Forgotten plight of Palestinian higher education

Condemning those who back Israeli boycott fails to acknowledge curbs on Palestinian academy, says Eric Cheyfitz

February 27, 2014

From Where I Sit illustration ( February 2014)

The recent American Studies Association resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israeli institutions of higher learning is, in the first instance, a response to a call from Palestinian civil society for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel, which began in 2005. The resolution is focused on Israeli academic institutions not on individual scholars, whose rights to academic freedom the ASA explicitly upholds in its non-binding resolution.

Those claiming that they oppose the boycott in the name of academic freedom are ignoring the fact that, as defined by the American Association of University Professors, academic freedom is intended in the first instance to protect the rights of individuals – not institutions – to teach and research freely. To claim otherwise is to perpetrate a false equation: that between individual scholars and the institutions in which they teach. In fact, academic freedom is intended precisely to protect individual scholars and students from politically motivated interference by their institutions.

Such interference has been manifest historically – the firing of academics for their political beliefs during the McCarthy era is a prime example. But more recent is the harassment and/or firing of academics who have been critical of Israeli state policies in the Palestinian territories and US policy in the Middle East.

The case of Norman Finkelstein, whose professionally esteemed publications are critical of Israeli state policy in Palestine, comes immediately to mind. After a positive vote for tenure and promotion by the political science department at DePaul University, the university administration denied Finkelstein tenure and subsequently struck a deal with him compelling his resignation in 2007.

Meanwhile, Mehrene Larudee, then an assistant professor of international studies at DePaul – although supported for tenure and promotion by her department, the dean and the college personnel committee – was denied tenure by the upper administration. The only “negative” on her record appears to have been her outspoken support of Finkelstein. If space allowed, I could continue documenting cases of this kind. At the same time, I know of no academic supporters of Israeli state policies who have faced similar actions by the universities and colleges in which they teach and research.

These policies, promulgated within a structure of Israeli martial law in the Palestinian territories, abrogate the academic freedom and human rights of Palestinians. Thus, the ASA resolution supports the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions of higher learning because it understands that “[these] institutions…are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students”.

In the name of academic freedom, numerous US university presidents have been condemning the ASA for joining the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. However, these officials do so without acknowledging the interdiction of Palestinian academic freedom by Israeli state policies with which these institutions are complicit and without recognising the institutional violations of the academic freedom of US scholars critical of Israeli policies. Under the circumstances, US university presidents appear to be using their support of “academic freedom” as an alibi for their unqualified support of Israel.

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