Responding to the Call (to Endorse the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions)

Rebecca Comay and David Lloyd wrote the op ed piece below, explaining the importance of the academic boycott resolution that they have submitted to the MLA for a vote at the Delegate Assembly when it meets on January 7 in Philadelphia. The op ed encourages MLA members to “respond to the call” of Palestinian civil society and endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Comay and Lloyd contextualize the coming Delegate Assembly vote on the resolution in terms of  US politics in general and the 2016 presidential election results. They write: “There is no doubt that Trump’s administration will give its fullest support to the nation whose worst aspects he has praised as a model for his own intended policies.” They conclude by emphasizing the established ethical principles that underwrite the MLA and the political reasons for MLA members to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. 

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-8-12-12-pmThis January, the Modern Language Association will meet during the last days of the administration of President Barack Obama. In the early days of his presidency Obama recognized that “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” while calling on them to pursue a non-violent path to peace and justice.  He will be replaced by Donald Trump, whose election has signaled a likely end to any US restraint on Israeli settlement expansion. One Israeli government minister has already proclaimed that Trump’s presidency confirms that “the era of a Palestinian state is over.”

Certainly, Trump’s campaign rhetoric was unrelentingly supportive not only of Israel’s right to exist, but also of its most racist and draconian policies, from racial profiling to the notorious apartheid wall.  There is no doubt that Trump’s administration will give its fullest support to the nation whose worst aspects he has praised as a model for his own intended policies.  The coming years promise to be even more difficult times for the Palestinian population living under brutal conditions of blockade and occupation, and for those Palestinian citizens of Israel who must negotiate a discriminatory state with its numerous laws that continue to disadvantage and dispossess them.

The boycott seeks to break the impasse that has been enabled by the ongoing reluctance of governments internationally to sanction Israel’s violations of law and human rights.  The immobility of the global political establishment can only be countered by a global civil society that responds to the Palestinian call and acts upon it.

Doubtless most MLA members deplore these recent political developments, just as many deplore and sometimes raise their voices against the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Palestinians has been continuing to engage in a non-violent struggle for peace and justice in the face of increasingly punitive conditions.  Over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations have endorsed the 2003 call for an international campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) until Israel abides by the principles of international law and human rights.  Those organizations include religious organizations, women’s organizations, gay rights organizations, trade unions, cultural organizations, and, of course, numerous associations of teachers and students across Palestine.  Over the past decade, an increasing number of individuals and organizations across the world have been responding to this call from Palestinian civil society, including many scholarly associations and student unions.

The boycott seeks to break the impasse that has been enabled by the ongoing reluctance of governments internationally to sanction Israel’s violations of law and human rights.  The immobility of the global political establishment can only be countered by a global civil society that responds to the Palestinian call and acts upon it.  The boycott movement both expresses and is contributing to the shift in public opinion necessary to change governmental policies.  Americans have a particular obligation to honor this call insofar as it is our government above all that is sustaining the Israeli occupation through extensive military, economic, and diplomatic support.

Boycott is neither an empty gesture nor an arbitrary expression of moral disapproval.  It is a practical tactic that has historically proved to be effective in seemingly intractable political contexts.  Our Palestinian colleagues have called upon us, as scholars and educators, to perform an action that they, living under occupation or under conditions of severe discrimination, are unable to undertake themselves. It is an appeal to us as members of an  organization dedicated to promoting the unhindered pursuit of knowledge and learning.   Israeli academic institutions have been included among the targets of the boycott because these institutions are actively contributing to the occupation of Palestine with the ongoing human rights abuses that accompany this. All this has been well-documented.  Equally well-documented are the conditions under which our Palestinian colleagues, the students and teachers living in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel itself, are trying to study, teach, and research.

This past summer, we travelled with other MLA members through the occupied West Bank and Israel to research conditions of academic life for Palestinians.  We were struck by the unanimity with which the Palestinians whom we met– students, professors, and administrators alike–supported BDS, and in particular the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.  Many expressed the view that their situation would never change without concerted pressure from outside. While education is, as it always has been, highly valued in Palestinian society, and while the institutions we visited were lively and vibrant, with dedicated students and staff, the conditions under which our colleagues and their students work and study were virtually intolerable.  It was hard for us to imagine functioning under such conditions.

We heard innumerable accounts of the checkpoints that make the daily trip to campus unpredictable, humiliating and at times even life-threatening. We heard of students regularly being forced to miss exams and assignments because of being detained at checkpoints.  We heard everywhere of the obstacles imposed on obtaining equipment, supplies, and books. We discovered how difficult it is for Palestinian scholars to travel for their research or to consult essential archives, and for students to study abroad. We learned of the problems faced by foreign scholars who seek to teach or research at Palestinian universities, of the obstacles to hiring native speakers of foreign languages or to bringing in visiting professors and speakers, of the restrictions and conditions placed on international scholarly aid, and of the virtual embargo on international scholarly collaboration. We learned that the geographical isolation created by the severity of the checkpoint system makes academic collaboration and the exchange of teaching and research even within the West Bank challenging.  We listened to traumatic tales of campuses repeatedly invaded by the Israeli troops, of offices ransacked, of the arbitrary detention and  imprisonment of students and faculty, sometimes for years, and of the tear-gassing, wounding, and even the maiming and death of students during these military incursions.  At one university that we visited the entire student council was in jail.  Every university has its memorial to students killed on its campus.  All these hardships are of course in addition to the daily horrors faced by every Palestinian living under occupation.

To endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, which make no secret of their complicity in a regime of discrimination and occupation, is to act upon the principles we declare to be our own.  Not to act is to declare that we do not believe those principles to be universal. It is to side passively with discrimination, segregation and the builders of walls.

Even in Israel, where Palestinian professors make up less than 2% of the faculty (the overall percentage of Palestinian citizens within Israel is over 20%), we heard of a pattern of systematic discrimination and hindrance to education that recalled all too keenly the travails of minority students and professors in the United States.  “We are,” as one Israeli Palestinian professor put it, “orphans inside our universities.”  And we learned of the climate of repression within Israel that is making it increasingly difficult for critical voices even to be heard.  Even over the past few years there has been a steady erosion of the basic liberal democratic institutions that are taken for granted in a functioning civil society.  Not only is it illegal to advocate boycott within Israel, but even criticism of the occupation, as well as demands for basic civil rights, are becoming increasingly imperilled.  As we heard from both Palestinian and Jewish Israeli academics, the universities provide less and less shelter for political dissent.  The prospects of change from within are bleaker than ever. The effect of Israel’s regime of occupation and discrimination is eroding the critical function of higher education in Palestine and Israel alike.

Under such conditions, our Palestinian colleagues and their students have every reason to despair.  Yet their commitment to education remains admirably undiminished.  Often, this summer, we found ourselves humbled by their persistence and commitment to study under the most adverse of conditions.  One of our association’s core principles is that “when academic freedom is curtailed, higher education is compromised.” As members of an association dedicated to this principle we are bound to take action.  We must address Israel’s systematic curtailment of academic freedom and of the more fundamental freedoms on which this depends.  To endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, which make no secret of their complicity in a regime of discrimination and occupation, is to act upon the principles we declare to be our own.  Not to act is to declare that we do not believe those principles to be universal. It is to side passively with discrimination, segregation and the builders of walls.