To critics of the academic boycott of Israel: What about "academic freedom" for the children of Gaza?

Given what we now know, it's harder to ignore the destruction of Palestinian schools and other infrastructures

Published May 27, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Adel Hana)
(AP/Adel Hana)

It has been nearly a decade since the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement started in 2005, seeking justice and rights for Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories.  It has steadily increased in size and force; one recent sign of its growing strength and influence is that both national governments, and states within the U.S., have issued declarations against it. An entire generation of university students here and abroad is now discussing divestment from firms that do business in the occupied territories. Nearly every month student governments pass divestment bills.

Although more and more academic organizations are hearing cases for the academic boycott of Israeli institutions, and many boycott resolutions have passed, a few key arguments against the academic boycott continue to wield persuasive power. After all, it’s one thing to say that one will not invest in companies involved in supporting an illegal occupation; it’s rather another to say that one will not collaborate with an entire state’s academic institutions. On the face of things, this seems to go against everything the academy stands for.

At this point, the debate is deadlocked around a single set of talking points. But these points miss the most essential element: the rights, and lives, of Palestinians. Let’s first review the main debate, then get to the heart of the matter.

Critics of the academic boycott argue that the academy is a place for the free circulation of ideas, that dialogue between U.S. and Israeli institutions remains a critical means for improving the chances for peace, and that the boycott would prevent scholars and students, especially those in Jewish studies, from carrying on research and learning in Israel that is essential to their profession and education.

Those who are in favor of the academic boycott point to the actual language of the BDS tenets, which insists that individual scholars are free to collaborate, attend conferences, and do research together, among other things. They say this is a boycott of institutions, not individuals. And they point to the utter failure of decades of “discussion,” whose only result seems to be the election of a hard-right government committed to making an illegal occupation permanent and enshrining the rights and privileges of one group over and against those of another.

Nevertheless, many critics of the boycott still see any boycott whatsoever as an abridgment of their academic freedom.  And so it goes — a constant back and forth, with little hope of resolution.

What is absolutely necessary to break the deadlock and to really judge the legitimacy and the justness of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions is exactly what we lack in the United States: a full spectrum of information about Israel-Palestine. Speaking as an academic: We need data. What works against this is the fact that even information from neutral sources, such as the United Nations, and human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is routinely suppressed, ignored or distorted in the mainstream media. And in its place, what we find over and over again in the debates about the boycott is a concern about ourselves: “What will happen to us if the boycott is successful?” But in focusing on this potential harm, we make ourselves blind to the existing, and voluminously documented, harms already and continually done to the academic freedoms of Palestinians.

Now, more and more of that information is coming out, from reputable, neutral sources. This information paints a fuller picture of what academic life looks like in Israel/Palestine, where even going to school is challenging and often deadly. And while this information is, as noted above, usually absent from the mainstream media, all it takes is a modicum of curiosity and the desire to know — something academics are supposed to be endowed with — to find this data. Once one does, one is able to start having a truly informed debate about an academic boycott of Israel. We simply have to know more about the academic and educational rights that are denied Palestinians — the very rights for which the boycott exists. Only after seriously considering that information in as ethical a way as possible and balancing those concerns against our self-interest can we arrive at an ethically informed choice.

Right after the December 2013 vote of the American Studies Association to honor the call for the academic boycott of Israel, the New York Times quoted me as saying, “People who truly believe in academic freedom would realize protesting the blatant and systemic denial of academic freedom to Palestinians, which is coupled with material deprivation of a staggering scale, far outweighs concerns we in the West might have about our own rather privileged academic freedoms.”  In her essay “Exercising Rights: Academic Freedom and Boycott Politics,” Judith Butler expresses a similar notion in a full and comprehensive manner:

One might begin by asking whether there are conditions under which academic freedom can be exercised.  The thesis that academic freedom is conditional presupposes that there are institutional structures that make academic freedom possible and protect its ongoing exercise. What does it matter if there are such conditions?  Is academic freedom not separable from the conditions of its exercise?  My suggestion is that academic freedom is a conditioned freedom and that it cannot rightly be thought or exercised without these conditions…. We might begin to understand checkpoints, erratic closures of universities, and the indefinite detention of students and faculty for espousing political viewpoints as relevant to both the right to education and academic freedom itself.

Remaining blind to the destruction of Palestinian schools, universities and other infrastructures necessary to “academic freedom,” as well as to the direct human cost of the occupation in terms of deaths and injuries, should be increasingly hard to do now, given key reports issued by the United Nations and other agencies and groups.

For example, in January 2015, UNESCO released its “Rapid Assessment of Higher Education Institutions in Gaza.”  It got no coverage at all in any major U.S. news venue.  If it had, American readers might have learned that:

The scale of destruction and devastation after 50 days of conflict in July-August 2014 is unprecedented in Gaza, including in the education sector. According to the MIRA findings [Multi-Cluster/Agency Initial Rapid Assessment coordinated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], 26 schools have been completely destroyed and 122 damaged during the conflict, 75 of which are UNRWA schools. It is worth noting that already prior to the last conflict the education system in Gaza was suffering from a shortage of at least 200 schools, which led to a big number of classes running in double shifts, impacting on the quality of education. Early childhood development has also been highly affected.

Among a total of 407 kindergartens in Gaza, 133 were damaged and 11 totally destroyed. The Higher Education sector also suffered severe human and infrastructure damages. After 50 days of conflict, the right to quality education for all Palestinian children and youth has been further compromised.

In addition to kindergartens, primary and secondary schools and other education centres, 4 higher education institutions were directly targeted during the hostilities, sustaining significant injury and loss of life among staff and student populations, as well as damage to buildings and equipment.

The study offers these and other details in terms of loss of life and injuries to staff and students:

  • Staff and students suffered heavy casualties during the conflict, sustaining loss of life and serious injuries. A number of injuries have led to disabilities including mobility, hearing and visual impairments which will impact on individuals and their families throughout their lives.
  • Nine academic and administrative staff from the HEIs [Higher Education Institutions] were killed and 21 injured.
  • A total of 421 HEI students were killed during the conflict and 1,128 were injured.

And, perhaps most dramatically --

  • Student deaths during the conflict constitute more than a quarter – or 27.4% - of total civilian deaths incurred in Palestine.  Even considering the exceptionally high ratio of people aged 15 to 29 to the total over-15 population (53%), this is a shocking statistic.

The report states flatly: “The failure to treat learning environments as safe spaces and protect universities from attack is a serious violation of the right to education and is prohibited under international law. The resulting staff and student attrition, alongside loss of life, injury and damage to infrastructure, seriously undermines the quality of education which should be supporting young people to achieve their full potential as well as helping to mitigate psychosocial impacts of armed conflict by providing stability, normality, structure and optimism about the future.”

Reports from the United Nations have determined that Israeli armed forces purposefully attacked even schools designated as UN schools acting as shelters:

Israeli officials said they were trying to determine who was responsible for the bloodshed. In past incidents, the Israeli military blamed errant rocket or mortar fire by Gaza militants for explosions at U.N. schools — or said the blasts were under investigation.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which operated the school-turned-shelter in the Jabalya refugee camp, said it had gathered evidence, analyzed bomb fragments and examined craters after the attack. Its initial assessment was that three Israeli artillery shells hit the school where 3,300 people had sought refuge.

“I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces,” said Pierre Krähenbühl, the UNRWA commissioner-general. “This is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”

And just recently, in April 2015, Ban Ki-moon issued this UN report on the findings of a UN Board of Inquiry into the attacks on UN facilities in Gaza, which showed that Israel deliberately shelled the UN schools.

Denial of educational rights takes place in prisons where children are held as well. A recent study found that:

Since 2000, Israel has arrested and imprisoned over 7,000 children, with 156 currently in jail. Often handed down sentences for stone throwing, child prisoners are defined as being below the age of sixteen by Israeli military law, whilst being classified as under eighteen through civilian law. Only two out of the five prisons holding Palestinian child detainees provide some form of education, through a very limited teaching of Arabic, Hebrew, English and Mathematics. Geography and subjects related to the sciences are banned from being taught due to “security concerns.”

This, despite the fact that:

The right to education is numerously outlined in international law, including Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which was ratified by Israel in 1991. Article 94 of the Fourth Geneva Convention encourages the “Detaining Power” to “take all practicable measure to ensure the exercise” of “intellectual, educational and recreational pursuits.” It also states that, “all possible facilities shall be granted to internees to continue their studies or to take up new subjects. The education of children and young people shall be ensured; they shall be allowed to attend schools either within the place of internment or outside.

In response to reports of Israel’s killing of students and other civilians, supporters of Israel often argue that these people were being used as human shields. This alibi has been thoroughly repudiated.  A UN report in 2009 found no evidence of Hamas using “human shields”:

On the basis of the investigations it has conducted, the Mission did not find any evidence to support the allegations that hospital facilities were used by the Gaza authorities or by Palestinian armed groups to shield military activities and that ambulances were used to transport combatants or for other military purposes.

On the basis of the information it gathered, the Mission found no indication that the civilian population was forced by Hamas or Palestinian armed groups to remain in areas under attack from the Israeli armed forces.

On the contrary, that same year Amnesty International has found instances of Israeli armed forces using Palestinian children as human shields (this finding was confirmed by the Israeli High Court), with no such comparable instances of Hamas doing the same. And in terms of the most recent attack on Gaza, the Independent called the notion of Hamas using human shields a “myth,” and even CNN found it hard to definitively say Hamas used human shields.

The report recently issued by “Breaking the Silence,” a group of Israeli soldiers concerned about the orders they are issued to fight under, verifies the extreme prejudice with which Israeli soldiers are instructed to attack Palestinians.  After reviewing the 240-page document, the Independent asserts: “The Israeli military deliberately pounded civilian areas in the Gaza Strip with incessant fire of inaccurate ordinance during last year’s war against Hamas and was at best indifferent about casualties among the Palestinian population.”

Placing this issue in the overall record of 2014, the Guardian reports that in that year more Palestinians were killed than in any other year since 1967.  Given Netanyahu’s reelection and the continued rightward swing in Israeli politics, which adamantly refuses meaningful negotiations and continues to expand settlement building, Gaza is doomed to either face more such attacks, or else be condemned to the slower death envisioned in August 2012 by the United Nations, which determined that:

In the absence of sustained and effective remedial action and an enabling political environment, the challenges which confront the people of Gaza now will only intensify over the coming years to 2020, a period in which another half a million people will be added to the present estimated population of 1.6 million. Without such action, the daily lives of Gazans in 2020 will be worse than they are now. There will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most.  The already high number of poor, marginalized and food-insecure people depending on assistance will not have changed, and in all likelihood will have increased.

Thus to really talk about “academic freedom” and the educational enterprise, we need to be in firm command of such facts, and not be solely concerned with the potential restrictions a boycott might place on us. Getting back to Judith Butler, these are precisely the “conditions” under which academic freedom is to be found, or not, in Gaza and the West Bank.

In the face of persistent violations of human rights and international law, increased and relentless settlement building, and the attacks on BDS both within Israel and in Europe, Canada, the United States and elsewhere, we are facing a situation wherein, as 972 magazine puts it, there is no “legitimate” form of Palestinian resistance, even when it takes the shape and nature of nonviolent, legal resistance as in the BDS movement.

And that is all the more reason why the academy should actively debate and discuss the academic boycott with the above kinds of information on hand, rather than hide behind safeguarding the privileges we enjoy at the expense of academic freedom for Palestinians. Particularly in the humanities, the contradiction produced as humanists jealously hold on to their scholarly privileges in the face of unspeakable death and destruction is bare, stark, and obscene.  If humanists worry about the relevance of the humanities, they might consider how the humanities have failed in this regard to teach us much about being humane and outward looking.

It may well be that history will look back upon this era as one in which intellectuals and scholars in the United States chose to hide their heads in the sand and ardently ignored the facts that were available to them. For the sake of pursuing unmolested their safely protected “research interests” and warding off so-called divisiveness, they avoided at all cost a glimpse into the horror of the occupation, which has killed off a generation of scholars. But I would hope against all hope that they, that we, would answer the call for solidarity emanating from Palestinian civil society — a plea that reaches out to us from the abyss — and lend our support to ending the fatal injustices perpetrated against not only our fellow scholars and students, but also upon our fellow human beings.


By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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