[News] The ivory tower behind the Apartheid Wall

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jul 25 17:08:45 EDT 2007

The ivory tower behind the Apartheid Wall

Margaret Aziza Pappano, The Electronic Intifada, 25 July 2007


Palestinian teachers and students at a UN school in Gaza protest 
against Israeli airstrikes on the previous day (8 November 2006) 
which killed 18 Palestinians, mostly women and children, in Beit 
Hanoun, Gaza. Israel's use of 'collective punishment' are one of the 
reasons given by Britain's University and College Union for a boycott 
against Israeli academic institutions. (Hatem 

In the last few weeks, university presidents across the US and Canada 
have rushed to issue statements about the proposed boycott of Israeli 
academic institutions by the British University and College Union. 
They view this boycott as a serious violation of academic freedom. 
Yet, given the general failure of these leaders to comment on any 
number of infringements of academic freedom that have occurred in 
recent years, including those close to home in the form of the 
politically-motivated denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein and the 
colleague, Mehrene Larudee, who very publicly supported him, the 
harassment of Columbia University professors Joseph Massad and Rashid 
Khalidi, and the intimidation of faculty by Campuswatch, one might be 
excused for concluding that university presidents prefer to remain 
above the political fray and reserve their office for grave and 
important but non-controversial pronouncements on tsunamis. But now, 
even in the midst of the hot and hazy summer recess, university 
presidents have mobilized their most imposing academic rhetoric in 
expressing solidarity with Israeli academics and upholding the rights 
of all to engage in "an open exchange of ideas" and "freedom of association."

What is perhaps most perplexing about this trend is its entirely 
virtual nature, for in fact no one's freedom has been violated by the 
boycott yet under discussion. Nevertheless, university presidents are 
preparing in advance for what could be an "attack ... [on] all 
universities at their core mission" (Gilles Patry, University of 
Ottawa) and a "threat ... [to] the moral foundation of each and every 
university" (Amy Guttman, University of Pennsylvania). [1] University 
of Virginia President John Casteen compares the proposed boycott to 
"the conduct of the most vicious political movements and governments 
of the 20th century." Yet, surely they must realize that Palestinians 
have for many decades suffered a multitude of assaults on their 
universities and schools by the Israeli occupying forces. Surely if 
university presidents are up in arms over a proposed boycott of 
Israeli academics, they must have something to say about the shutting 
down of universities, jailing and shooting of students and faculty, 
daily impeding of students and faculty from getting to classes, 
denial of student permits to attend universities, and revoking of 
visas to visiting scholars and researchers that characterizes 
academic life in Palestine. If a boycott of academic institutions is 
considered unfair, what does one call the methodical destruction of 
an educational system? If Patry warns about potential "acts of 
exclusion" against Israeli academics, isn't he concerned that right 
now, as we speak, all but a handful of Palestinian students are 
excluded from Israeli institutions and that even within Palestine, 
the Israelis exclude Palestinian students from their own universities 
by refusing to issue them the necessary travel permits? Might he see 
the deportation and nineteen-year exile of his colleague, Birzeit 
University president Hanna Nasir, as an "act of exclusion"? My own 
university principal, Karen Hitchcock, is committed to "defend the 
freedom of individuals to study, teach and carry out research without 
fear of harassment, intimidation, or discrimination." Do these 
"individuals" include Palestinians, one wonders? If so, is she 
prepared to address the erection of checkpoints outside of 
universities, such as the one outside of Birzeit that resulted in a 
20-40 percent reduction in class attendance in 2001 according to 
Human Rights Watch? The philosopher and critic Judith Butler argues, 
"If the exercise of academic freedom ceases or is actively thwarted, 
that freedom is lost, which is why checkpoints are and should be an 
issue for anyone who defends a notion of academic freedom." [2]

It is important to realize that the British UCU is targeting Israeli 
academic institutions (and not individuals) not only because they are 
linked to the same profession but also because of the place of 
universities in Israeli society. Israeli universities, far from being 
sites of dissidence and resistance to their government's 
discriminatory and violent policies, are themselves guilty of human 
rights abuses. Bar-Ilan University founded a branch in Ariel, an 
illegal settlement in the West Bank, making it directly complicit in 
a continued colonialist expansion project. Hebrew University has a 
long and deleterious history of appropriating Palestinian land. In 
1968, in opposition to a UN resolution, the university evicted 
hundreds of Palestinian families to expand their campus in East 
Jerusalem. This history of confiscation continues, as October 2004 
saw more evictions of Palestinian families and destruction of their 
homes for another campus expansion. Israeli faculties collaborate 
with intelligence services, using their academic expertise to devise 
sophisticated "interrogation" methods for the Israeli military. And 
Israeli academics themselves serve in the military as reservists, 
often in the occupied territories. The British UCU's position is 
ultimately designed to encourage Israeli academics to do something 
about the complicity of their universities in the illegal occupation.

Rather than merely showcase inflated rhetoric and verbally denounce 
the British UCU's boycott, a few university presidents are prepared 
to go further. In her statement, Karen Hitchcock threatens to add 
Queen's to the UCU's "boycott list." Modeling her position after 
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, ironically a First 
Amendment scholar, Hitchcock is referring to the petition initiated 
by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz that enjoins academics to 
sign on to consider themselves as honorary Israelis and ask also to 
be boycotted by the UCU. University of California-Berkeley Chancellor 
Robert Birgeneau and McGill University Principal Heather Munroe-Blum 
express similar sentiments in their statements, declaring that should 
the British UCU choose to boycott Israeli institutions, they should 
also boycott Berkeley and McGill as well.

When these university presidents challenge the UCU to boycott them in 
their statements, they indicate that Columbia, Berkeley, McGill and 
Queen's academics wish to be boycotted along with their Israeli 
counterparts because they think that such boycotts are wrong. One 
suspects that there may be faculty, staff, and students at these 
schools who do not want to be considered honorary Israelis and be 
boycotted by British universities. Is it within the proper purview of 
a university's president to make unilateral pronouncements that have 
such potentially significant consequences for the intellectual 
welfare of its members? What sort of academic freedom is this if a 
president has the power to make such decisions for his/her faculty, 
students, and staff? While there may be many at these universities 
who welcome such a position, in principle one cannot and should not 
support it. I believe that it is itself an infringement of academic freedom.

Indeed, for all their professed commitment to "the exchange of 
knowledge and ideas" (Munroe-Blum) "scholarly understanding and free 
academic exchange and expression" (Patry), "open inquiry and exchange 
of ideas" (John Casteen, University of Virginia), "free and 
unfettered debate" (David Skorton, Cornell University), none amongst 
this cadre of university presidents seems the least bit concerned 
with providing the type of open debate on this issue that is 
purportedly the very hallmark of their institutions. Sadly, it seems 
that these presidents in fact are rushing to issue statements 
precisely in order to pre-empt such debate on their campuses. Were 
these university presidents really committed to their stated 
positions on intellectual exchange, would they not organize or at 
least foster a discussion of the issues amongst their constituencies 
that would examine the motivations behind the proposed boycott? Or 
are they rushing to stifle debate because they are afraid to be 
involved in a potentially controversial set of issues? When there has 
been no open discussion of these issues on campus, what sort of 
example is set by these statements from on high? I do hope that they 
will have a "free and unfettered debate" at Cornell. Let the fetters fly!

I suspect, however, that this spate of statements does not bode well 
for what Casteen calls the university's "unique capacity to serve the 
public good." It seems that a dangerous precedent has been set in 
which university presidents recently have taken on the customary role 
of politicians and accepted politically organized and motivated tours 
to Israel. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that seven 
university presidents from the US visited Israel in early July in a 
campaign designed "to explain Israel's policies to the leaders of US 
academic institutions and to strengthen scientific collaboration 
between the two countries."[ 3] In addition to meeting with the 
educational minister and academic leaders, the university presidents 
also met with "military experts." Presumably they did not exchange 
views on Aristotle with the Israeli generals. While we are now 
accustomed to our elected officials participating in such tours, the 
university is, I agree with Casteen (a member of the delegation to 
Israel), supposed to serve the public in a unique way. While I'm not 
saying that some educational purpose and "free exchange of ideas" did 
not occur during the presidents' visit, I remain stumped by the 
meeting with the Israeli military. The Haaretz correspondent, Tamara 
Traubmann, pinpoints a political agenda in the timing of the trip, 
writing that "The visit takes place amid attempts to impose an 
academic boycott of Israel and controversy over Israel on US campuses 
between the right and the left." If this trip was designed to target 
university presidents in an attempt to pre-empt debate on campus, 
then we must ask whether the universities have succumbed, in 
Bollinger's ominous phrase, to "politically biased attempts to hijack 
the central mission of higher education."

The university presidents might argue that they are prepared to 
defend the rights of any group, not just Israelis, to academic 
freedom. As Tom Traves, President of Dalhousie writes in his 
statement, "Universities do not have foreign policies and they must 
assert their right always to be independent of government dictates in 
the name of short-term political agendas." Yet, when university 
presidents have allowed numerous violations of academic freedom to 
Palestinians to pass without comment, they must realize that their 
statements, rather than "defending the freedom of individuals" as 
they claim, function precisely as politicized pronouncements in 
support of the Israeli regime. You cannot let decades of gross 
injustices to one side pass and then suddenly leap to the defense of 
the other side without implicating yourself in a political position.

It strikes me as particularly unfortunate, though given the recent 
mistreatment of Middle East Studies professor Joseph Massad, not 
unexpected, that Columbia's president should be leading the charge. 
In 1968, as Hebrew University busied itself in confiscating 
Palestinian land in East Jerusalem, on the west side of Manhattan, 
Columbia University was doing something similar. In April of that 
year, Columbia broke ground in Morningside Park, a neighborhood park 
adjacent to its main campus, in order to build a gym. The 
neighborhood outcry was immense and students immediately organized to 
stop what they saw as an arrogant appropriation of neighborhood space 
for largely private use. A long protest followed, which though at 
first violently suppressed by police, was ultimately effective in 
achieving its goal. The plan for the gym was abandoned and the 
students' demand for Columbia to sever ties with the Institute of 
Defense Analysis was also met, a step that surely allowed its 
scientists to work with greater "openness" and "free exchange of 
ideas." This was a galvanizing event in Columbia's history and the 
effectiveness of the protest and ultimate good it achieved in 
respecting the neighborhood's rights and highlighting the complexity 
of the racial relations of its residents with the university is now 
told as a proud moment in Columbia history and nicely archived on its 
website. This is a history Bollinger and others might learn from, for 
institutions do need motivation to move forward and transcend their 
sometimes less-than-illustrious pasts. Supporting a boycott of a 
university can help those dissidents within the university more 
effectively work towards change, for the wish to make a favorable 
impression in the world has frequently served as a catalyst for 
positive transformation. World opinion was absolutely central to 
pressuring the US government during the Civil Rights era and to 
dismantling Apartheid in South Africa. Since the boycott is aimed at 
institutions not individuals, rather than isolating Israeli 
academics, the boycott could provide a sort of support to those 
academics who wish to reform their universities.

There are other tactics aside from a boycott open to us as academics 
for addressing the suffering of Palestinians in the occupied 
territories. A university community might well decide upon a 
different strategy. Recently New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman 
suggested that universities would do better to educate Palestinian 
students, establish exchanges, and send faculty to teach in 
Palestinian universities. I think that these are great ideas and hope 
that Israel will agree with Friedman and no longer refuse to issue or 
arbitrarily revoke visas of visiting faculty and prevent Palestinian 
students and academics from attending meetings abroad. I am certain 
that "an open exchange of ideas" on university campuses will lead to 
a lot of different and creative suggestions for considering how we, 
as academics, can contribute towards improving the plight of our 
Palestinian colleagues and supporting our Israeli colleagues in doing 
the same. But let's not condemn the boycott out of hand before that 
discussion has taken place.

To this end, I have created a petition at my university to ask the 
principal to retract her statement and support the organization of a 
forum to discuss the issues relating to the proposed boycott. This is 
the very least that a university should do. I urge my colleagues at 
other universities to do likewise.

[1] All quotations from university presidents, principals, 
chancellors, etc. that I cite are taken from their statements posted 
on their university websites.
[2] "Israel/Palestine and the paradoxes of academic freedom," Judith 
Butler, Radical Philosophy 135, January/February 2006, p. 11.
[3] "U.S. university presidents visit Israel to strengthen academic 
ties," Tamara Traubmann, Haaretz, 3 July 2007.

Margaret Aziza Pappano is an Associate Professor of English at 
Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario; her specialty is medieval 
literature. In 2006 she visited the West Bank as part of the 
institute, "Connecting Dearborn and Jerusalem," sponsored by the 
Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

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