What about Palestinian academic freedom?

The point of this article is to support the call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and projects funded by the Israeli state until Palestinian academic freedom is respected….

The point of this article is to support the call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and projects funded by the Israeli state until Palestinian academic freedom is respected and protected with the same ardent defense granted Israeli academic freedom. This cannot occur until the colonialization of Palestine ceases.

Adversaries of the academic boycott of Israel, such as a group called Faculty for Academic Freedom, argue that academic boycotts are “antithetical to the fundamental principles of the academy, where we will not hold intellectual exchange hostage to the political disagreements of the moment”. [[Faculty for Academic Freedom website.]] The hypocrisy of those who make this and other arguments becomes blatantly apparent when holding “intellectual exchange hostage to the political disagreements of the moment” describes precisely what Israel has been doing to Palestinian’s intellectual exchange through the imposition of a multiplicity of coercive forces that result from its militarily enforced colonialization of Palestine. It is disingenuous to be outraged at a boycott of Israeli academia and raise no concern for Palestinian academic freedom.

A historical context: The politicalization of everything

Before 1971 there were no Palestinian universities in the territories occupied in 1967. Those who could afford it sent their children abroad for their degrees. This practice was curtailed after the 1967 war. Military regulations put students in danger of losing their Israeli issued identity cards when returning from study abroad. Authoritarian Arab governments became hostile to Palestinian students at their universities, accusing them of organizing radical pro-Palestinian and Arab nationalist movements. Motivated in part by concerns that Palestinian youth were not learning their own history and culture, Arab states and wealthy Palestinian families began converting small colleges into universities, using the American liberal arts college as their model. Between 1971 and the 1990s ten undergraduate universities were established.

Israel discouraged but did not stop Palestinians from establishing universities; instead, its intelligence agencies used them to monitor political trends and specific individuals. Initially they were put under Military Order 854 that gave the military authority to approve course curriculum, student admissions, and faculty hiring decisions, effectively gutting any semblance of academic freedom. In 1980, Order 854 was revised to intensify Israeli control and to censor teaching and publications. During the first intifada (1987-93) An Najah University in Nabulus (then a college) was put under specific orders that included the following:

The [university’s] administration commits itself to present to the [IDF] officer in charge…sources of funding and purpose of expenditures,…a list of teachers, employees and students, including personal details;…[and] additional information which may from time to time be requested by the [Israeli] civil administration…. [[A.T. Sullivan, Palestinian universities in the West Bank and Gaza strip. The Muslim World, 84(2), 1994.]]

In 1994 with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) coming out of the Oslo Accords, the PLO leadership returned to the 1967 occupied territories and asserted their control over the PA and subsequently the universities. Its Ministry of Education and Higher Education initiated some governance over them, but the ministry was hampered by limited financial resources. It had access to tax revenues, but taxes paid by Palestinians are collected by Israel and forwarded back to the PA. When Israel chooses to do so, it refuses to forward tax revenue with disastrous consequences for Palestinian universities and public schools. For example, in the aftermath of the 2006 elections that resulted in Hamas winning a majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council, Israel withheld tax transfers and the United States threatened to cancel aide as a financial weapon to punish Palestinians for giving a majority to a “terrorist” party.


Throughout the first intifada (1987 – 1992) all Palestinian universities were closed. During the second intifada beginning in 2000, closures targeted particular universities as collective punishment for faculty and students who participated in militant resistance. When I arrived in the West Bank in March 2003, the universities were open with the exception of Hebron, which had been closed for six months. It remained shuttered because its president could not promise to prevent militant students from entering the campus. The consequences were dire. In addition to halting classes and salaries not being paid, research projects were ruined because laboratories were closed. As an oversight the IDF failed to close an off-campus facility normally used by their continuing education programs. Professors used its limited space to conduct a few classes, thereby subjecting both students and themselves to possible arrest. After the intifada, closures continued. In 2005 the universities lost 132 days and 78 days in 2006.

When I visited Bizeit University in 2003 it was open; however, the IDF placed soldiers and concrete blocks at the bottom of the only road access to the campus in order to make it exceedingly difficult for faculty and students to reach the campus. Volunteers had to assist older faculty with carts to carry them uphill to the campus; students and faculty risked broken bones, arrest or worse for trying to evade the barriers by coming across open land; and soldiers assaulted male students and teachers at the blockade. Faculty members told me that research and plans to attend conferences abroad had to be cancelled in order to manage the chaos.


The repression goes well beyond closures. It is necessary to factor in the constellation of barriers and prohibitions that arise under conditions Jeff Halper calls a “matrix of control.” The worst of these is the multifaceted restrictions placed on movement within the occupied territories, travel abroad, and Israel’s ability to discourage academics from coming to the 1967 occupied territories as conference participants and research partners.

According to an article in Haaretz (23 December 2011), there are 101 different types of travel permits. The type of required is determined by what the individual needs to do and the person’s identification document. Palestinians living in Israel have Israeli passports to travel abroad but are prevented from entering the 1967 occupied territories for collaborating with colleagues. Those who lived in the West Bank and East Jerusalem prior to 1967 are able to get travel permits but with considerable effort and restrictions. If you get a permit, you cannot stay overnight in Israel or East Jerusalem but must return home and repeat the demeaning and time consuming clearance through Israeli checkpoints the next day. Imagine the impact this has on collaborations. According to a United Nations report, NGOs will spend 20% of each working day preparing permit applications and renewals.

Travel inside the West Bank to participate in a conference held at another West Bank university becomes an arduous task. Academics at Al Najah (Nablus) told me they may spend three or more hours traveling to a conference at Bethlehem University (a 53 km. journey) if all goes well. Frequently all does not go well. A 2007 World Bank report noted “severe and expanding restrictions on movement and… [consequently] high levels of unpredictability”. [[World Bank, Movement and access restriction in the West Bank: Uncertainty and inefficiency in the Palestinian economy, 2007.]] Unpredictability means conferences become disorganized when presenters are delayed at checkpoints. If the IDF calls for a border closure (a regular occurrence) all permits are cancelled. If one succeeds in having a permit to go abroad, you must go to Amman, Jordan because you are barred from using Ben Gurion airport—more time, more costs, more uncertainty.

The impact of this web of restrictions has influences that go well beyond the more apparent restrictions. For example, in 2004, I began to arrange for a professor at Bethlehem University and five Palestinian educators to come to the University of Manitoba as participants in a summer course on Education and Democracy in a Global Context. According to my planning notes, it took 22 hours of staff time to bring the Palestinians to Manitoba. They had to get permission to go to Tel Aviv to be interviewed before Israel would issue permits. For these interviews I sent to them the required letters of invitation, details on who would billet them, and their role in the course. For three of these individuals the documents were “lost” at Israeli customs and had to be reissued, almost missing application deadlines. This caused further delays in applying for Canadian visas. The Palestinians had to leave through Amman, which increased the university’s travel costs. The entire effort to bring the Palestinians to Manitoba proved to be expensive and time consuming. Meanwhile, it took two hours to process travel arrangements for the Israeli academic who also participated in the course.

This case illustrates how barriers on movement and the unpredictability that ensues has the intended consequence of holding intellectual exchange hostage to the politics of occupation, not just by the immediate restrictions on movement but by the exceedingly difficult and costly effort it takes to invite Palestinians to participate in exchange programs and collaborations.

Dependence, dependence and more dependence

Since the 1967 war, between 18,000 and 24,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished to make way for settlements and as collective punishment for armed resistance. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics puts the unemployment rate around 26%, a figure that fails to account for about 60% of the potential labour force that has turned to unpaid family labour or left the labour force after not finding work for an extended period. Poverty levels increase: in 2009 – 2010 more than 20% of the West Bank population lived on less than $1.67 per day. [[Adam Hanieh, Lineage of revolt, Haymarket Books, 2013. See chapter 5 for a political economy of the conflict. Also see Joseph A. Massad, The persistence of the Palestinian question, Routledge, 2006.]] Under these conditions universities become fully dependent on foreign donations for operating and capital funds and to support students living in poverty.

This dependence affects every aspect of academia. Israel restricts the type of programming external agencies can support. Projects it deems to threaten its security are prohibited, those which are in line with Israeli approved development plans may go forward. Funding bodies favour research that furthers normalization by requiring Palestinians to include Israeli academics in their funding proposals, no matter how irrelevant such collaboration might be. Normalization has been resisted; however, three teachers told me that while their universities have imposed restrictions on joint projects with Israel, NGOs and private businesses accept funding tied to such arrangements and contract with a university and/or academics to run joint projects.

Dependence on funding from outside donors is by no means restricted to Palestinians. The preponderance of funds for research and course development that serve corporate and military interests is a growing impediment to academic freedom globally. But states that have suffered the worse under the yoke of neocolonial dependence have some degree of sovereignty that gives them compromised abilities to protect a modicum of academic freedom. Palestinians have no citizenship, no sovereignty, no control over their movements, and circumscribed control of their budgets: higher education is incapable of operating with any substantive independence.

Dependence on the objectives of funding agencies has an insidious influence on the mentality of intellectuals. Adam Hanieh writes of “the cultivation of a Palestinian leadership that is fully incorporated into patterns of Western domination….”. [5] Intense dependence creates in its wake “comprador intellectuals” able and willing to accommodate the expectations of foreign funders for personal gain over the pursuit of national liberation.

Whose academic freedom matters?

Closures, harassing and harming students and faculty, politically motivated incursions into student politics, restrictions on internal and external travel combine with the dependence on foreign donations given with many strings attached–and a host of other restrictions too numerous to mention here–deny or restrict severely anything but a pretense of Palestinian academic freedom. But who among those who damn the call for boycott of Israeli academia cares?

If Palestinians’ academic freedom is to be valued as it is for Israelis, then a boycott of Israel state sponsored research and teaching is justified until the forces that deny academic freedom for Palestinians no longer exist. This cannot occur until the colonialization of Palestine comes to an end. It is admirable to treasure academic freedom and to bristle at any suggestion of boycotts. It is hypocrisy to admonish the BDS call for academic boycott of Israeli institutions with no protest against a colonial regime that is denying Palestinian the same freedom.