[News] Defending Zionism under the cloak of academic freedom

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sat Jan 4 17:59:13 EST 2014

  Defending Zionism under the cloak of academic freedom

/Robin D. G. Kelley <http://mondoweiss.net/author/robin-d-g-kelley> on 
January 4, 2014

In a widely circulated /Los Angeles Times/ 
op ed piece, Wesleyan University president Michael S. Roth denounced the 
American Studies Association's (ASA) resolution to support a boycott of 
Israeli academic institutions as "a repugnant attack on academic 
freedom." Parroting near-identical responses by other American 
university presidents, Roth's ill-informed, grossly distorted polemic 
took me by surprise. While I do not expect him to agree with our stance, 
I did expect a more considered and intellectually honest disagreement 
from the president of Wesleyan University---a world-class institution 
with a long and distinguished record of teaching (and doing) social 
justice, grounded in an internationalist, humanist vision of liberal 
arts education; a school to which I gave nearly a quarter of a million 
dollars of my hard-earned academic salary so that my daughter (class of 
2012) could learn what it means to be an informed, critical, engaged 
citizen of the world.

Roth either misread or deliberately misrepresented the resolution's 
carefully considered language. He asserts that the ASA targets Israeli 
academic institutions merely for their "national affiliation." This is 
not true. They are targeted for their complicity in the illegal 
occupation and government policies of dispossession, repression, and 
racism. He also claims that the resolution extends to individual 
faculty. It does not. It strongly condemns any attempts to single out 
and/or isolate Israeli scholars or any scholar of any nationality. On 
the contrary, the resolution and its authors encourage collaboration and 
dialogue, but outside the official channels of the Israeli 
state-supported institutions that continue to directly benefit from or 
support the occupation.

Roth repeats the well-worn argument that Israel is being singled out 
because the ASA has not boycotted countries with documented human rights 
abuses. But countries such as North Korea have no formal institutional 
ties to the ASA, and in most instances our own government has taken 
action, imposing sanctions and trade barriers or openly condemning 
violations of human rights or war crimes. Of course, there are egregious 
exceptions such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain---U.S.-backed repressive 
regimes that some of our most prominent ASA members have subjected to 
sharp criticisms.

But all of this is beside the point: Israel and the U.S. have a 
"special" relationship. As Carolyn Karcher recently reminded us 
in her rebuttal to Roth's op ed, "the U.S. not only gives far more 
military aid to Israel than to any other country, but has also vetoed 
all U.N. resolutions in recent memory that condemn Israel's abuses of 
human rights. The ASA resolution specifically cites the 'significant 
role' the U.S. plays in underwriting Israel's violations of 
international law." Three billion dollars a year, every year, is an 
awful lot of money. The money flows despite the fact that Israel's 
blockade of Gaza, the source of the region's immense poverty, is a clear 
violation of Articles 33, 55, and 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention 
prohibiting the collective punishment of civilians and requiring an 
occupying power to ensure access to food and medical supplies, and to 
maintain hospital and public health facilities.

Roth, who takes great pride in being a historian informed about and even 
critical of Israel's policies, knows that these intermittent wars in 
Gaza, not to mention IDF attacks and home demolitions in the West Bank, 
violate our own Arms Export Control Act, which prohibits the use of U.S. 
weapons and military aid against civilians. And the most recent violent 
racist attacks on African immigrants in Israel represent some of the 
worst examples of human rights violations. Some 60,000 undocumented 
workers, many having fled war-torn or economically devastated countries 
such as Sudan and Eritrea, are denied refugee status, subject to 
deportation and imprisonment for up to a year without trial, and endure 
horrifying violence from racist mobs. The entire community is accused of 
committing rape, robbery and other crimes, and in Binyamin Netanyahu's 
words, threatening to destroy Israel's "image as a Jewish and democratic 

"Under the guise of phony progressivism," Roth writes, "the [ASA] has 
initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom." It is not clear 
what Roth means by "phony," but the academic and cultural boycott is a 
legal, legitimate, non-violent form of protest that targets institutions 
only. The original call for an international campaign for Boycott, 
Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) came from Palestinian civil society 
organizations in 2005, inspired by the global solidarity movement that 
helped end apartheid and bring nonracial democracy to South Africa. 
Since then, the movement has gained support globally as well as from 
Israeli organizations such as Boycott from Within 
and Who Profits? <http://www.whoprofits.org/> The ASA membership voted 
overwhelmingly to support the resolution, but it did not come to this 
conclusion cavalierly. The implication that some deep-seated anti-Israel 
or anti-Semitic sentiment was behind it is downright insulting. The 
resolution resulted from a long process of debate and deliberation 
within our organization over how to respond to the ongoing 46-year 
occupation (the longest military occupation in modern history), the 
deadly blockade of Gaza, the escalation of violence, the expansion of 
illegal settlements, the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians and 
some Israeli scholars critical of their government, and the massive U.S. 
military aid to Israel that ultimately underwrites ongoing dispossession 
and an entrenched system of apartheid. These discussions began some six 
years ago, and they have not been easy.

Had Roth taken time to read discussions leading up to the resolution, 
particularly the extensive critical analyses by Judith Butler or the 
special issue of the/ Journal of Academic Freedom 
devoted to the question of academic boycotts, he may not have been so 
quick to indict the resolution as an "irresponsible attack on academic 
freedom." As a matter of fact, the boycott will have no direct impact on 
the ability of individual Israeli scholars to teach, conduct research, 
and participate in meetings, symposia, or conferences around the globe. 
And ASA members are not required to abide by the resolution---it really 
only applies to official association business. The most important point, 
however, is that the resolution expresses a fundamental demand that the 
privileges of academic freedom extend to all: Palestinian teachers, 
researchers, students of all ages, as well as Jewish and Arab Israeli 
scholars, writers, intellectuals, artists, and students critical of the 
regime. Roth is silent when it comes to the academic freedom of 
Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and within Israel itself.

While cognizant of the limited space afforded opinion pieces, I still 
find it baffling that an intellectual historian who has written about 
the Holocaust can treat academic freedom as an autonomous category 
separate and above other freedoms. As Sarah T. Roberts 
so eloquently explained:

    It is a peculiar sort of academic elitism that puts academic
    freedom, a somewhat abstract concept in itself, in a position of
    primacy before other types of very real and tangible physical
    freedoms: the freedom to circulate unimpeded, the freedom to be
    treated as an equal citizen, the freedom to even access spaces of
    higher education, which must certainly be a prerequisite for the
    much-lauded academic freedom that is causing so much consternation.

    Palestinian people living in lands occupied by Israel are barred
    from these things. There are precious few freedoms for Palestinians,
    academic or otherwise, in Israel and in occupied Palestine. In this
    sense, the boycott is, in fact, a response to an actual lack of
    academic freedom for an entire people, not the creation of a
    potential for loss of some higher-order freedom for relatively few
    individuals. Supporters of academic freedom must side with
    Palestinians or their position makes little sense and loses its
    meaning completely.

The boycott is one of many actions in defense of Palestinians who are 
denied the right to travel freely because of checkpoints and roadblock. 
Palestinian students and teachers risk harassment, arrest, detention, 
injury and even death just to get to their institutions to perform basic 
tasks like teaching, research, and learning. In fact, in the first half 
of 2013 alone, 13,064 students were affected by access denial, and 
UNICEF documented egregious incidents of Israeli settlers in the West 
Bank attacking Palestinian students. In the realm of higher education, 
Palestinian scholars are routinely denied the right to travel abroad to 
participate in conferences and symposia, let alone travel between Gaza 
and the West Bank.

Any consideration of "academic freedom" must acknowledge the ongoing 
history of Israeli raids, closures, and constant disruptions of 
Palestinian universities such as Birzeit and Al Quds, as well as the 
hundreds of students currently detained in Israeli prisons for political 
activity, or for reasons unknown based on "secret evidence." Israel can 
detain Palestinians for up to six months without charge or trial, with 
no limits on renewal. Administrative detention, as it is called, is 
based on three laws: Military Order 1651 which empowers the army to 
issue orders to detain civilians in the West Bank; the Unlawful 
Combatants Law which applies to Gaza residents; and the Emergency Powers 
Detention Law used against Israeli citizens. These laws violate Article 
9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 
which prohibits arbitrary detention, requires that detainees be told why 
they are being held, and stipulates that every person has the right of 
habeas corpus.

Violations of Palestinian academic freedom in higher education are 
legion. In 2008, filmmaker and professor Nizar Hassan 
was suspended from his teaching position at Sapir College because he 
asked an Israeli student not to carry his firearms and wear his military 
uniform to class. The administration appointed a committee to 
investigate Hassan's alleged anti-Israel teaching, but he argued before 
his interrogators that he had acted out of the very humanist values that 
undergird a liberal arts education. "They wanted to believe that I 
object to the army uniform because I am Palestinian," he explained. "But 
I reject the uniform because it is opposed to my universal and human 
values. I acted as I did because I am a teacher and a human being." 
However, the committee thoroughly rejected Hassan's argument. An "Arab" 
humanist was simply inconceivable. The report concludes: "Nizar [sic] 
abused his status and his authority as a teacher to flaunt his opinions, 
feelings and frustrations as a member of the Arab national minority in 
Israel, cloaking himself in a 'humane' and 'universal' garb, whereas in 
fact he demonstrated a stance of brute force bearing a distinctly 
nationalist character."1 The administration threatened dismissal if 
Hassan did not apologize to the student and submit a written statement 
promising to respect and honor the uniform of the Israeli Defense 
Forces. Hassan refused. The administration eventually backed down in the 
face of international pressure; Hassan returned to his post after a 
one-semester paid suspension.

Academic freedom includes the right to free speech and assembly. In 
November of 2012, during Israel's bombing of Gaza [Operation Pillar of 
Defense], Palestinian students at Hebrew University were arrested for 
holding peaceful demonstration <http://www.right2edu.org/date/2012/11/> 
in front of the campus, and at Haifa University Palestinian students 
were banned from further protests after gathering to observe a minute of 
silence <http://www.right2edu.org/date/2012/11/> in solidarity with the 
people of Gaza. Following the ban, Zionist students and staff were 
allowed to assemble in support of the bombing and many chanted "Death to 
Arabs" and other virulently racist slogans.

One of the worst examples of state suppression of academic freedom is 
the notorious "Nakba Law 
passed in the Knesset in March 2011. The Nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic) 
refers to the violent expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians from 380 
villages during the 1948 war, and the barring of the refugee population 
from the right to return or reclaim lost land, homes, personal property, 
bank accounts, etc. The law permits the minister of finance to reduce 
government funding to any institution (including schools and 
universities, civic organizations and local governments) that 
commemorates either independence day or the anniversary of the 
establishment of the state of Israel as a day of mourning ('Nakba Day'), 
or mentions the Nakba in school textbooks. Besides the Nakba Law, 
right-wing parties have passed laws that directly infringe on the 
freedom of speech and academic freedom of Arab and Jewish citizens, 
including the so-called 'boycott law 
which allows citizens to file a civil suit against anyone in Israel who 
calls for a boycott against the state or Israeli settlers in the West 
Bank -- whether or not any damages can be proved.

In other words, many of us support the boycott out of concern for 
academic freedom---though, as I pointed out above, this does not 
supersede the main objective: to end the occupation and extend civil and 
human rights to all. The university presidents who have come out so 
strongly against the resolution betray a pedestrian understanding of 
academic freedom, both here and inside Palestine/Israel. Indeed, I was a 
bit surprised that neither Michael Roth nor Larry Summers nor any of the 
American university presidents who are so concerned about academic 
freedom mentioned the important document issued five years ago by 
Israeli scholars <http://academic-access.weebly.com/> Menachem Fisch, 
Raphael Falk, Eva Jablonka, and Snait Gissis of Tel-Aviv University. 
They called on the broader academic community---especially senior 
scholars---to protest government and university policies that deny 
academic freedom to Palestinian students and faculty in the Occupied 

    We, past and present members of academic staff of Israeli
    universities, express great concern regarding the ongoing
    deterioration of the system of higher education in the West Bank and
    the Gaza Strip. We protest against the policy of our government
    which is causing restrictions of freedom of movement, study and
    instruction, and we call upon the government to allow students and
    lecturers free access to all the campuses in the Territories, and to
    allow lecturers and students who hold foreign passports to teach and
    study without being threatened with withdrawal of residence visas.
    To leave the situation as it is will cause serious harm to freedom
    of movement, study and instruction -- harm to the foundation of
    academic freedom, to which we are committed.

Nor have the university presidents much to say in defense of Jewish 
Israeli scholars, whose criticisms of government policies have left them 
vulnerable to blatant violations of their academic freedom. In December 
of 2012, Rivka Feldhay 
a professor at Tel Aviv University, was banned from participating in a 
scientific conference in Berlin because she signed a petition four years 
earlier supporting Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the West 
Bank. The right-wing Zionist group, Im Tirtzu (Hebrew for "if you will 
it") launched a virulent campaign against Tel Aviv University philosophy 
professor Anat Matar <about:blank> for her opposition to Israel's 
administrative detention of Palestinian prisoners. Dr. Matar is also a 
member of "Who Profits?: Exposing the Israeli Occupation Industry," 
whose son spent two years in prison for refusing to enlist in the 
military. Im Tirtzu mobilized dozens of students to file complaints 
against her to the university, but rather than defend her right to free 
speech and intellectual freedom, the university decided to investigate her.

Another Tel-Aviv professor, Yehuda Shenhav, experienced similar attacks 
for statements he made in his anthropology class. A particularly high 
profile case involved the Department of Politics and Government at Ben 
Gurion University, where what began as an Im Tirtzu-led campaign largely 
against Professor Neve Gordon 
<http://www.countercurrents.org/gordon270810.htm> turned into a 
state-sponsored witch hunt against the entire department. As early as 
2008, Im Tirtzu accused some of the politics faculty of anti-Zionism. 
Then in August 2009, Professor Gordon published an op ed piece in the/ 
Los Angeles Times/ in support of the BDS movement 
<http://articles.latimes.com/2009/aug/20/opinion/oe-gordon20> in an 
effort to force Israel to move toward a two-state solution. Attacks on 
Professor Gordon coincided with a national review of all politics 
departments. After a couple of high profile resignations and 
administrative reshuffling, a reconstituted review committee issued a 
damning report on Ben Gurion's politics department that pointed to 
"community activism" as a central problem. Although the university 
acceded to the committee's recommendations, the government's Council for 
Higher Education appointed another committee and concluded that the 
department had to be shut down altogether. Only international pressure, 
including a powerful op ed piece in the /L.A. Times/ by my colleague 
David Myers 
compelled Israel's Minister of Education to withdraw the order for closure.

To put it bluntly, under the current regime academic freedom and civil 
liberties for all---Palestinians, Bedouins, and African immigrants more 
than others---are in jeopardy, and will remain in jeopardy so long as 
Israeli society is rooted in occupation, dispossession, militarization, 
racism and segregation. Some might argue that violations of Jewish 
Israeli academic freedom make the case against an academic boycott 
because, as Roth argues, there are Israeli scholars critical of the 
regime. Of course, the defense of a segment of academia at the expense 
of everyone else contradicts the principles of academic freedom. But 
equally damning is the evidence that Israeli universities have refused 
or are unable to protect their own faculty and students. The facts are 
unequivocal: in every case, it is the university administration that 
backs up state repression, that participates in denying the very 
intellectual freedoms Roth and his friends hold so sacrosanct. As the 
ASA resolution makes clear, Israeli institutions are complicit, and in 
defense of all of our colleagues they must be challenged.

Let me end with a very recent example of an assault on intellectual 
freedom from right here in the U.S. Just this fall, the artistic 
director of Washington D. C.'s Theater J and brilliant playwright Ari 
Roth, decided to produce Motti Lerner's controversial play, "The 
It tells the story of Teddy Katz, a graduate student whose master's 
thesis uncovered an attack by an Israeli brigade on the village of 
Tantura during the 1948 war. Although Katz never called it a massacre, 
240 unarmed Palestinians were killed and were never given the 
opportunity to surrender. The play explores not only the massacre at 
Tantura but the state's attack on Katz and his defender and teacher, 
historian Ilan Pappe. Despite presenting solid scholarly evidence within 
the standards of academic history, Katz was forced to stand trial, his 
thesis withdrawn from the University of Haifa, and Pappe was eventually 
driven out of Israel. What is interesting is that a play about a gross 
violation of academic freedom suddenly became the object of a boycott by 
a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art 
(COPMA). COPMA waged a vicious campaign against Ari Roth and Lerner; 
Jewish Federations of Washington even threatened to pull $250,000 in 
donations if the play were staged. Roth refused to back down, just as he 
had a few years earlier when he produced the controversial play "Return 
to Haifa." But he was compelled to move the play from the main stage to 
a workshop.

Where were Michael S. Roth or Richard Slotkin or Larry Summers or any 
other gallant defenders of academic freedom when Ari Roth was battling 
boycotts and pickets? The truth of the matter is that Michael S. Roth 
and many of the most high profile, vocal critics of the ASA resolution 
are less interested in defending academic freedom than defending the 
occupation, the expansion of settlements, the continued dispossession of 
land, the blockade of Gaza, the system of separate roads, the building 
and maintenance of an apartheid wall -- no matter what the cost. Nothing 
in Roth's editorial or similar statements directly criticizes these 
policies or suggests a different strategy to compel Israel to abide by 
international law and to end human rights violations. I don't expect to 
persuade Roth or other university presidents to support the boycott, but 
I do wish they would come clean and admit that unconditional support for 
Israeli apartheid and occupation is not about academic freedom or 
justice. I'm not holding my breath.

Quotes take from Jonathan Cook, "Academic Freedom? Not for Arabs in 
Israel," /The Electronic Intifada/ (March 4, 2008), 
For an excellent account and critical analysis of Hassan's case, see 
Leora Bilsky, "Muslim Headscarves in France and Army Uniforms in Israel: 
A Comparative Study of Citizenship as Mask," in Maleiah Malik, ed., 
/Anti-Muslim Prejudice: Past and Present /(Abingdon, UK and New York: 
Routledge, 2010), pp. 79-103.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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