Borderline views: Academic freedom under threat

Here in Israel we have to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.

Al-Quds University Faculty of Science & Technology 370 (photo credit: wikimedia commons/ Diaaasa)
Al-Quds University Faculty of Science & Technology 370
(photo credit: wikimedia commons/ Diaaasa)
I was recently invited to attend a conference in Europe held by an organization that has expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS). In the private letter that was addressed to me, it was made clear that the reason I was being invited, despite my clear anti-boycott activities, was my stated “left of center” (whatever that means) and pro-peace political positions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In my reply I made it categorically clear that I had absolutely no intention of attending the conference and that I would not agree to participate in meetings or seminars held by any organization or academic association which is on record as promoting or supporting boycott related activities. Regardless of my, or my colleague’s, political positions on issues relating to occupation or Palestinian statehood, the vast majority of us believe that the only way to bring about change is by using the democratic process from within, and encouraging Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and collaboration through science, rather than simply shutting up shop and promoting an ineffective boycott.
My intended hosts were shocked by my response as they had mistakenly believed I would see the invitation as some sort of compliment.
When I tried to explain to them that I believed their positions were harmful to any chance of future political resolution of the conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure State of Israel, they decided that I was just another puppet or tool of the “colonial policies of the Israeli government.”
This exchange came just a few days before an important Israeli-Palestinian seminar on the role of academic freedom in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The seminar has been organized by like-minded academics on both sides of the political divide who believe that despite the major structural problems that exist it is essential to uphold the principles of academic freedom at both Israeli and Palestinian universities. This seminar is taking place within the framework of a set of guidelines which have been proposed as part of a UNESCO document focusing on academic freedom and open debate in situations of conflict, not least within the Israeli-Palestinian context.
One of the objectives of the seminar is to remind us that before we can even start pontificating about the attitude of misguided (at the best), and evil-minded (at the worst) academics elsewhere, we need to look inwards and put our own respective academic houses in order. Before we can complain about the infringement on academic freedom by pro-boycotters, we have to ensure that we – both Israeli and Palestinian universities – enjoy and demand the highest level of academic freedom within and between our own institutions.
Here in Israel we have to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.
We must be concerned with the lack of freedom at Palestinian universities resulting from an Israeli policy of control which sometimes leads to the closing of universities, and the prevention of freedom of movement of students and academics, many of whom desire to come from Gaza to the West Bank to study.
We have to be self-critical in that not all of our academic colleagues extend their feelings of social responsibility beyond their own national group, to demand equality for all, including colleagues under occupation. Why don’t we make greater efforts and raise our voices every time our academic colleagues from Bir Zeit, An Najah and Bethlehem University are prevented from attending seminars and meetings on our own campuses due to unnecessary military and bureaucratic restrictions.
Why is it that the 20 percent Arab-Palestinian population of the country is still so underrepresented at our country’s institutes of higher education, both as students and even more so as academic staff and researchers? Have we done enough in terms of affirmative action to ensure that all ethnic and national groups are adequately represented on campus and in the academic hierarchies? For their part, the Palestinian universities have to ask themselves what they can hope to achieve if they continue with their intransigent stand, rejecting all forms of scientific collaboration with their Israeli counterparts? If, until a few years ago, there were some productive and fruitful scientific cooperation projects, not only within the social sciences but also in such important areas as medical or environmental research, today there is hardly anything left of these collaborative projects.
The radicalization of some Palestinian campuses is preventing any attempt at scientific cooperation with the “enemy,” and this has come to a climax in recent weeks when a notable Palestinian scholar and well known pro-peace activist, Prof. Mohammed Dajani, was put under intense pressure by faculty and a coalition of student groups on campus which eventually led to him resigning from his position at Al Quds University – a university with which there had been a number of collaborative scientific projects – because he had taken a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz.
All of this, whether from the Israeli or the Palestinian side, infringes upon what we have come to understand as academic freedom.
Preventing scientific collaboration through attempted boycotts is a real threat to academic freedom. It does absolutely nothing to bring about an end to occupation. The effect is the opposite. It only serves to exacerbate political tensions and lack of mutual understanding in one of the few places where people from both sides have had partial success in dialogue and reaching out to the other.
If there is one place where Israelis and Palestinians have come together in a shared space, regardless of the asymmetry involved in the structure and the resources available to the two vastly different academic systems, it is on the campuses and in the laboratories of the universities in Israel and the West Bank, or at joint meetings which have taken place at third-party campuses throughout the world.
Academic freedom is too precious for it to become hostage to the politics of conflict. It is ironic that while we read so much about boycott in the media, Israel continues to expand and strengthen its scientific collaboration with the world at large. In many recent cases of new bilateral projects, they have come about as a backlash by foreign universities and governments who wish to make a clear stand and public statement about the value of scientific cooperation, regardless or not of whether they support the specific policies of the Israeli government – and most of them do not.
If those groups that promoted BDS and boycott would use their energies to promote greater collaboration and greater dialogue between those who are willing to talk to each other, instead of attempting to drag them apart, they would have a much greater contribution to make to peacemaking, if this is indeed their objective.
They would not then be labeled simply a group of anti-Semites who seek nothing other than delegitimize Israel, which pushes them even further into the corner. This is a collective response, a simplistic mantra, increasingly used by the government and other community institutions whenever the word “boycott” is mentioned, regardless of whether it appropriate or not in any given circumstance. It is a response which avoids the real, difficult political issues which have to be addressed.
In particular, those who mistakenly think that boycott is the way forward should use their connections with academics on both sides of the political divide to encourage joint projects and seminars through their potential role as third-party facilitators of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and research at neutral locations.
As it stands at present, their contribution to bringing the conflict to an end is totally negative and self-defeating, and contradicts the very principles of academic freedom.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.