Is Academic Freedom a Casualty of the Gaza War?

The national effort to organize an entire academic discipline around anti-Zionism represents a new and dangerous phase in the politicization of academe, argues Cary Nelson.

June 3, 2021
 
 
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/getty images

On May 21, the day after a ceasefire was announced in the latest war between Gaza and Israel, a coalition of women’s and gender studies departments and programs made it clear that, for their part, the war of words, at least, will not stop. More than 100 such academic programs signed a statement condemning Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, thereby endorsing the accusation that Israel’s conduct constitutes a war crime. Academic freedom protects the right individual faculty have to take aggressive political stands. But departments and programs speak for the institution. A department’s adoption of a controversial political stance has implications for all who work with that department.

The statement in question, “Gender Studies Departments in Solidarity With Palestinian Feminist Collective,” is far from the generic, anodyne calls for decency, sensitivity or basic fairness that university bodies often issue. On the contrary, it uses incendiary rhetoric not just to support the rights of Palestinians but also to condemn Israel by taking sides in the political struggle: “We do not subscribe to a ‘both sides’ rhetoric that erases the military, economic, media, and global power that Israel has over Palestine.” The statement characterizes the current war as part of an ethnic cleansing program that began in 1947, thereby condemning Israel’s whole history. By declaring “we call for the end of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine and for the Palestinian right to return to their homes,” they make clear that their attack on “settler colonialism” applies not just to the West Bank but to Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries as well. “This is not a ‘conflict’ that is too ‘controversial and complex’ to assess,” it concludes.

Should programs and departments be endorsing this explicitly anti-Israel political perspective?

This national effort to organize an entire academic discipline -- its teaching, research, policies and administration -- around anti-Zionism represents a new and dangerous phase in the politicization of the academy. The individual faculty members in these departments have academic freedom; they have the right to express these views without being sanctioned, and faculty and students have every right to study, discuss and debate the views embodied in the statement. They can debate, for example, the claim that “Israeli law systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

But for departments to officially adopt one position in such a debate is another matter. A department is an administrative entity, an arm of the university. Academic and professional standards for departments exist, such as that students and faculty members holding opposing views will be free to adopt their own positions and be treated with respect. Departments and their administrators are responsible for a series of professional decisions that are supposed to be politically neutral.

If departments violate those standards, as these departments have pledged to do, then it is reasonable for their governing bodies to act to ensure the integrity of the school, college or university as a whole -- such as, if necessary, restricting the authority those departments have to make academic and personnel decisions.

Once a department and its chief administrator sign on to a set of political positions, the academic freedom of those who disagree is compromised. Students who hold other views face the bullying power of their professors. Dissenters -- whether faculty, staff or students -- who may remain in perfectly good standing as scholars and teachers become formally defined as outlaws, members neither of the department nor of a discipline collectively committed to anti-Zionism.

Will the departments that signed the statement hire or promote someone who disagrees with it? How much extra attention will Jewish candidates receive? Will department heads support a research proposal, grant application or sabbatical proposal from a current faculty member or student with different views? Will students or staff who express contrary positions be welcomed and treated with respect? It would be delusional wishful thinking to suppose the commitment to the statement has no implications for the decisions a department or department head has to make. In a final gesture of disingenuous bravado, the signers declare, “we will not tolerate any censorship of nor retribution against Palestinian scholars, activists, and those openly critical of the Israeli state,” but it is actually those who support the Jewish state whose academic freedom this action endangers.

This pattern of disciplinary politicization has now begun to spread. For example, ethnic studies departments on three California campuses -- the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Davis; and the University of California, Santa Cruz -- have issued similarly politicized statements firmly rooted in the anti-Zionist tenets of their discipline. Most remarkably, the University of California Press has given itself an official political mission.

This is an opportunity for faculty members and senior administrators to show the courage to condemn the statement as a threat to academic freedom. Presidents, deans and provosts need be especially concerned when a department implicates the university as an institution in political advocacy. Indeed, departments in other disciplines have begun to adopt the same positions. We need leadership willing to return colleges and universities to their true mission as forums for open debate. This effort to stigmatize one set of political views must be resisted.

Bio

Cary Nelson is professor of English and liberal arts and sciences emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a former president of the American Association of University Professors.

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