David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. His most recent book is The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age. He is the founder and director of the TeachingHumanRights.org project and writes for The Nation, Salon, The Huffington Post, Truthout, and other venues. He is a Contributing Editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, a member of the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association, and Second Vice President of the American Comparative Literature Association.
Sign the “Open Letter” calling on the MLA membership to endorse a resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Only the signatures of (former or current) MLA members will be included.
It is understandable that some members of the MLA are concerned about the possible silencing effect of the academic boycott—certainly the free flow of ideas and a vibrant and unconstrained community of scholars are fundamental to our enterprise. The MLA has done a remarkable job in broadening its scope beyond “America” and reaching out to the world at large. Anything that seems to reduce its scope and worldliness is something we should all be cautious of.
But being engaged in the world at large and benefiting from that contact also brings with it certain obligations. Upholding the value of scholarly work in the world community means holding that value dear as it applies to all scholars, not just those with whom we are familiar, or whose work is useful to us. Or indeed those whom we believe look and think like we do. To narrow the world in that way goes against everything we hold dear as humanists. To be consistent with humanistic moral principles means we do not close off portions of the world expeditiously and neglectfully, it means that we do not champion rights for some while ignoring or downplaying the lack of rights others suffer from. In these respects the academic boycott is perfectly consistent with the values of the MLA.
Rather than close down conversation, the academic boycott of Israeli institutions acts to enfranchise a disenfranchised population and to fulfill our commitment to academic freedom as something indivisible. It is an act of solidarity in the name of justice, and of peace.
Rather than close down conversation, the academic boycott of Israeli institutions acts to enfranchise a disenfranchised population and to fulfill our commitment to academic freedom as something indivisible. It is an act of solidarity in the name of justice, and of peace. It is against bigotry of all forms.
This is not a boycott against individual scholars, except those acting explicitly and avowedly as representatives of the State. This is a point opponents of the academic boycott want us to forget. They even hold out the specter of anti-Semitism. They entirely miss the point, sometimes purposefully. Like the anti-Apartheid boycott of South Africa, and like the Civil Rights boycotts in the US, this boycott is not about “identity”–it is about ending complicity with an illegal project of subjugation and rights-denial. But it is for dialogue with individual scholars. Aside from that one exception, dialogue, collaboration, conference attendance, will all go on unimpeded because the boycott is not against dialogue—it is precisely for dialogue under free and equitable conditions. It is important to note that in this respect the academic boycott of Israel is far less strict than the anti-Apartheid boycott against South Africa, in which individuals fell under the strictures of the boycott. BDS purposefully chose not to do that, for the reasons mentioned above.
But why boycott institutions? Some say Israeli universities are precisely the place where dissent takes shape. This may be true for individual academics, which is why the boycott allows individuals to engage in debate and dialogue. But it is decidedly not true for the institutions themselves, none of which have spoken out against the illegal Occupation or the horrendous treatment of Palestinians by the state of Israel. And there is a logical reason why they have not. It is because Israeli academic institutions are fully embedded in the State and beholden to it. Even academic appointments get vetted by the State. Furthermore, Israeli academic institutions not only passively support the Occupation, they also perform research that enhances and enables the violence of the Occupation, designing weaponry, so-called security systems, and obtaining intelligence for the State.
In acting to withdraw support for and collaboration with Israeli state institutions, we are not only answering a call for solidarity from Palestinian civil society, we also are answering a call from the international human rights community, reflected in appeals such as the following from Amnesty International:
We call on the Israeli government to stop restricting access to education for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. We urge the Israeli government to completely lift the blockade on Gaza.
Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip traps over 1.6 million Palestinian civilians. Many are cut off from jobs, medical care, and educational opportunities. 70% of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip now depend on humanitarian aid as a result.
Israel effectively bars thousands of Palestinian students in the Gaza Strip from pursuing higher education in the nearby West Bank, part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Palestinians who want to travel abroad for their studies face significant obstacles as well.
Israel must stop blocking Palestinians in Gaza from access to the education they desire and to which they have a right.
At base, BDS is a human rights-based movement, seeking to restore rights to an oppressed population. For the purposes of the MLA resolution, we focus specifically on the right to education and on academic freedom.
What else has the state of Israel done to deny the right to education to Palestinians? In January 2015 UNESCO released its “Rapid Assessment of Higher Education Institutions in Gaza,” which includes these stark data:
The scale of destruction and devastation after 50 days of conflict in July-August 2014 is unprecedented in Gaza, including in the education sector. According to the MIRA findings [Multi-Cluster/Agency Initial Rapid Assessment coordinated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], 26 schools have been completely destroyed and 122 damaged during the conflict, 75 of which are UNRWA schools. It is worth noting that already prior to the last conflict the education system in Gaza was suffering from a shortage of at least 200 schools, which led to a big number of classes running in double shifts, impacting on the quality of education. Early childhood development has also been highly affected.
Among a total of 407 kindergartens in Gaza, 133 were damaged and 11 totally destroyed. The Higher Education sector also suffered severe human and infrastructure damages. After 50 days of conflict, the right to quality education for all Palestinian children and youth has been further compromised.
In addition to kindergartens, primary and secondary schools and other education centres, 4 higher education institutions were directly targeted during the hostilities, sustaining significant injury and loss of life among staff and student populations, as well as damage to buildings and equipment.
The study offers these and other details in terms of loss of life and injuries to staff and students:
- Staff and students suffered heavy casualties during the conflict, sustaining loss of life and serious injuries. A number of injuries have led to disabilities including mobility, hearing and visual impairments which will impact on individuals and their families throughout their lives.
- Nine academic and administrative staff from the HEIs [Higher Education Institutions] were killed and 21 injured.
- A total of 421 HEI students were killed during the conflict and 1,128 were injured.
And, perhaps most dramatically–
- Student deaths during the conflict constitute more than a quarter – or 27.4% – of total civilian deaths incurred in Palestine. Even considering the exceptionally high ratio of people aged 15 to 29 to the total over-15 population (53%), this is a shocking statistic.
The United Nations report states flatly:
The failure to treat learning environments as safe spaces and protect universities from attack is a serious violation of the right to education and is prohibited under international law. The resulting staff and student attrition, alongside loss of life, injury and damage to infrastructure, seriously undermines the quality of education which should be supporting young people to achieve their full potential as well as helping to mitigate psychosocial impacts of armed conflict by providing stability, normality, structure and optimism about the future.
Besides this singularly appalling assault, we must remember the day-to-day denials of academic freedom and the right to education—sporadic occupation of Palestinian universities by the Israeli army, censorship and imprisonment of students and teachers, perpetual disruption of electricity and other utilities, an extensive network of checkpoints that make even getting to school difficult and unpredictable for Palestinians. These conditions rob Palestinians of any “optimism for the future”; a deplorable curtailment of the humanistic imagination is taking place as Israel denies people their humanity based solely on their ethnicity and race.
The MLA boycott resolution has one simple aim—to have the MLA as an organization refuse to enter into formal institutional collaborations with Israeli state institutions that are aiding and abetting a regime whose goals include the persecution, subjugation, and dispossession of a people.
To be part of the international community means to live by its rules and conventions. Any nation that willfully and aggressively chooses not to does not deserve international cooperation, whether it be Israel or any other state.
We are not singling Israel out. To withdraw from formal collaboration with Israeli state institutions does not preclude our doing the same with regard to any other nation or group. But let me be clear–to not do so in the case of Israel would expose the particularity of our notions of universalism and humanity.