Report on MLA Members’ Trip to the West Bank and Israel

Summary

In June, 2016 a group of six MLA members traveled together to the West Bank and Israel to screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-11-24-11-amfind out what it was like for Palestinian academics and students trying to study, teach, and research at universities in the occupied territories and within Israel itself.  In addition to learning about academic conditions under occupation,  the group also wanted to hear directly from Palestinian scholars and students about their thoughts on the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. They also met with a number of Jewish Israeli leftwing academics and activists to hear about the opportunities for change from within the regime.   In the course of their eight day trip the group met with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and university administrators at six universities in the occupied West Bank —  Birzeit University in Ramallah, Bethlehem University, An-Najah University in Nablus, Palestinian Technical University–Kadoorie in Tulkarm, and Hebron University – as well as both Palestinian and Jewish academics and students from a number of Israeli universities.  The report includes a detailed account of how Palestinian education has been undermined by Israeli checkpoints, impediments to travel, obstacles to getting materials, raids on campuses, arrests, denial of entry to foreign faculty, and restrictions on research. It also addresses the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in the occupation and the unequal treatment of Palestinian faculty and students in Israel. The report presents the positions of Palestinians and Israelis on the academic movement, making a convincing case for an MLA resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Included here are selected excerpts from the report. Click the link below to download a pdf of the complete 23 page report.

Download a pdf of the entire report: MLA Members’ Report on Palestine Trip

Selected Excerpts from the Report

This report is a record of our findings. It does not aspire to replicate the length and detail to be found, for example, in the 120-page report produced by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) or the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) Report.4 We invite Interested MLA members to consult these documents, especially that of the AAA for its detailed bibliography and very useful ‘historical timeline’ section. There is also a growing bibliography to consult.5 The AAA and BRICUP delegations were official, and responded to explicit charges given to them. We, in contrast, are a group of six individual MLA members, in various disciplines and at different stages of our careers, who are broadly sympathetic to the BDS movement but were aware of a critical lack of first-hand knowledge about the opinions and working conditions of our Palestinian colleagues. We seek to share our findings with our colleagues in the MLA so that we may all be better informed as we debate the boycott resolution currently under consideration. (4)

Palestinian faculty members reported high levels of official and unofficial surveillance in the classroom, and “zero” administrative responsiveness to attacks on their freedom of speech and instruction, often conducted by organized groups like the radical Zionist student group, Im Tirtzu. As one Palestinian faculty member at the Hebrew University put it, “You are going to be recorded, and you have to qualify everything you say.” Palestinian faculty at Israeli institutions report open discrimination in research funding and assistance, permission to travel, and career progress (tenure and promotion). (7)

Currently, the campus that is most affected by Israeli military presence is PTU at Tulkarem, part of whose lands have actually been expropriated by the wall dividing Israel from the West Bank. In 2015, PTU experienced 85 incursions by the Israeli military, which occupies part of the campus land without university permission. Until recently, some of that land, within 100 meters of campus facilities, was used for a live-fire shooting range. During one of these incursions, in December 2015, 138 unarmed students on that campus suffered bullet wounds and a further 300 were injured by rubber-coated bullets when soldiers pursued some children who had been throwing stones at them. When the children ran into the campus, soldiers in pursuit opened fire on staff and students. In the course of that campus invasion, tear gas was fired through library windows . . . (9)

Time and mobility are central issues for Palestinians at West Bank universities (as indeed for all Palestinians living in the West Bank). Israel directly controls 60% of the Occupied Territories, and has at-will access to the rest. The presence of 547,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem11 (with an estimated 7500 soldiers permanently provided by the Israeli state to “protect” them) means that there are no areas where Palestinians are free from surveillance, policing or the arbitrary control of their movements. Along with the permanent checkpoints and the apartheid wall (the separation wall or ‘security barrier’) that many Palestinian students and staff must negotiate just to get to school, there are “flying checkpoints” that are imposed without warning and seemingly at random. (10)

[A]s one student at Birzeit University said, much of the occupation often works through indirect means. Here the complicity of Israeli universities is crucial and it demonstrates the role that the interior infrastructure of the State of Israel plays in maintaining conditions outside of it. For instance, as guardians of archives and materials that were stolen from Palestinians during and since the Nakba, universities indirectly prevent Palestinian students and faculty from accessing documents necessary for scholarly projects about their own history. For scholars who are not Jerusalem residents, for example, access to the archives of Palestinian history (which are mostly in that city) is not possible; one faculty member was forced to suspend work on the PhD dissertation because of this. (13)

A broad spectrum of our interlocutors felt that an academic boycott has a strategically significant part to play in the achievement of Palestinian rights and equality with Jewish Israelis. In contrast to claims that BDS offers nothing to Palestinians, we were reminded throughout our trip that the support U.S. academic organizations can offer is taken to be morally, materially and politically significant–and the longstanding absence of such support is keenly felt as well. The MLA in particular is held by Palestinians in very high regard, along with other academic organizations that have passed or are considering resolutions supporting an academic boycott. To date, most American academics have passively or actively denied equitable regard to their Palestinian colleagues by their silence on the impact of Israel’s occupation and discrimination. (22)