Bill Mullen, a Purdue University professor of English and American studies, believes the overall issue is one of Palestinian self-determination.
“I don’t think this it is a problem of religious difference but one of unequal civil rights,” he said.
Last month Mullen joined a group of other American academics and traveled to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Haifa. The trip was sponsored by United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. A goal of the group is to persuade academics and cultural figures to not travel to Israel or work with universities there. By so doing, they hope they can pressure the Israeli government to end, what they call, an occupation of Arab lands and allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.
Mullen, who has signed the boycott, met with citizens, academics, activists and others during his six days in the Middle East. Last week during several events organized by Purdue’s Students for Justice in Palestine he spoke about the trip and his experiences.
Since 2009 more than 600 professors and others have signed the boycott.
The J&C spoke with Mullen and his views on the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Question: How did you get involved in this issue and the United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel?
Answer: I’ve been studying as a scholar and student the relationship between Israel and Palestine off and on my whole life. In reading, I have come to the conclusion some time ago that the Palestinians had an extraordinary grievance and were just in their claims for sovereignty and civil rights and self-determination.
Q: Why did you join this academic boycott?
A: I signed to the USACBI cultural boycott in 2010 or 2011. The campaign started in 2009. I felt it was my responsibility as an academic to tell my peers that they needed to look carefully at the injustice of Palestine before they would commit their collegiality or academic work to Israeli universities. It was a campaign that hit me right where I lived — professionally. I felt it was an important campaign to advocate for. About a dozen professors who had already signed on to the boycott were invited to go as a members of the USACBI delegation on the fact-finding mission to Palestine.
Q: What do you want this boycott to accomplish?
A: I really believe that the only resolution to dismantling apartheid and the occupation of Palestine is going to be global, international solidarity and pressure. I believe the international community, and that includes everyone, is going to have to take responsibility for overturning the occupation. Palestinians are a small percentage of the population of Israeli occupied Palestine. I refer to it as occupied Palestine because I think it is a better historical description of what is the condition of the former land of Palestine. I believe that pressure is going to be essential because the Israeli government at the moment is in the hands of an extremely conservative Likud party and a prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) that are … not searching for a political resolution, in my opinion.
Q: Those who have signed the boycott — have they regularly worked in Israel or is it more a show of support?
A: It can be both. Academia is a profession where you can get an invitation to lecture any day of the week from any university in the world. In an immediate sense, it is meant to indicate “No, don’t ask. I won’t go if you ask me.” But like all public campaigns and signature campaigns, USACBI keeps a running list of who has signed on its website. They promote it. I promote it. Because we are trying to raise the issue of social responsibility within the university.
Q: This issue is extremely personal for some people because it combines politics with religion. Can this debate create a confrontational atmosphere on campuses?
A: I will say, I think the Palestine struggle against the Israel occupation is one of the most important civil rights struggles of our time. I compare it to the struggle of tearing down the apartheid in South Africa … The international community would not stand for apartheid. They said Nelson Mandela should be free, and it was one of the great civil rights victories in the 20th century. What this matter brings to a campus like Purdue is political conscience about a very important political civil rights matter. I think any student and any faculty at this university needs to understand and take responsibility for what is clearly an important issue.
There is an enormous body of scholarship being produced weekly and monthly that students and faculty can have access to, that I think now can begin to tell the story of Palestine.
Q: How would you suggest people get educated on it, to decide for themselves what is going on?
A: If you can afford it, I would say go and visit and see for yourself.