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The tired “academic freedom” argument: PACBI response to Nobel laureates’ attack on the academic boycott of Israel

Written by admin  •  Monday, 08.11.2010, 14:51

Once again, the specter of the suppression of academic freedom has been invoked in what is now becoming an organized campaign to counter the growing global movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel, and the academic and cultural boycott in particular. This time, a number of American, European, and Israeli Nobel laureates have been enlisted in the campaign, in the hope that their plea to defend “academic freedom” will stem the tide of this ever-expanding movement.

The Nobel laureates claim that academic and cultural boycotts, divestments and sanctions in the academy are antithetical to principles of academic and scientific freedom; to principles of freedom of expression and inquiry; and may well constitute discrimination by virtue of national origin. They “appeal to students, faculty colleagues and university officials to defeat and denounce calls and campaigns for boycotting, divestment and sanctions against Israeli academics, academic institutions and university-based centers and institutes for training and research, affiliated with Israel,” and “encourage students, faculty colleagues and university officials to promote and provide opportunities for civil academic discourse where parties can engage in the search for resolution to conflicts and problems rather than serve as incubators for polemics, propaganda, incitement and further misunderstanding and mistrust.” They also claim that as persons dedicated to &q uot;improving the human condition by doing the often difficult and elusive work to understand complex and seemingly unsolvable phenomena,” they believe that “the university should serve as an open, tolerant and respectful, cooperative and collaborative community engaged in practices of resolving complex problems.” [1]

This statement distills the main, long parroted and falsely premised, lines of defense deployed by opponents of the academic boycott of Israel, albeit this time propounded by scholars of global repute who by implication are assumed to command more respect and occupy higher scientific — perhaps even moral — ground. Yet, it is ironic that these world renowned scholars would allow themselves to be used by the unabashedly pro-Israel lobby group, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. The sponsorship by SPME of the Nobel laureates’ statement in fact compromises the scholars’ credibility, clearly aligning them with one of the most right-wing defenders of Israel, at a time when even liberal Zionists are expressing grave doubts about the plausibility of the official Israeli narrative.

PACBI has responded more than once to the now familiar charges against the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. It is useful, however, to comment on some of the more egregious claims made by the Nobel laureates.

PACBI and its global supporters do not advocate a boycott of individual Israeli academics. To misrepresent the morally consistent and by now well-known institutional boycott call as targeting individuals and thus possibly constituting “discrimination by virtue of national origin” is disingenuous and becomes a slur, not a serious engagement with the argument and rationale for the academic boycott. PACBI has been advocating a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions precisely because of their entrenched complicity in the maintenance of the system of colonial domination that oppresses Palestinians. This complicity has been amply documented, and we believe that the Nobel laureates, most of whom work in the sciences, are aware of the deep involvement of the Israeli academy in policy and research networks involving the Israeli army, weapons developers, and the security establishment in Israel and constituting violations of international law.[2]

The charge that boycott precludes or prevents the free exchange of ideas is a worn-out rebuttal of the boycott call. As ex-Israeli British academic Oren Ben-Dor has argued, “criticism of the boycott is couched in terms of the need for academic freedom. How ironic it is that academic freedom, the very factor which is absent from the Israeli academy, the very factor whose creation provides a powerful motivation for the boycott, is the one whose pretended existence is used by critics of the boycott.” [3]

On a related theme, the laureates claim that because academics can improve “the human condition by doing the often difficult and elusive work to understand complex and seemingly unsolvable phenomena,” “the university should serve as an open, tolerant and respectful, cooperative and collaborative community engaged in practices of resolving complex problems.” The laureates again go against the spirit of scientific inquiry by invoking the supposed complexity of the “problem.” It is well known that the characterization of “the conflict” in Palestine as “complex,” unsolvable, and intractable, is a deliberate obfuscation — and by those who should know better, in this case — of the stark simplicity of the issue: the struggle is one between the colonizer and the colonized, not some “conflict” between equally culpable parties who do not seem to be able to resolve their differences or settle their squabbles over territor y. The establishment of a settler-colonial regime in Palestine after the expulsion of most of the indigenous people is the basic and defining moment, and until Israel respects the spirit and the letter of the numerous United Nations resolutions on Palestine and abides by the many stipulations of international law and international humanitarian law in dismantling its system of occupation, apartheid, and colonialism, it should expect to be isolated in the global community as apartheid South Africa was.

PACBI has also argued elsewhere [4] that the protection of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas cannot be the only norm dictating the political engagement of scholars. Often, when oppression characterizes all social and political relations and structures, as in the case of South Africa during apartheid or indeed in Palestine, there are equally important and sometimes more basic freedoms that must be fought for, especially by academics and intellectuals. The aim of the academic boycott of Israel, in this context, is not to safeguard academic freedom as an abstract principle, but to obtain justice and fundamental rights for the Palestinian people.

A recent, precedent-setting petition endorsed by 250 leading South African academics, including the heads of four South African universities and prominent figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Barney Pityana, and Kader Asmal, has condemned Israeli academic institutions for their complicity in violating international law. It stated [5]:

While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation.

We believe that the Nobel laureates would do well to reflect upon their responsibilities as public figures — now that they have ventured into the real world of politics — and to speak truth to power, not reiterate the increasingly vacuous defenses of the centers of colonial power.

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