Strangled Education: Reporting on higher education in Palestine and Israel

This January, after several years of often-heated discussion and review, the Modern Language Association’s representative body, the Delegate Assembly, will consider a resolution to endorse the Palestinian call for a….

This January, after several years of often-heated discussion and review, the Modern Language Association’s representative body, the Delegate Assembly, will consider a resolution to endorse the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. As that vote approaches, the predictable range of objections to and mischaracterizations of the academic boycott have been trumpeted. Chief among these is the charge that academic boycott infringes on the cherished values of academic freedom, violating the MLA’s charter as well as the principles fundamental to scholarly life.

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that even under the most stringent interpretation of it, the boycott does not violate any principle of academic freedom as these are defined by the American Association of University Professors. It would not infringe any of the rights of individual scholars and would only commit the MLA as a body not to enter into collaborative agreements or projects with Israeli institutions. No matter how many times this is pointed out, opponents of the boycott repeat the charge, as if by tedious dint of repetition they could make it stick.

What is not often admitted is the insidious racism that underlies the charge. Time and again in debates about the justice of academic boycott, the injury that a boycott might do to Israeli scholars and to their American colleagues gets conjured up. Their rights are threatened, their freedoms are violated, their projects might be hindered. The gross and glaring fact of daily violations of Palestinian scholars and students, of their rights and of their bodies, of their institutions and their aspirations, passes with at best a perfunctory mention. Both literally and figuratively, Palestinians are disappeared from the conversation.

Literally, because the freedom of movement that Israeli and American scholars take for granted is arbitrarily denied to Palestinian academics and, increasingly, to their foreign colleagues. Figuratively, because what is so implicitly racist about the conversation is the assumption embedded in it: in the scale of things, Palestinian freedoms do not count as highly as Israeli ones. Their right to study, to teach and to attend conferences can be infringed with appalling regularity, as their campuses can be invaded and their persons subject to strip-search or detention, with a paradoxically routine unpredictability. Israeli and US institutions publicly and vociferously proclaim their veneration for academic freedom against the boycott movement. But not one has raised a single protest against the systematic violation of Palestinian rights that is endemic to Israel’s ongoing regime of occupation and discrimination. Palestinian scholars, already evicted and barred from return to their lands and cities, are morally evicted from the precincts of academe with the blind indifference that always underlies unthinking racism.

The relative absence of Palestinian testimony from debates at scholarly associations prompted a number of MLA members to visit the West Bank and Israel this summer to explore first-hand the conditions in which scholars and students have to work throughout historic Palestine. In the interests of full disclosure, I was one of the group that visited six West Bank universities and met with scholars at various locations within Israel. Our report is now available->] and largely bears out the dismal findings of an increasing number of bodies that have investigated the educational situation in Palestine, from the American Anthropological Association to the [European Platform for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel to the Israeli-based Society for the Advancement of Civic Equality.

The often impressive architecture and infrastructure of Palestinian campuses, and the vibrancy of their student bodies, often belies the intolerable conditions under which students must struggle to get an education and faculty to teach and research. As one professor said to us, the hardest thing about working in the occupied West Bank is the unpredictability: you can make no plans. A ten-minute journey requires you to allow an hour or more, to be sure of arriving on time. Students may be prevented by checkpoints from attending classes or even exams: some who have to pass through checkpoints even to leave their villages, hemmed in as they are by the apartheid wall, reported to us that Israeli soldiers seemed most likely to impose arbitrary closures during exam time.

True or not, that conviction expressed eloquently a frustration that all our interlocutors felt, from the vice-provost of a university to the first-year student, that the lack of freedom of movement imposed by Israel on all Palestinians was a major hindrance to their right to access education. Furthermore, the fact that checkpoints are now potential flashpoints makes the daily trek to school a potentially violent, even lethal hazard. Even on their campuses, which ought to be the sanctuaries of peace and learning many of us here are now campaigning for, Palestinians face incursions by Israeli military, at times using live ammunition, and often tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. At the Palestinian Technical University in Tulkarem, we met students and staff members who had been wounded in one such incursion, two by crippling fragmentation bullets. There, as at other campuses, the student leadership was decimated by indefinite administrative detentions by the military administration.

Less dramatic, but no less destructive to the daily work of scholarship, are the impossibility of access to archives of Palestinian materials now held in Israeli libraries; the denial of import licenses for essential scientific equipment, or its willful destruction by Israeli customs; restrictions on travel to conferences or for fellowships; the refusal of work visas to foreign instructors; the insistence of foreign grantors and NGOs on making collaborative projects with Israeli scholars a condition of funding. The litany of obstacles to academic freedom could go on, and we discovered a different, less openly abusive but no less discriminatory web of restrictions on Palestinian scholars in Israeli institutions.

Any colonial regime aims to destroy the cultural integrity of its subject population as a means to degrading and destroying its social life. Israel is no exception to this, though the tissue of separate regulations and permit regimes that it has woven serves to obscure the systemic nature of its assault on Palestinian institutions. The often-remarked spatial segmentation of Palestine has taken a heavy toll on its universities, which increasingly serve only their immediate localities and find it ever more difficult to exchange with one another. Israeli occupation cuts them off from engagement with foreign colleagues and even makes travel between campuses exceptionally arduous. Under the stranglehold of military rule, the fragmentation of Palestinian society threatens to consolidate their moral eviction from global civil and scholarly society.

Any association that is committed, as the MLA is, to furthering scholarly exchange and academic freedom, mocks that commitment if it does not extend it universally. Palestinians have called on the international community of scholars and students to engage with them in a non-violent campaign to hold Israel and all its institutions accountable for their violations of human rights, including academic freedoms. Not one Palestinian scholar or student whom we met did not think that the BDS movement was the only option remaining to them. On the eve of a new US administration that seems hell-bent on acceding to Israel’s annexation and destruction of Palestine, it is the least we can do to support their struggle to survive. In doing so, we recognize them as our colleagues and our peers. If we do not, our academic freedom decays into a privilege that is hardly worth defending.