A Tipping Point?

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“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.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/01/03/essay-growth-support-boycott-israeli-universities#ixzz2rpRURKCB Inside Higher Ed

A Tipping Point?

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