Breaking Taboos, BDS Gains Ground Among Academics (The Nation)

The Nation

Breaking Taboos, BDS Gains Ground Among Academics

Dr. Steven Salaita, whose appointment to the University of Illinois was withdrawn after he tweeted criticism of Israel. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Most academic organizations have been wary of discussing, much less endorsing, the academic boycott of Israel. But things have changed since April 2013, when the Association of Asian American Studies became the first academic organization to answer the call for solidarity from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) emanating out of Palestinian civil society. The American Studies Association vote to endorse the academic boycott of Israel that December put into motion a mass movement that has had a ripple effect way beyond the United States. The horrific Israeli attack on Gaza this past summer, which killed more than 2,200 Gazans, including over 500 children, garnered worldwide protest demonstrations on an unheard-of scale. And just recently, continuing the Israeli government’s hard turn to the far right, the Israeli parliament passed a Nationality Law that, according to the Christian Science Monitor, “threatens to further alienate Israel’s minority of Arab citizens, tarnish its reputation as a democracy, and erode Israel’s ties with western allies.”

At the November 23 meeting of the cabinet of Israel, there was open contention over this controversial law, which would “enshrine in law Israel’s nature as a Jewish state, reserving what the prime minister called ‘national rights,’ such as the flag and anthem and right to immigrate, for Jews alone.” And while according to Netanyahu, “it would also underline Israel’s democratic nature, with equality for all its citizens,” nobody can seriously accept that contention, given the nature of the law—even if they could before.

The combination of unmitigated building of illegal settlements, massive and inhumane military operations, and legislative maneuvers to codify racism has changed the playing field. If not in resounding resolutions in support of the BDS movement, we see a significant shift of attitude in academic organizations. No longer is it taboo to even talk about a possible boycott—organizations such as the American Anthropological Association (AAA) are formally opening the conversation.

Gathered in December in Washington, DC, members of the AAA addressed a petition that would have closed off discussion of a possible boycott of Israeli institutions. Before that, more than 1,000 members of the AAA had signed a statement supporting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In one of the largest gatherings in the history of the association (so large that hotel staff had to remove a partition in the meeting room in order to accommodate 700 participants), a pro-boycott faction in the AAA observed, “The effort to shut down the boycott discussion backfired spectacularly: members present overwhelmingly voted down the [anti-boycott] measure, which mustered a mere 52 supporters. The atmosphere in the room was electric, as anthropologists from across the profession discussed the boycott and the ongoing violations of Palestinian academic freedom and human rights. Of the 24 members who spoke, three-quarters opposed the resolution, arguing that it was an attempt to shut down a crucial debate.” (Emphasis in the original.)

And on November 20, Rosalind Petchesky, a member of the National Women’s Studies Association, reported: “This past week, at the annual conference of the National Women’s Studies Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a coalition of feminist Palestine solidarity activists—mainly Palestinian and Jewish—succeeded in urging almost the entire attending body of the conference—a hugely diverse group of around 2,300 faculty members and graduate students in Women & Gender Studies from around the country meeting in occupied Puerto Rico—to support a statement concerning injustices in occupied Palestine.” A draft of the NWSA statement reads in part:

We, the undersigned members of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA), endorse the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), issued by a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society in 2005. As feminist scholars, activists, teachers, and engaged intellectuals we recognize the interconnectedness of systemic forms of oppression (including genocide, slavery, racism, sexism, homophobia, class-based oppression, Islamophobia, ableism, ageism and more) and the transformative potential of resistance and solidarity in all our communities as well as across divides and borders. We cannot overlook the injustice and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, perpetrated against Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, within Israel as well as the colonial displacement of millions.

The previous month, in October, the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA), a bi-national professional association, including peace and justice scholars, activists and educators in the United States and Canada, joined the BDS campaign. After three months of deliberation, with 87 percent of the vote, the association endorsed the proposal to respond to the Palestinians’ call for international solidarity and to join the BDS movement.

Perhaps the most significant discussion took place at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in November, in Washington, DC. As Magid Shihade, a professor at Bir Zeit University, notes, “MESA has historically opposed even discussing the boycott as an association.” Yet during its business meeting, 75 percent of those attending voted for a resolution that supports the rights of individuals, groups and associations to boycott and be protected against any backlash. MESA will create a yearlong forum for all members to discuss the topic of boycott. Shihade also reports that MESA intends to “open more space for Palestinians and for topics such as settler colonialism in Israel-Palestine.” The Associated Press writes: “The organization resolved to remain an open forum for discussion of academic boycotts of Israel and deplored attempts to intimidate those taking part in such activities. The issue arose from the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.”

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So, too, the Modern Language Association, one of the largest academic organizations in the world with nearly 24,000 members in a hundred countries, has agreed to formally talk about an academic boycott of Israel and academic boycotts in general. The organization has announced that it will devote considerable time to discussion of the specific case of the academic boycott of Israel, and academic boycotts in general, and the right to academic freedom and free speech. In a recent e-mail to its members, the MLA states that this year’s Delegate Assembly meeting will consider “Institutional and Individual Boycotts: How Can the MLA Approach This Issue?”; “What Is the Relation of Boycotts to Academic Freedom?” and “How Should the MLA Respond to Problems with Faculty Governance and Retaliation against Public Speech?” One of the sponsors of a resolution for an academic boycott of Israel, David Lloyd, reports that the organization has decided that its 2016 convention will include a debate on the subject, with both sides represented. The MLA will then give its members a full year to continue the discussion before entertaining a resolution for boycott.

And now in the Steven Salaita case—a related and very prominent matter regarding the right to criticize Israeli state policies frankly and without threat of punishment—the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure has found that

The process by which Dr. Salaita’s proposed appointment was withdrawn and eventually rejected did not follow existing policies and procedures in several substantial respects, raising questions about the institution’s commitment to shared governance. The reasons given—the civility of tweets made by Dr. Salaita in the summer of 2014—is not consistent with the University’s guarantee of freedom of political speech. Statements made by the Chancellor, President, and Trustees asserting that the incivility of a candidate’s utterances may constitute sufficient grounds for rejecting his appointment should be renounced. We conclude, however, that the Chancellor has raised legitimate questions about Dr. Salaita’s professional fitness that must be addressed. In light of the irregular circumstances leading up to the Board of Trustees’ disapproval of an appointment for Dr. Salaita, the Committee recommends that Dr. Salaita’s candidacy be remanded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for reconsideration by a committee of qualified academic experts.

Again, at this point this finding falls short of vindication, but it is a momentous decision by a regularly appointed university committee to have an open and fair discussion of the issue.

Finally, it is not only academic organizations that are signing on to and discussing BDS. Crucially, people in the community and unions are getting involved. Some rank-and-file members participated in the Block the Boat campaign this summer, a consolidated effort to stop an Israeli ship, the Zim, from docking on the West Coast. The campaign states its purpose thus:

By Blocking the Boat we are disrupting business as usual at ports throughout North America and we are putting BDS into action. Direct action. By stopping Zim we are disrupting international commerce and an asset to Israel’s national security. We are not only choosing to refrain from buying an Israeli product, or engaging with an Israeli institution, we are choosing to take action to stop Israel in its tracks. And we are doing so in struggle with workers, with Black and Brown communities, and with all those impacted by the role of Israel in global repression. The Block the Boat campaign is not only an escalation of BDS tactics; it is bringing BDS into the streets and into our communities.

This month has been a particularly momentous one in demonstrating the impact of BDS. On December 4, UAW 2865, the University of California Student-Worker union, became the first major US labor union to support divestment from Israel, by a wide margin in its membership vote. The union’s press release states,

UAW 2865 joins several labor unions in the United Kingdom and Ireland, UNITE New Zealand, CUPE in Canada, COSATU in South Africa and many dockworker unions around the world. It also joins growing grassroots voices in the U.S. labor movement including rank and file members of the International Longshore Workers’ Union Local 10 that supported community pickets and successfully blocked Israeli ships from unloading goods similar to their historic involvement in the anti-South African apartheid movement, and hundreds of labor organizers who signed onto the Labor for Palestine statement.

As another indicator of the sea change when it comes to the BDS campaign, The Chronicle of Higher Education has just named the American Studies Association to its “2014 Influence List,” commenting: “As national organizations go, the American Studies Association is fairly small. But its impact this year on political discourse has been outsized. By voting in favor of an academic boycott of Israel, its eighteen-member executive body provoked a bitter debate nationally and internationally, within higher education and beyond.” As ASA president Lisa Duggan, a professor at New York University, notes in that piece: “We got into the mainstream press and triggered a number of conversations not visible before about Israel-Palestine. In that sense we had done what we wanted to do.” What the ASA has done, in endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, has been to launch a new and unprecedented national discussion on the issue of Israel-Palestine, one that promises only to gain volume in 2015.

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