The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and remains an important part of it today. As BDS picks up momentum and gathers support on university campuses across the globe, boycotting Israeli academic institutions remains very controversial and has received much criticism from a number of prominent academics.
These condemnations are, however, misinformed and mistakenly view Israeli academic institutions as completely separate and uninvolved in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. In fact, Israeli cultural and academic organizations play a very important role in supporting the occupation and have themselves placed severe restrictions on academic freedom for Palestinian professors and students.
Just to name a few examples, Tel Aviv University awarded free tuition to students who served during Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 massacre on Gaza, and vowed to punish students and employees who criticized the attack. On its website, the university highlights various research projects that supported Operation Protective Edge, including its development of “terror tunnel” detection technology. The Israel Institute of Technology has also created a remote-controlled “D9” bulldozer that is used by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to destroy Palestinian homes.
A report published by the Alternative Information Center (AIC), a joint Palestinian-Israeli NGO that provides information related to the occupation, shows the various ways in which Israeli universities have historically been directly and indirectly involved in the repression of the Palestinian population and occupation of their lands. This includes fervent support for the IDF, through research and development of weapons and surveillance systems, participation in military training, joint projects with the military, and the provision of privileges to IDF soldiers. Palestinian students, who do not serve in the IDF are, of course, denied these privileges.
Universities are also often themselves occupiers, such as Judea and Samaria College, Herzog College, and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, which are built on settlements or other illegally occupied land.
Despite these realities, many critics of BDS and PACBI emphasize the importance of academic freedom in rejecting the call for academic and cultural boycott. In responding to this criticism, we must ask, academic freedom for whom? In Israeli universities, academic freedom does not extend to everyone. Nationalist rhetoric heavily informs university policies. As the AIC report shows, dissenters are often punished by university officials. On campus student activists are monitored, photographed, and prevented from holding demonstrations.
If we are truly concerned about academic freedom, we should also be concerned that academic freedom for Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories is virtually nonexistent. A group of academics representing the European branch of PACBI compiled a report for AURDIP, a French association that advocates for applying international law to the Israel-Palestine conflict, based on their visit to seven Palestinian universities in the Occupied Territories in the spring of 2015. The report found a systematic, “multi-faceted policy of Israeli interference with the normal functioning of academic life.” These policies prevented students and staff from moving freely, severely impacted productivity, reduced collaboration and sharing of resources, disrupted the supply of necessary materials, exposed students and staff to humiliation, and isolated Palestinian academics from the rest of the world.
As scholar and activist Howard Davidson wrote for Mondoweiss,
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”. 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.
Palestinian academic institutions, he argues, are routinely held hostage by the political dynamics of the moment, with Palestinian universities perpetually under siege. Israeli intelligence monitors university operations, and the IDF has the power to interfere with the curriculum, as well as admissions and hiring decisions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Israel frequently closes Palestinian universities for extended periods, as a form of collective punishment. Even during periods of relative calm, Palestinian students and academics are forced to negotiate a bureaucratic maze in order to move within the Occupied Territories or attend conferences abroad. Cash-strapped Palestinian universities are also reliant on Israel to approve funding from external agencies such as international NGOs and private organizations. They are often forced to include Israeli academics in their proposals regardless of need, in order for authorities to approve the funding requests.
Against this backdrop, it is nonsensical to claim that the BDS/PACBI movement restricts academic freedom. To the contrary, it is committed to restoring this freedom and extending it everyone in Israel/Palestine.