The Empty Chair: a simple action that academics and students can take in solidarity with Palestinian colleagues

USACBI is reprinting the following statement by John Chalcraft of BRICUP, the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, first published in the BRICUP Newsletter of 3 November 2017:

Academics, researchers and students in privileged and relatively wealthy parts of the world are concerned that our Palestinian peers and colleagues are denied the rights that we exercise and enjoy on a daily basis.

We, unlike them, can cross national borders to attend conferences with relative ease. We, unlike them, can travel within our national territory to give lectures, examine PhDs, sit vivas and so on, without being turned back at checkpoints. We, unlike them, can invite visiting researchers and collaborators from many parts of the world and our own country, without fear that those colleagues will not be able to come because of military occupation or siege. We, unlike them, can commute to teach or study without being stopped by Israeli soldiers. We unlike them, do not lose students and teachers to Israeli bombs and bullets. We, unlike them, enjoy infrastructure that is not periodically ransacked or destroyed. We, unlike them, can access essential imported educational materials, from books to pencils, with relative ease. And many of us, unlike them, do not write and research under a permanent racist suspicion of terrorism and extremism.

Many of us, in the humanities, social and natural sciences, if we address the question, can recognise, with some uneasiness, this profound contradiction: the rights we enjoy as educators, students and researchers are denied our Palestinian colleagues. We also know that racial oppression and violence, in its many varieties, works to exclude and silence educators and researchers in many parts of the world.

For the most part, however, the academic community as a whole does not feel that it has the time or resources to reflect on the issue or take significant action.

There is, however, something simple that all academics and students working in any field of study can do to raise awareness about what all those of conscience can recognise as an intolerable contradiction. It doesn’t take up any significant time or resources. It’s called the empty chair.

At any ordinary academic event (lecture, workshop and so on), an empty chair is placed on the podium, around the table, or in the audience. An appropriate graphic or symbol, such as the BDS logo, is placed on the chair to indicate that it is not just an ordinary empty chair. At the outset of the event, the meaning of the chair is explained.

Figure 1: The BDS logo.

The chair is intended to symbolise the absence of a Palestinian academic or student from the room. It draws attention to the fact that the absence of Palestinians results from the intolerable and decades old restrictions placed on their travel, research and study by the Israeli government.

The empty chair thus draws the attention of everyone in the room to the question of fundamental academic rights. It signals that we enjoy those rights, while Palestinians do not. It generates a sense that academics and students take this situation seriously. It signals that an injury to one is an injury to all: that academic freedom is not just for the privileged few, and that exceptions to, and restrictions on these freedoms, wherever they occur, concern all of us. It is intended to send a message of solidarity based on fundamental rights to our Palestinian colleagues and peers. It also indicates that there is a welcoming place for Palestinians in the room if and when Israeli restrictions are finally lifted. The empty chair thus symbolises the refusal of academic apartheid. It is not just a piece of spontaneous ad hoc-ery, or a straw in the wind, but linked to a wider civil society movement of transnational solidarity for freedom, justice and equality – the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

Standing against apartheid in South Africa was a symbol for standing up against all racial oppression. Likewise, standing up today for Palestinian academic freedom symbolises support for all those academics and students around the world, including in our own academia, who are denied equal rights in various ways. Academics and students of colour, especially women, and those from communities disempowered by race and class, often face institutionalised forms of discrimination.

Apart from placing a suitably adorned chair in the room, the only other action that needs to be taken is for the meaning of the chair to be explained. Such an explanation is bound to differ from context to context. It could, for instance, be done as follows:

  • The organiser or chair, could explain that in convening a panel or setting up an academic event of any kind, we assume and exercise a number of fundamental academic rights and freedoms. These freedoms are fundamental to our work and our constituting purposes, but they are usually taken for granted.
  • These rights and freedoms have been denied to our Palestinian colleagues for so long, so systematically, and on such an unjustified basis, that we believe it is now time to draw attention to the issue. We cannot in good conscience enjoy without comment our academic rights and freedoms while others are systematically denied them.
  • This panel therefore draws attention to such an issue simply and quietly by putting an empty chair in the room. A chair that we assume would have been filled by a Palestinian, absent Israeli restrictions.
  • The organiser or speaker may want to state that this is a civil society action based on fundamental rights.
  • It can be noted that this is not just a spontaneous gesture, but aligned with the aims and principles of the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions movement for freedom, justice and equality.
  • It can be mentioned that the action seeks to draw attention to all forms of racial oppression and silencing.

Academics and students may object that such an action bears no relationship to their panel, their subject of study, their constituency, or their aims and objectives. They may worry about the politicisation of the academy, and accusations of anti-Semitism. The answer to this objection is to underline that this action is motivated by the intolerable violation of fundamental academic rights and freedoms. As such it concerns us all. It touches our constituting purposes as academics and students, regardless of subject of study, and regardless of our specific political position. No researcher can accept academic apartheid. The empty chair signifies such a refusal.

The advantages of the action are several. It has the potential to touch very wide constituencies in academia at large. It does not require a special space, but uses spaces that already exist in the ordinary course of our work. It does not require time or resources. It does not need central coordination (apart from the provision of the basic idea and a possible template). It allows for sensitivity to context – and can be tailored and customised to suit local circumstances. It can spread very rapidly. It is linked to a wider BDS movement, which assure its coordination with Palestinians and gives it a much broader traction.


Photo by Stefan Bucher (Flickr).

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