The Boycott Opens the Space for True Academic Freedom

By Magid Shihade, Birzeit University

I am a Palestinian academic with Israeli citizenship, and I support the initiative in the AAA for a boycott resolution against Israeli institutions.   Such a resolution will not harm me, nor it will harm any Palestinian academic in Israel, and it won’t harm any individual academic in Israel in general, let alone any academic from any part of the world who works on Israel/Palestine. To the contrary, I argue that such a resolution would help all academics, especially those whose work is focused on Israel/Palestine, regardless of the location where they work.

The argument that a boycott resolution will harm Palestinian academics holding Israeli citizenship is completely false. A boycott resolution will shed light on their marginalization in the Israeli academy, and it will shed light on a repressive educational regime that promotes racism against Palestinians. It is unsurprising that no Palestinian academic working inside Israel either signed on to or publicly spoke in support of the boycott. Fear of legal ramifications, censorship, and further repression is the only possible answer for that.

The education system in Israel is part of the settler colonial structure that limits the access to education for Palestinians, limits the career possibilities for those who manage to overcome its hurdles, and represses students’ free expression on campus. The education system is a part and parcel of a Zionization project that aims at eliminating the native Palestinians, their history, their culture, their identity, and their freedoms, and at the same time aims to enforce a Zionist ideology that negates the presence and the rights of others. This has been documented since the 1960s by several Palestinian scholars and writers, including Sabri Jiryis, Sami Mir’i, Majed Al-Haj, Kais Ferro, Ahmad Sa’di, to name just a few.

Palestinian academics with Israeli citizenship do not have complete academic freedom even when they leave the country to study abroad. Some purposefully avoid research on the topic of Israel to avoid obstruction to their careers, as it is a highly censored topic in the U.S. academy. Others who complete their studies are forced to stay abroad due to the lack of opportunities in Israeli academic institutions, while others are even prevented from having a normal social life due to the denial of visa for spouses and other family members living in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. They are attacked at job talks even by liberal Zionist Israeli academics who teach at U.S. institutions, a tactic used to scare the concerned department from offering the position for a Palestinian scholar.

The situation of Palestinian academics who hold Israeli citizenship must be seen as part of the larger context of the Palestinian society, and education is a crucial part of that reality. Israeli state policy limits access to education for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It does so by limiting mobility from and to these areas by students and academics, and underfunding education for Palestinian citizens.

It is also crucial to highlight the fact that censorship, repression, and defamation have been in place both in Israel and the U.S. against Palestinian scholars critical of Israel, as well other scholars who lost their jobs for working on that subject. While this mostly goes in secret, in many cases it is done in the open.

So, boycotting Israeli institutions will not harm any individual, especially Palestinians. The Israeli government and Zionist groups in the U.S., as well as U.S. politicians do not attack the boycott out of concern for Palestinian academics or Israeli academics ones (neither of whom would be harmed), but rather because the boycott is a step that will put pressure on Israel. While Israeli officials and their supporters in the U.S. know very well the true reality of severe discrimination and limitations on Palestinians and Palestinian education, they try to block any meaningful discussion by branding the boycott as a form of anti-semitism, and an attempt to de-legitimize the Israeli state. I won’t respond to the cynical misuse of accusations of anti-semitism, but I do agree that a boycott campaign might lead to delegitimation. But why should anyone be against delegitimizing a racist structure that is both publicly and officially sanctioned in Israel, a legal regime that systematically privileges one group and harms another based on religion.

An academic boycott can help make the question of Israeli settler colonialism a legitimate aspect of academic scholarship in the U.S.  There is no other issue that is so censored in the U.S. academy, and there is no other country that is as supported by the U.S. diplomatically, militarily, economically, and politically as Israel. Boycotting Israel is thus a critical step toward the unmaking of Israeli exceptionalism. It will help make the question of Israel a normal case of study, like any other country, without fear of censorship, loss of academic jobs, or the blocking of job opportunities for others. It will also push for more debates within Israel and a possible change of course in regards to the policies of repression, including in regards to education and academia. It will prove to the Palestinians that anthropologists are not hypocritical and will speak out against their oppression as they have for countless other groups for nearly one hundred years.