Upholding Debate as a Necessary Component of Academic Freedom


PACBI Appeal to North American Academics

September 2, 2007

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
(PACBI) welcomes the historic resolutions passed by the UK’s University
and College Union (UCU) at its first Annual Congress in May 2007. In
particular, PACBI applauds the Congress for passing resolutions deploring
the denial of educational rights for Palestinians; condemning the
complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation; noting that in these
circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable; recognizing that
criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic; calling for the
circulation of the full text of the PACBI Call for Boycott for information
and discussion; and encouraging members to consider the moral implications
of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions.

While British colleagues prepare to discuss the Palestinian boycott call
and consider the implications of normal academic links with the Israeli
academy during the coming academic year, a disturbing development has been
noted in the United States and Canada. No sooner had the UCU motion been
passed than dozens of American and Canadian university presidents and
rectors rushed to condemn the Union, basing their attacks on mostly false
or inaccurate data. Such enthusiasm in denouncing the British academic
union’s resolutions, particularly during the summer holidays when
university life slows down, is difficult to understand. What these
university presidents have done in effect is to shut the door to debating
any issues specifically pertaining to Israel, without consultation with
their colleagues and without any public discussion whatsoever having taken
place about the merit of the UCU resolutions. Furthermore, the fact that
none of these – now exceeding 300 — university presidents has ever even
criticized Israel’s persistent suppression of Palestinian academic
freedom, not to mention its grave violation of Palestinian human rights,
sheds serious doubts on their consistency and fairness.

We appeal to our American and Canadian colleagues to challenge what
appears to be an organized effort to stifle debate in the academy, and to
urge their presidents, faculty associations, professional bodies, and
colleagues at large to follow the example of British academics and
initiate a robust debate about Israel’s military occupation and other
forms of oppression of the Palestinians and the most effective ways to
counter them. The complicity of the U.S. government, in particular, in
perpetuating Israel’s occupation and violation of basic human rights
through unconditional and uniquely generous financial, political and
diplomatic support makes Israeli policies clearly relevant to all American
tax-payers, academics included. It is worth noting, in this context, the
principled stand of the American Association of University Professors
(AAUP) when it went ahead last year with its plan to publish various pro
and con position papers concerning the academic boycott of Israel in its
journal Academe after its conference on academic boycotts was hastily
cancelled due to political pressure. We also recall the decision of the
Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to hold a panel discussion on the
boycott at its annual meeting last November. We also vividly remember the
brave role that North American academics and institutions of higher
learning played in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It is
in this spirit of encouraging free debate about controversial issues of
concern to academics that we urge our colleagues to call for a careful
consideration of the case for the academic boycott against Israel.

PACBI notes that university presidents and provosts in North America have
been deploying the notion of academic freedom in order to justify their
condemnation of the boycott. However, in their attempt to forestall debate
on their campuses by issuing these statements, they can themselves be
viewed as infringing upon the academic freedom of their
constituencies—students, faculty, and staff—to decide for themselves
where they stand on this important issue.

We feel that a principled, reflective, and representative debate on
university campuses will bring into focus the dire situation in Palestine
that prompted the UCU to issue their call to give serious consideration to
supporting an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli academic
institutions. There has been much misinformation about the boycott, and
the statements by university presidents show them to be ill-informed about
some of the basic issues pertaining to the rationale for the boycott and
its implementation. It is particularly important to stress that the
boycott targets institutions rather than individuals, thus creating the
necessary space for the free exchange of ideas to continue amongst
academics on an individual basis.

Background

There is ample evidence showing that Israeli universities, research
centers, and think tanks are an integral part of the structures of
oppression in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. They have
played a direct and indirect role in promoting, developing or supporting
the state’s racist policies and persistent violations of human rights and
international law. It is significant that no Israeli university has ever
taken a public stand against the military occupation of the West Bank and
Gaza, nor have academic institutions or representative bodies of Israeli
academics ever criticized their government’s longstanding siege of
Palestinian education and the denial of Palestinian academic freedom.

The achievements of Palestinian institutions of higher education under
Israel’s military occupation have been realized despite the enormous
obstacles the Israeli army and security establishment have placed in their
path. Over the past few decades, tens of thousands of students and faculty
have been imprisoned, exiled, tortured, or wounded by the occupation
forces. University campuses have been routinely shut down – for several
consecutive years, in some cases — by military order as punishment for
student activism against the occupation. Under the current regime of
closures, curfews and the vast network of military roadblocks and the
Wall, normal life, including the pursuit of education, has become
impossible for Palestinians.

The Palestinian call for boycott of Israeli academic institutions
(http://www.pacbi.org/campaign_statement.htm), like the Palestinian civil
society’s widely endorsed call for boycott, divestment and sanctions
(BDS), is based on the same moral principle embodied in the international
civil society campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa: that
people of conscience must take a stand against oppression and use all the
means of civil resistance available to bring it to an end.

We appeal to you, colleagues in the American and Canadian academy, to urge
your institutions to open their doors to the open exchange of ideas about
the situation in Palestine and to consider the ways you can respond to the
human and moral challenge the Israeli system of oppression presents to all
people of conscience. It may be particularly relevant to address your
educational unions and professional organizations to hold panels and
discussions on this issue.

We urge you not to allow powerful political forces to dictate to your
presidents and provosts how the academy deals with controversial issues
pertaining to Israel. As Roger Bowen, the General Secretary of the AAUP
and one of the organizers of the ill-fated AAUP conference on academic
boycotts (in which two PACBI members were to participate) said after the
cancellation,

“The AAUP is honoring its nearly hundred-year legacy of defending academic
freedom by not excluding our opponents from participation in debate. If
only we could require that critics of the originally planned conference
join the AAUP and embrace our principles of academic freedom. Alas, we do
not manage the American academy, let alone global higher education. But
maybe, just maybe, we, or the principles we espouse, should.”
(http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2006/06ma/06maFTGS.HTM)

We hope that the coming academic year will witness the launching of a
serious and responsible public debate about the merits of academic boycott
of Israel at American and Canadian universities. It is only through an
open discussion and in the spirit of the free exchange of ideas that
informed opinion can emerge.

Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)
Ramallah, Palestine

info[at]boycottisrael.ps

www.pacbi.org

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