“What seemed impossible only a year ago seems quite possible now,” an academic involved in the American Studies Association endorsement of an academic boycott of Israel wrote to me after the news of the ASA membership vote on the boycott resolution came in. In response to a membership referendum organized by the ASA National Council, 66 percent of the voters endorsed the resolution..
Independently but simultaneously, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association announced its elected council’s unanimous support for the academic boycott of Israel.
These and a number of other developments this year in the global struggle for Palestinian rights lead to the conclusion that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement may be reaching a tipping point, particularly in the academic and cultural sphere.
Even before this sweeping victory for the ASA boycott resolution, many had hailed the ASA National Council’s unanimous endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel as an exemplary expression of effective international solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom, justice and equality. “Warmly saluting” the ASA boycott, the largest federation of Palestinian academic unions said Palestinian academics were “deeply moved and inspired” by what it considered to be “a concrete contribution to ending [Israel’s] regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is an integral part of the BDS movement, which since its establishment in 2005 has been endorsed nearly by a consensus in Palestinian society. BDS seeks to realize basic Palestinian rights under international law through applying effective, global, morally consistent pressure on Israel and all the institutions that collude in its violations of international law, as was done against apartheid South Africa.As Judith Butler describes it, “The BDS movement has become the most important contemporary alliance calling for an end to forms of citizenship based on racial stratification, insisting on rights of political self-determination for those for whom such basic freedoms are denied or indefinitely suspended, insisting as well on substantial ways of redressing the rights of those forcibly and/or illegally dispossessed of property and land.”
If boycott, at the most fundamental level, constitutes “withdrawing ... cooperation from an evil system,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us in another context, BDS fundamentally calls on all people of conscience and their institutions to fulfill their profound moral obligation to desist from complicity in Israel’s system of oppression against the Palestinian people.
To understand why the ASA boycott has attracted considerably more than its fair share of attacks from the Israeli establishment, Israel lobby groups in the U.S. and its apologists, one must examine the wider context, the trend of BDS growth worldwide.
The BDS movement set an impressive number of precedents in 2013. Weeks ago, in a letter of support to the ASA, the University of Hawaii Ethnic Studies department became the first academic department in the west to support the academic boycott of Israel. In April, the Association for Asian-American Studies endorsed the academic boycott — the first professional academic association in the United States to do so. Around the same time, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland unanimously called on its members to “cease all cultural and academic collaboration” with the “apartheid state of Israel,” and the Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students (FEF), representing 100,000 members, adopted “a freeze of all academic partnerships with Israeli academic institutions.”
These and many other BDS developments have led to an explosion of interest in scrutinizing and criticizing Israel’s regime of oppression of the Palestinian people, or at least aspects of it. This has caused a heightened sense of alarm in the Israeli establishment as well as unprecedented debate there, to the degree that Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly said that Israeli leaders are terrified of the fast-growing BDS movement as much as they are scared of Iran’s rising influence in the region.
Indeed, the behavior of Israeli universities and their deep, decades-old complicity in Israel’s occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights have been a key driving force behind the proliferation of academic boycott initiatives and union resolutions all over the world. ASA National Council member Sunaina Maira, a key organizer in the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, makes a compelling point that has largely been missing in the coverage of the ASA boycott. Most academics were moved into supporting the academic boycott of Israel by learning “what Palestinian scholars and students go through on a daily basis just to get to school, as they navigate these checkpoints ... the many conditions that obstruct their access to education” and searching for a “civil society response.”
The complicity of Israeli universities in human rights violations takes many forms, from systematically providing the military-intelligence establishment with indispensable research — on demography, geography, hydrology, and psychology, among other disciplines — to tolerating and often rewarding racist speech, theories and “scientific” research. It also includes institutionalizing discrimination against Palestinian Arab citizens, among them scholars and students; suppressing Israeli academic research on Zionism and the Nakba (the forced dispossession and eviction of Palestinian Arabs during the creation of the State of Israel); and the construction of campus facilities and dormitories in the occupied Palestinian territory, as Hebrew University has done in East Jerusalem, for instance.
In the first few weeks of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), Israel shut down all Palestinian universities, some, like Birzeit, for several consecutive years, and then it closed all 1,194 Palestinian schools in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Next came the kindergartens, until every educational institution in the occupied Palestinian territories was forcibly closed. This prompted Palestinians to build an “illegal network” of underground schools.
Palestinian scholars and students are methodically denied their basic rights, including academic freedom, and are often subjected to imprisonment, denial of freedom of movement, even violent attacks on themselves or their institutions. If exercising the right to academic freedom is conditioned upon respecting other human rights and securing what Butler calls the “material conditions for exercising those rights,” then clearly it is the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students that is severely hindered, due to the occupation and policies of racial discrimination, and that must be defended.
So when the ASA “unequivocally” defends academic freedom and argues that the boycott actually “helps to extend it,” it means that it is not only contributing to restoring academic freedom for those most deprived of it, but that it is also promoting unhindered, rational debate in the U.S. and beyond about Israel’s occupation that stands behind this denial of rights.
Some academics and lobbyists have vociferously attacked the ASA, and indeed the entire academic boycott of Israel, as undermining academic freedom, usually without specifying whose academic freedom they are taking about. None of them, clearly, had Palestinian academics in mind. Regardless, their critiques have failed to explain how the institutional boycott that the PACBI and its global partners uphold would in fact infringe upon academic freedom. In a desperate attempt to prove this supposed infringement despite ample evidence to the contrary, some have resorted to intellectual dishonesty by making the false claim that the Palestinian boycott targets and aims to isolate Israeli academics, completely distorting the fact that it explicitly and consistently targets Israeli institutions.
If the Palestinian-led academic boycott of Israel succeeds in isolating Israeli institutions, Israeli academics are likely to lose their privileges and perks, but certainly not their academic freedom. To understand the difference, one must reference internationally accepted definitions of the latter.
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNESCR) defines academic freedom as including “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.” Nothing in the PACBI boycott conflicts with any of this.
Regardless, according to the UN, academic freedom itself, like any other right, is not an absolute right. The “enjoyment of academic freedom,” according to the UNESCR, comes with the basic “obligations” to ensure that contrary views are discussed fairly and "to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds.” This rights-obligations equation is a general underlying principle of international law in the realm of human rights. When scholars neglect or altogether abandon such obligations, they can no longer claim what they perceive as their inherent entitlement to this freedom.
Those who are still reluctant, on principle, to support a boycott that expressly targets Israel's academic institutions while having in the past endorsed, or even struggled to implement, a much more sweeping academic boycott against apartheid South Africa’s academics and universities are hard pressed to explain this peculiar inconsistency. Unlike the South African “blanket” boycott of academics and institutions, the PACBI call explicitly targets Israeli academic institutions because of their complicity, to varying degrees, in planning, implementing, justifying or whitewashing aspects of Israel’s occupation, racial discrimination and denial of refugee rights.
What I call the “Stephen Hawking effect” – the entrenchment of BDS in the international academic mainstream – may well be a prelude to crossing a qualitative threshold. International scholars, and a fair number of conscientious Israeli scholars as well, are increasingly conscious that they carry a moral obligation to stand up for justice and equal rights everywhere and to refrain from lending their names to be used by an oppressive regime to cover up injustice and human rights violations. The ASA boycott of Israel will be remembered for many years to come as a crucial catalyst in this emancipatory process of reclaiming rights for all who are denied them.
Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), and author of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket: 2011).