The Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel as a Defense of Academic Freedom, Tony Alessandrini, Chair, PSC-CUNY Academic Freedom Committee

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The Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel as a Defense of Academic Freedom
Tony Alessandrini, Chair, PSC-CUNY Academic Freedom Committee

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In July 2004, Palestinian civil society organizations, including the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, the Teachers’ Federation, and the General Union of Palestinian Women, among dozens of others, issued a call for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. The Palestinian Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was, from the beginning, not an attack on academic freedom. On the contrary, it was and is precisely a call to defend the academic freedom of our colleagues in Palestine. Given the persistent misunderstandings that I have heard from many PSC members regarding PACBI as a defense of academic freedom, and given that these issues have an important bearing our union’s consideration of the upcoming Resolution in Support of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment and related organizing efforts, I wanted to provide some information that might help answer some of the most frequent questions and correct some of the most common misunderstandings of PACBI and of the BDS movement more generally.

How could boycotting other academics be a defense of academic freedom?

One of the most common misunderstandings of the PACBI call is that it targets individual Israeli academics. But from the beginning, the initiators of PACBI have made clear that it is an institutional, not an individual, boycott. The original PACBI call, along with a subsequent statement in 2009 and further guidelines issued in 2014 to counter the false claim that PACBI is aimed at individual Israeli academics and artists, all affirm that the call is for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions. PACBI aims at the complicity of these institutions in the Israeli system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law, including freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and academic freedom. This is why defenders of academic freedom, including members of the PSC-CUNY Academic Freedom Committee, support PACBI (although the views expressed here are my own and not those of the committee as a whole). As Joan Scott, one of the foremost authorities on academic freedom, expresses it in an article in the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom: “in the face of an apartheid that violates both the principles and practices of equality and freedom for all…opposition to boycotts as punitive or unfair makes no sense.”

But why a boycott in defense of academic freedom?

The reasons have become clearer every year for the past 20 years, but especially over the horrific past eight months. In addition to the unspeakable human cost of Israel’s genocidal attack on Gaza, Israel has been carrying out a policy of systematic scholasticide, the systematic obliteration of education through the arrest or killing of teachers, students, and staff and the destruction of educational infrastructure. Since October, every university in Gaza has been destroyed, along with 80% of all schools, at least 13 public libraries, and the 150 years of history housed in the Central Archives of Gaza. Israel has killed nearly 6,000 schoolchildren, more than 400 university students, at least 250 schoolteachers, and at least 100 academics in Gaza in just the past eight months. More than half a million students in Gaza are being deprived of their right to education. Poets, scientists, scholars, psychologists, admissions officers, academic support staff—the same people who make up the PSC membership—have been systematically murdered. More than 200 of the 325 registered sites in Gaza with national or global historic, archaeological, natural, religious, and humanitarian importance have been destroyed or severely damaged by the Israeli military. As the Middle Eastern Studies Association put it in a statement condemning this ongoing cultural genocide, “The very notion of a Palestinian people is itself under attack through Israel’s policy of destroying Gaza’s archaeological, religious, and cultural heritage.”

What about the West Bank?

Israeli state and settler violence in the West Bank, including violence against schools and universities, has increased exponentially since October. But the repression of Palestinian education has been ongoing for decades. It escalated with the founding of Birzeit University in Ramallah in 1972; two years later, Birzeit’s founding president was seized by Israeli authorities and deported to Lebanon. In addition to curricular materials being subjected to Israeli censors—both in terms of intellectual production within Palestine and the sorts of academic materials that may be imported—Palestinian students, faculty, and academic institutions have been under continual threat for decades. Universities have faced constant and arbitrary closures, raids, and checkpoints at the hands of the Occupation. From 1988-1992, all universities were closed by the Israeli military; the Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit began with the efforts of Palestinian educators and students to continue the work of study and teaching in homes, mosques, churches, and community centers, risking arrest and worse to exercise their right to education. Since the 2000s, Palestinian academic institutions have been frequent military targets; between 2000 and 2008, according to Riham Barghouti and Helen Murray, “eight universities and over three hundred schools [were] shelled, shot at or raided by the Israeli Army” in the West Bank. Attacks and raids by the Israeli military and by settler paramilitary forces and arbitrary arrests of students and staff at West Bank schools and universities continue today.

What’s the state of Palestinian academic freedom today?

Nonexistent. In addition to the daily attacks, both on their academic freedom and upon their very lives, Israeli policies have cut off Palestinian academics from any engagement with academic institutions outside Palestine for more than fifty years, for example with travel restrictions that have prevented them from attending academic conferences or accepting visiting positions; in some cases, those who were allowed to leave were not allowed to return, separating them from their academic positions and their families. A 2022 Israeli military order robbed Palestinian universities of basic control over their institutions, granting the Israeli military absolute power to select which international faculty, academic researchers, and students can be admitted to teach or study at Palestinian universities. The Israeli military imposes quotas on the number of internationals in Palestinian universities and the duration of employment for international professors. Most damagingly, “foreigners” affected by this law include Palestinians whose residency rights have not been recognized by Israel; this includes many Palestinian faculty who have taught at these universities for years.

To sum up: while the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions does not target individual Israeli academics, Israeli apartheid policies have always targeted individual Palestinian academics.

But are Israeli universities really to blame for this? Aren’t they separate from the Israeli military and government and don’t they act to criticize or check these policies?

Unfortunately, the opposite is true. As the PACBI call notes, Israeli academic and cultural institutions “are complicit in the Israeli system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights guaranteed by international law, or has hampered their exercise of these rights, including freedom of movement and freedom of expression.” Scholar Maya Wind describes how even before 1948, these institutions contributed to the violent dispossession of Palestinian communities, manufacturing weapons and developing expertise used to drive Palestinians from their lands. After 1967, Israeli universities created “facts on the ground” by contributing to the growth of settlements and, in Wind’s words, “served as pillars of regional demographic engineering and Palestinian dispossession.” Today, Israeli universities closely collaborate with Israeli weapons corporations to research and develop technology that is used by the Israeli military and security state. Some specific examples

  • Bar Ilan University works closely with Shin Bet, Israel’s security services, which has been condemned by the UN Committee Against Torture for its use of torture and other illegal violent interrogation tactics; 
  • Ben Gurion University hosts the Homeland Security Institute whose partnerships include Israeli weapons companies and the Israeli Ministry of Defense; 
  • Technion has numerous joint academic programs with the Israeli military and developed technology for the Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozer used to demolish Palestinian homes (one such bulldozer was used to murder Rachel Corrie, an American student, in Gaza in 2003); 
  • Tel Aviv University runs joint centers with the Israeli military and arms industry; 
  • The University of Haifa hosts the Israeli Military Academic Complex that trains senior Israeli Occupation Forces staff; 
  • Ariel University, originally established as a branch of Bar Ilan University, is literally built in an illegal Israeli settlement on stolen Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. 

The active complicity of Israeli institutions should not come as a surprise to PSC members; U.S. academic institutions have long supported and contributed to the military-industrial and prison-industrial complex, as activists here have noted for many years.

But why single out Israel? Aren’t there other countries that do bad things?

Of course, and PSC members who support the PACBI call are also involved in organizing as unionists against human rights abuses and for social justice both here in New York and throughout the world. The Palestine solidarity movement is part of a global anti-racist movement; PACBI and the BDS movement more broadly draw inspiration and support from the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. But PACBI is a specific call for a specific action in support of Palestinian liberation, and it calls for us, as academic workers, to respond with solidarity. When the United Farm Workers called for a boycott of grapes in 1965, it would not have been an act of solidarity to have immediately responded “What about apples?” Similarly, to point to other cases simply as a way to argue against PACBI is to refuse to hear the call for solidarity from our Palestinian colleagues.

Isn’t support for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel a radical, fringe position?

Nope. Some of the largest, most influential, and most established academic and professional organizations have endorsed the boycott, including the American Anthropological Association, the American Studies Association, the Middle East Studies Association, the American Comparative Literature Association, the National Women’s Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the African Literature Association, and the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, to name only a few. The number of academic associations on this list whose work critically addresses issues of race, gender, and ethnicity speaks to the explicitly anti-racist grounding of the PACBI call. Outside the U.S., the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, and the UK National Union of Students have all voted to endorse the boycott. Over the past few months, in response to the Israeli genocide in Gaza and throughout Palestine, over a dozen colleges and universities throughout North America have begun the process of disclosing and divesting from Israeli apartheid; the Pitzer College Council voted last month for a full institutional boycott of complicit Israeli universities; and the Dalhousie Faculty Association voted this week to endorse divestment and the PACBI call. Like the boycott of apartheid South Africa, PACBI has become a test of which individuals and institutions choose to place themselves on the right side of history.

So how can academic workers support the boycott call?

The initiators of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel have put out clear guidelines for the boycott, as well as a specific statement explaining PACBI as a boycott of institutions not individuals. The basics of the call are simple:

1. Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration, or joint projects with Israeli institutions;
2. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
3. Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;
4. Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional, and cultural associations and organizations;
5. Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.

The last of these is particularly important today. Supporting PACBI should be part of a larger process of connecting our institutions to Palestinian academic and cultural institutions as a way to begin to undo the unspeakable damage done to Palestinian institutions by Israeli apartheid, occupation, and genocidal violence.

What does this mean specifically at CUNY for PSC members?

The Resolution in Support of the CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment includes detailed information regarding CUNY’s investments in companies that profit from Israeli apartheid, occupation, and the ongoing genocide; this FAQ sheet provides even more information about BDS as a union issue. In terms of the PSC endorsing an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, one immediate effect would be to make clear that PSC members are opposed to CUNY management’s ongoing efforts to support and normalize Israeli policies. To give just two recent examples: in May 2022, Chancellor Matos Rodríguez led a delegation of administrators from twelve CUNY campuses on a junket to Israel whose stated intention was to “build bridges” between CUNY and Israeli apartheid institutions. On that trip, the Chancellor and other administrators did not meet with a single member of any Palestinian university. The Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University, the Union of Employees and Academics at Birzeit University, the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued a joint statement condemning this visit and calling out “CUNY management’s whitewashing of Israel’s regime of military occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid and its relentless attack on Palestinian higher education.” More recently, Chancellor Matos Rodríguez was one of the founding members of a coalition of universities that declared that they “stand with Israel.” The statement was issued in late October 2023, after Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza had begun; at no time since has CUNY management issued any statements critical of Israel’s actions. This was all done without consulting PSC members and against the expressed position of many of us. As usual, CUNY management thinks that they can speak for the university as though they own it. Endorsing PACBI is a way for PSC members to tell management that they do NOT speak in our name.  

More broadly, an endorsement of PACBI by the PSC does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication (with the exception of collaborating on shared grants or anything else that would materially benefit Israeli institutions, which would violate the boycott). It is a pledge by PSC members not to engage with Israeli institutions that support and enable Israeli apartheid, occupation, and the ongoing genocide, but does not compel PSC members to do so; like a picket line, it is a call for solidarity. It is also a pledge to create forms of cooperation and collaboration with Palestinian academic institutions; one excellent example is the informational webinar in support of Palestinian students applying to US graduate programs organized by the Ph.D. Program in English at the Graduate Center in December 2023. Other opportunities for individual and institutional engagement with our Palestinian colleagues include several seminars organized by the Palestinian American Research Center, as well as a number of new initiatives designed to support academic institutions and students in Gaza.

In short, for those PSC members who support PACBI, we understand it to be a pledge to act in solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues. The Black feminist tradition has long espoused the notion that no one is free until everyone is free. The same goes for academic freedom: until everyone has it, no one has it. Endorsing PACBI is one small way that PSC members, together with other U.S.-based academic workers, can contribute to a movement for true academic freedom, in Palestine and everywhere.

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