful homes. It doesn’t end military occupation and rule in the West Bank. It doesn’t close the largest open-air prison in Gaza. It doesn’t guarantee equal rights for every human being living in Israel and Palestine.
Negotiations under the status quo don’t get the job done either. In between visits by Secretary of State John Kerry, Israel has announced plans to build 1,400 more housing units in settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Obviously, something else is needed to tip the balance of power to halt Israel’s human rights abuses.
BDS is a strategy, reminiscent of the international boycott of Apartheid South Africa that swept college campuses in the '80s and helped put an end to that particular regime. We have a responsibility to participate in BDS because we are complicit in the Palestinians’ suffering as long as we support Israel militarily, economically and culturally.
You say that an academic boycott of Israel infringes on academic freedom, but I’m curious, President Brodhead, what exactly your vision of academic freedom is. Whose academic freedom are you concerned about?
Academic boycott, according to the guidelines set forth by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, only applies to Israeli institutions, not individual scholars. These institutions are part and parcel of Israel’s systemic oppression of Palestinians, from providing military research to institutionalized discrimination of Palestinians within Israel. No major Israeli academic institution has taken an active stance against the occupation.
According to Omar Barghouti, “Israeli scholars, under the boycott, would still be able to pursue their research, teaching, publishing and participating in international forums, provided that these activities do not involve any institutional links between Israeli institutions on the one hand and international institutions—and academics—on the other. What they do face as a result of the boycott is the ‘inconvenience’ of having to seek independent international funding to cover their international academic projects, instead of relying on Israeli state or institutional funding for that.”
Meanwhile, Palestinians are actually not free, academically or otherwise. Palestinian students lack the freedom of movement to make it to classes on time, if at all. According to B’tselsem, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians consistently suffer from water shortages during the summer months.
Imagine planning on going to a class on East Campus, only to be held up at a checkpoint by an 18-year-old with an assault rifle. You are a security threat solely because of your identity as a Palestinian. You go home, with barely enough water to drink and bathe comfortably. The Israeli settlement miles away has an Olympic sized swimming pool for its residents to enjoy. This is a daily reality for many.
It seems to me that your vision of academic freedom is a shallow one that can barely be called freedom at all. More than anything, it ensures that those in power are free to benefit from their privileged position. Those who are marginalized or excluded, however, must happily accept it and hope that the gatekeepers of our institutions will be gracious enough to let them in.
Some may say academia is no place for politics. You and I both know that a university can’t help but be political; where we invest our endowment, the hires we make, the students we admit, the universities we collaborate with and the funding we accept are all political decisions. Our academic institutions don’t exist in a vacuum, and we can’t hold on to visions of “academic freedom” that ignore our roles in ensuring the very conditions that allow for the exercise of not just rights to academic freedom but even more basic human rights.
The beauty of resistance is that we don’t need your permission or your approval in order to resist. You do, however, have the choice to use your position to advocate for the dignity and rights of every human being, or you can continue to participate and be complicit in atrocities around the world. Not just as a university president, but as a person of conscience.
Ahmad Jitan, Trinity ’13, is a former Chronicle columnist.