Issam Rimawi /APA / Landov

US college presidents should address Palestinian university closures

Earlier objection to curtailing academic freedom makes their silence glaringly inconsistent

After the vote by the American Studies Association (ASA) last December to endorse the academic boycott of Israel, in January more than 200 college and university presidents, along with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), rushed to condemn it for what they termed its abridgment of academic freedom and curtailing of the exchange of ideas.

As many scholars pointed out then, it is clear that the language of the ASA’s resolution in no way affects the ability of individual U.S. scholars to engage in academic activities with their Israeli counterparts or of Israeli scholars to travel or acquire funding.

Nonetheless, the attacks on the ASA and other academic organizations that endorsed the boycott were vociferous. They even spilled into the political sphere, with proposed state and congressional bills that sought to pre-empt the boycott. Politicians in New York, Maryland, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Kansas and South Carolina put forward legislation to curtail and punish boycott advocacy and action, insisting in some cases that universities cancel their membership in the ASA if they wanted to retain state funding. Even critics of the boycott saw some of the measures for what they were: attacks on academic freedom in the name of academic freedom.

The peculiar emphasis on the rights of Israel as an occupying power has suppressed recognition of the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians. In the past week, the suppression of Palestinian higher education has once again generated headlines.

As part of Operation Brother’s Keeper, Israel Defense Forces invaded the West Bank and Gaza Strip, ostensibly to search for three missing Israeli teenagers. Even after the tragic discovery of their bodies, Israel shows no sign of stopping its attacks. Large-scale assaults continue even though two men now in captivity have confessed to the killings. The actions of the Israeli military are clearly punitive measures, and they are illegal. Collective punishment is condemned by the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions.

In the ongoing operation, the Israeli military has attacked and effectively closed three Palestinian institutions of higher education: Al Quds University in Jerusalem, the Arab American University in Jenin and Birzeit University. (This is in addition to the daily restrictions on travel, denials of the right to assembly and to free speech, long and harassing delays at checkpoints and the inability to access sites of research that all Palestinian scholars and students face as a result of the occupation.)

All three universities suffered property damage and were dispossessed of documents and computer equipment. Students and security personnel were detained. Furthermore, Israeli soldiers used the Palestinian Ahliya University, near Bethlehem, as a makeshift prison for people they arrested during a raid on the nearby Dheisha refugee camp.

Amid commentary on the crackdown, one group has been conspicuously silent. A June 24 statement from the United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which responds to the call of Palestinian civil society for support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and focuses on a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions, has asked the same college and university presidents who were so concerned about academic freedom in January to condemn the violent attacks taking place today. Yet not a single college or university president has thus far raised an objection to the punitive invasion of Palestinian universities. 

When a university president decides to comment on what he or she believes to be an injustice — as many presidents did by publicly denouncing the ASA boycott — then a burden of consistency prevails.

This silence might seem reasonable. It is, after all, not an intrinsic part of a college president’s job to comment on injustice. Forms of oppression affecting campuses around the world are so numerous that any concerned president could easily fill his or her day drafting statements of condemnation.

However, when a university president decides to comment on what he or she believes to be an injustice — as many presidents did by publicly denouncing the ASA boycott — then a burden of consistency prevails. The rush to condemn the ASA for supposedly threatening academic freedom transformed those university leaders from executives into proponents. It is therefore reasonable to expect from these proponents a commensurate rush to decry demonstrable restrictions on academic freedom by the same state whose violations the ASA resolution denounces.

The military attacks on Palestinian universities are not the only things those who care about academic freedom should protest. Here in the United States, critics of Israel have long risked recrimination, a problem reinforced by the newfound (and selective) activism of university presidents and the legislative efforts to defund ASA supporters — and augmented by outside advocacy groups’ interference in regular academic activities. These groups mount campaigns to discredit and cast suspicion on academics doing work on the Middle East that does not mesh with their ideological preferences. In nearly all cases their complaints are found to be without merit. It is clear they mostly aim to harass and intimidate.

One of the groups most actively monitoring campuses for any hint of criticism of Israel, the Amcha Initiative, has called for the investigation and interrogation of teachers suspected of engaging in anti-Semitic behavior. Amcha says its mission is “to investigate, document, educate about and combat anti-Semitic behavior on college and university campuses in America and the institutional structures that legitimize it and allow it to flourish.” The problem is that in many cases, here as elsewhere, “anti-Semitism” is a code word deployed to suppress criticism of Israel. Through its deployment, legitimate complaints against ethnic and religious prejudice are appropriated to disarm political criticism.

Given the real threats to academic freedom posed by the Israeli government, the Amcha Initiative and numerous legislative bodies, one wonders why university presidents and the AAUP were so eager to condemn the ASA, a scholarly association with no record of violence or suppression. It’s a disparity that brings to light the ways in which the fight for academic freedom can be skewed, even co-opted, by political power and the prestige that access to such power confers on professors and administrators.

Steven Salaita is an associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He tweets at @stevesalaita.

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. His most recent book is "The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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