Letter to the editor:
One of the arguments frequently made against the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, is that it poses a threat to academic freedom. This fails to acknowledge that one of the casualties of Israel’s decades-long illegal occupation of Palestinian land is precisely what critics of BDS proclaim to defend: academic freedom and the right to education.
Israel’s military rule over Palestinians, described as ‘apartheid’ by South African veteran activists, entails an ethnically-based discrimination against the original inhabitants of the Palestinian lands occupied by Israel in 1967. Since 1967, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been subject to daily acts of military violence, encroachment on their land by lawless Israeli settlers, and the construction of massive, prison-like structures such as the separation wall. Looking at threats to higher education is one way of grasping the urgency of ending Israel’s occupation of the West Banks and Gaza.
Consider the case of Palestine’s leading research university, Birzeit University, located near the major West Bank city of Ramallah. The university cannot be approached without going through checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers, where students are interrogated, searched and frequently subjected to violence and humiliation. The Israeli military has on multiple occasions made incursions onto the Birzeit campus itself, made arrests there, and even used blockades to close down the entire university for extended periods.
Because they do not hold actual citizenship, have no state, and hence no passports, Palestinian scholars or students who seek to study, lecture or teach outside the territories can only hope for travel documents, issued at the Israeli government’s discretion. Even if granted travel documents, they live in fear they will ultimately be denied permission to exit the territories, the internal borders of which are under Israeli control. Similar obstacles are imposed on foreign faculty or exchange visitors wishing to collaborate with Palestinian universities. The uncertainty of whether or not they will be granted entry into the occupied territories is a constant threat, with the consequence that normal cross-national collaboration cannot be maintained.
The BDS campaign, founded in 2005 by multiple Palestinian civil society groups, is currently finding increasing support around the world. Following decades of failed peace negotiations, BDS might emerge as the most effective tool in ending the human rights abuses suffered by Palestinians, including the right to education and academic freedom.
This brings me back to the accusation made, in a recent statement made by Ohio State, that BDS is “the antithesis to academic freedom.” The statement, issued in response to the decision of the American Studies Association to endorse BDS, fails to acknowledge the brutal suppression of academic freedom which takes place on a daily basis in the occupied territories. In contrast, BDS does not entail a violation of the academic freedom of individuals, nor does it mean barring them from their right to education.
The call for an academic boycott of Israel is a call for the responsible exercise of academic freedom, one of those freedoms being the right to choose on ethical grounds which institutions and governments with which to be partnered. By withdrawing from voluntarily collaboration at the institutional level, BDS sends a strong message to the Israeli state, and to the world, that academic communities will not stand idly by as fellow students and faculty are deprived of their basic freedoms.
Ph.D. candidate in the Department of