Ending the academy’s silence about Israel

Magid Shihade

The global boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement against the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine won a victory two weeks ago when the National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA), an academic organization with nearly 4,000 members, unanimously approved a resolution calling for an ASA boycott of Israeli universities.

The resolution, which can be read here, generated a groundswell of support in the ASA: from longtime BDS supporters like Angela Davis; to scholars in queer studies, gender studies and ethnic studies; to more than 30 Students for Justice in Palestine chapters who signed a letter of support and volunteered as organizers for the resolution. At an open meeting to discuss the resolution at the annual ASA conference in Washington D.C., 37 of 44 people called at random from the floor voiced support for the resolution. A petition in support of the resolution gathered more than 1,000 signatures.

The approved ASA resolution calls the boycott “warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.”

The resolution now goes to a vote of ASA members, which closes at midnight on December 15. If affirmed, the ASA will follow the Association of Asian American Studies as the second academic professional organization to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities.

In the commentary below, Palestinian scholar and activist Magid Shihade–a faculty member at the Institute for International Studies at Birzeit University in Palestine and a visiting fellow at the University of California at Davis–who helped organize the ASA resolution, explains the political significance of the boycott victory. –Bill Mullen

I WANT to thank the ASA for taking this position, which is long overdue. Normally, the ASA Council, which is elected by the whole membership of the ASA, makes the decision about resolutions without going back to the whole membership for ratification. It decided to adopt the resolution because it was proposed last year. Interested members voted on the proposed petition (a large majority voted in its support), and one event was held at the ASA meeting, where speakers were selected randomly, and overwhelming support for the resolution was voiced by students, early-career faculty and senior faculty.

This was at the risk of challenging a taboo in the American academy–to voice opinion freely about Israel. So this issue is not about academic freedom for Palestinians in Israel/Palestine, but about ending the atmosphere of silence about Israel in the U.S. academy as well.

I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel and have gone through the Israeli education system. So I know firsthand how racist and demeaning that system is toward Arabs. I never learned anything good about the Arabs in school–quite the contrary. On the other hand, we were fed with plenty of Zionist propaganda, misinformation and upfront racism towards those who were either not Zionist or anti-Zionist.

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MY EDUCATION was blocked, and it forced me, like most Palestinian citizens in Israel, to go abroad. It is only abroad that I learned about Arab philosophy, some of which I have been using in my work today.

My academic career is blocked in Israel because I am of Palestinian origin. Too many Israeli citizens who are academics, but of Palestinian origins, face the same fate. Only a few are hired at Israeli universities (which are almost all government- or state-owned universities). There is not a single senior scholar in Israeli academia that is of Palestinian origin.

When looking for employment in the U.S., I faced similar obstacles to my career, as pro-Israeli and Zionist faculty members are not in favor of hiring scholars critical of Israel and Zionism. Zionists do not like to see critical Palestinians around them, not in Israel, nor anywhere else, and they do not like to have their input heard.

Israeli universities do not offer equal access to Palestinian students. But when Palestinian students do go to Israeli universities (often majoring in subjects not of their choice), their voice on campus is silenced and repressed by campus administrations. These are facts that are supported by studies done by different organizations in Israel itself (e.g., Adadalah.org and Musawah.org, among others).

Israeli Jewish faculty members who are openly critical of state policies are also marginalized. Any research that they wish to do that challenges Israeli propaganda about history is not supported. Some choose to leave (like Professor Ilan Pappe), while others remain there fighting for change, and many of them call for the boycott against Israel.

At this moment, I teach at a Palestinian university in the West Bank (Birzeit University). Our student body became localized, because students from other parts of Palestine either have a hard time coming to Birzeit, or are not allowed (like Palestinians from Gaza).

Our faculty members have difficulty going abroad for conferences. They have to ask Israeli authorities for permits to travel. If a permit is granted, it is only at the last minute. Sometimes, faculty members lose the airline ticket that they paid for because they cannot wait for the last minute to buy one, but then are not granted a permit to travel by Israeli authorities.

Students coming from abroad cannot study easily at Birzeit. Israel allows them a visitor/tourist visa for only three months. If we get international students, we are forced to change the semester to fit the time they can be there by adding required hours for their daily meetings. That, too, prevents these international students from having enough time to interact with the Palestinian community, because they have to spend more hours daily on campus.

We also cannot have international faculty come to teach in Palestine easily for the same reason. The three-month tourist visa forces many of them to come only for a short time (just for conferences or short visits), or keep leaving the country every three months to be able to renew the visa, or not come at all. There are also cases where Israeli authorities have denied visas for visiting scholars.

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IT IS not the Israeli educational system alone, but the entire Israeli system that is racist. So this campaign is an anti-racist campaign, a campaign to challenge complicity and silence about Israeli colonial and racist practices. This is one of the only methods to open up space for talking about Israeli policies, open the debate in the academy and outside it, and to take seriously the U.S.’s unique and exceptional complicity–military, economic, political and diplomatic support for Israel. It is an exceptional complicity and can’t be compared to U.S. relations with any other country.

Scholars who are critical of any other country except Israel are not silenced, nor blocked from opportunities here in the U.S. academy. Neither is the U.S so complicit in the policies of any other country. There is also no other country like Israel that is so complicit in U.S. wars and policies of repression abroad, by acting as a proxy in arms sales in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and by pushing for wars, as is the case with Iran at the moment.

So American citizens are all already involved in this, but so far, with few exceptions, they are silent about the role that the U.S. has played in supporting Israel’s racist policies. I am very glad to see that the ASA is taking this position, which will help in opening more space for freedom of thought and discussion and research. I hope that this case will be the beginning of much larger engagement of the academy against the racist policies of the U.S. itself, and not just Israel.

I want to thank those who support this resolution. I hope that those who have not supported it until now, because they are not sure about it, will take a stand. For those who oppose it, I also wish the best. Some of them are typical pro-Israeli demagogues who repeat misinformation and make threats–the typical pro-Israeli/Zionist misinformation and scare tactics.

But we are not afraid, nor confused. We are here for justice in Palestine and everywhere. We are here for freedom of thought about Israel and elsewhere. These hundreds of members who support this resolution are also concerned about injustice everywhere, including injustice in the U.S itself.

Supporting this resolution will open space for discussion about Israel and U.S. complicity. It also opens the way for the academy to take its role more seriously in making a real difference and to challenge long-held taboos here and elsewhere. And it will be a way to thank the ASA National Council for reflecting the majority’s wishes, including students and junior faculty, for taking such a stand.

Thank you all for your efforts, and I hope that we remain civil in our discussion and not allow the misinformation and propaganda campaign to confuse any of us. There are so many reports and studies from Israel itself, in addition to many international ones, that testify to the validity of this resolution.

This article was originally posted here.

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