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Can BDS be compatible with academic freedom?

This posting has two articles from The Nation by 1) Judith Butler and 2) Michelle Goldberg. Plus Notes and links.

Stephen Hawking visiting staff and students at Birzeit University, near Ramallah, Palestine. Professor Hawking has been involved since 2006 in several initiatives to facilitate the free movement of Palestinian academics to visit foreign universities. See Notes and links.

Academic Freedom and the ASA’s Boycott of Israel: A Response to Michelle Goldberg

Contrary to what Goldberg has written, I believe that the only version of BDS that can be defended is one that is compatible with principles of academic freedom.

By Judith Butler, The Nation
December 08, 2013

I was appalled to read the article “What Does the American Studies Association’s Israel Boycott Mean for Academic Freedom?” in The Nation online. Michelle Goldberg erroneously attributes to me a position against academic freedom and for the boycott from an article I wrote in 2006. In fact, if anyone were to consult that piece in Radical Philosophy, it would clearly be seen that at the time I did not support the cultural and academic boycott of Israel, and that the position attributed to me was one that I was characterizing for the purposes of explicitly disagreeing with that view. This is shabby journalism, and it points to the high level of irresponsible accusation that has marked the effort to demean the American Studies Association’s principled and courageous stand. I believe that the only version of BDS that can be defended is one that is compatible with principles of academic freedom. That is my published view, and it has remained the same throughout my concern with this issue (I began to support the boycott in 2009). I believe Michelle Goldberg should retract this article or offer a public apology.

Although I was not involved in the American Studies Association debates, I believe that the association should really be widely commended for soliciting and supporting such an open public debate. It was a clear step forward in fostering debate and discussion on such an important issue, very different than the speak out at UC Berkeley a few years ago that erupted in name-calling and physical attacks. So already, it seems to me, that it means something quite remarkable, namely, that voicing a viewpoint on this topic has become something that is worth hearing and debating, that there are reasonable views on several sides, and that many people are now in the process of figuring out what they think, what they wish, what aspirations are most important to them and how best to realize those goals. This new emergence of debate surely confirms the principle of academic freedom and militates against the spirit of censorship and the practice of calumny that would cut off debate and engage in debased caricatures.

Although the attacks against those who support BDS have had a machine-like quality, reiterating the same claims, hurling the same accusations, showing an obstinate indifference to the specific arguments made on behalf of the BDS, they have also changed in time. And when it is not an individual who speaks, but an entire organization, then a discourse is opened, and an injustice becomes more clearly delineated, known and opposed. In fact, in the last year or so, it is less and less the case that those who openly support the boycott are immediately allied with “terrorism”; and it is no longer the case that those who openly discuss one- or two-state solutions for Israel/Palestine are charged with genocidal views. Even within Israel, the “boycott me” movement has supporters like Neve Gordon and Gideon Levy. And now in the United States, South Africa, Sweden and Hawaii, and among indigenous movements across the world, the BDS movement has gained support precisely because (a) it is a nonviolent movement that focuses on illegal forms of dispossession, constraint and disenfranchisement, (b) it is the largest Palestinian nonviolent civil movement, paralleled perhaps only by the prisoner rights movement and (c) it is a call issued by Palestinian intellectuals, academics and activists, all of whom have come to the understanding that nation-states and international bodies refuse to enforce those international laws and norms that would bring the state of Israel into compliance. BDS is the option that non-state actors have, that populations have who are operating in universities, social movements, legal organizations, citizens, partial citizens and the undocumented. The BDS movement has become the most important contemporary alliance calling for an end to forms of citizenship based on racial stratification, insisting on rights of political self-determination for those for whom such basic freedoms are denied or indefinitely suspended, insisting as well on substantial ways of redressing the rights of those forcibly and/or illegally dispossessed of property and land (even as there are open debates at the present about what form that should take.)

Those who may well acknowledge the justice of such claims may still object to the boycott on the grounds that it denies, potentially or actually, the academic freedom of Israeli citizens. But the BDS movement has taken an explicit stand against any discrimination on the basis of citizenship. And a significant number of Israeli academics have themselves joined the movement. Despite the irony that those living under occupation are themselves deprived rights of citizenship, the Palestinian leadership of PACBI (the academic and cultural boycott) still underscore in unequivocal language that discrimination on the basis of citizenship is unjustified and will have no place in the movement. When the claim is made, as it surely has been repeatedly and consistently, that BDS targets institutions and not individuals, that communicates clearly that any Israeli, Jewish or not, is free to come to a conference, to submit his or her work to a journal and to enter into any form of scholarly exchange. The only request that is being made is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used for the purposes of those activities. Concretely, that means that US or other institutions can offer to pay for an Israeli citizen who usually relies on institutional support from his or her own country, that non-profit organizations can be solicited to cover travel costs, as they would for others who do not have the means to come to conferences, or that Israelis might pay from their own personal funds, as some already have elected to do. It also means that when Israeli scholars invite those of us who support the boycott to Israeli institutions, we decline, explaining that until those institutions minimally take a public stand against the occupation, we cannot come and support that silence, that status quo. The astonishing fact remains that no major Israeli university or cultural institution has actively opposed the occupation.

That said, American Studies scholars can continue important collaborative work with Israeli filmmakers, sociologists, philosophers, archaeologists or artists outside of Israel. Indeed, their access to independent funding and to international mobility is still substantial. Sadly, the same cannot be said about Palestinian academics whose travel papers and rights to mobility are currently severely restricted by law. So though it is an inconvenience for those Israeli scholars who cannot use institutional funding, it is also (a) much more possible for them to find independent funding, and (b) it gives them a chance to address their own institutions and relay the news that as long as universities and other cultural organizations refuse minimally to oppose the occupation, they will all come under enormous international pressure from the boycott movement. Indeed, according to the terms of the boycott, as soon as a cultural organization or university explicitly affirms its opposition to the occupation, it is no longer subject to the boycott. A new alliance between Israeli institutions and Palestinians can then become possible once they join together to dispute the legitimacy of continuing colonial rule. Some people argue that the boycott cuts ties, but that what is needed is to build ties. But this formulation fails to realize that the ties the boycott movement builds are ones of solidarity in a struggle against damaged rights, occupation and dispossession, and it is these sorts of ties, not the ones that maintain the status quo, that are most important at this time.

The upshot is this: if major professional organizations and major universities endorse BDS, even if only one part of the platform, the pressure on Israeli cultural and academic institutions to take a stand against the occupation is increased. The Israeli state may well be compelled to see that the international objection to the continuing colonization of Palestine and its own manifest abrogation of international laws and norms, is no longer sustainable. Indeed, it is sustainable as long as academic, public, cultural, economic, and political institutions either turn the other way or actively support the status quo. It is the support of US institutions in particular that has allowed this status quo to remain in place. The American Studies Association has sought to decide what its public responsibility should be, and other major professional organizations should follow suit.

Let us remember that academic freedom can be exercised only if there is a freedom to speak about political views, to articulate and defend the views we have, but also if there is a freedom to travel, not just from university to university as US academics are used to doing, but also from one’s home to the university. An enormous number of Palestinian university students are put in jail under conditions of indefinite detention because of having espoused political views that are considered unacceptable or because such views were attributed to them without cause. During periods of heightened security control, the periodic shutdowns of Palestinian universities have made it nearly impossible to complete a full semester for most Palestinian students. The delays at the checkpoint that can last between four and twelve hours mean that students cannot make it to class, and those Palestinian universities which are not sustained by NGOs have deteriorating infrastructures that make the exercise of academic freedom sometimes quite impossible. Academic freedom can only be exercised when the material conditions for exercising those rights are secured, which means that infrastructural rights are part of academic freedom itself. Otherwise, we imagine a being who can move as she or he wishes, who can go to any conference, or make it to class on time, who has access to books or computers. So given that no Israeli will be discriminated against on the basis of citizenship, and that increasing numbers of Palestinians might well enjoy academic freedom for the first time if the occupation is brought to an end, we can safely conclude that the principle of academic freedom will be more substantially realized through the support of BDS than by opposing it.

Lastly, I want to say that already within the last two years I have seen how individuals and groups have emerged from their state of mute fear and anxiety into a tentative desire to talk. It seems to me that ASA has helped to make this issue more discussable rather than less. Professional academic associations have a responsibility to engage in public life in thoughtful and principled ways. I commend the American Studies Association for its courage and for assuming the public responsibility to defend equality, justice and freedom.

* * *

Goldberg responds: In the original version of this piece, I mistakenly attributed Omar Barghouti’s words about academic freedom to Judith Butler. I came across the quote in Judith Butler’s journal article “Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom.” In the original, from Radical Philosophy, Barghouti’s words are clearly set off to indicate that they are, in fact a quotation. In the version I read, at the European Graduation School website, that formatting is absent, making them seem as if Butler authored them. I regret the error and sincerely apologize to Butler.

What does the American Studies Association’s Israel boycott mean for academic freedom?

Correction: In the original version of this piece, I mistakenly attributed Omar Barghouti’s words about academic freedom to Judith Butler. I came across the quote in Judith Butler’s journal article “Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom.” In the original, from Radical Philosophy, Barghouti’s words are clearly set off to indicate that they are, in fact a quotation. In the version I read, at the European Graduation School website, that formatting is absent, making them seem as if Butler authored them. I regret the error and sincerely apologize to Butler. (Editor’s Note: The text of this blog post has been changed to correct this error.)

By Michelle Goldberg, The Nation
December 06, 2013

Here is something confusing about the debate over the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel: its supporters, in general, have lesser expectations for its concrete impact than its opponents do. The people fighting for it also minimize it as largely symbolic.

On Wednesday, the ASA’s national council voted unanimously in favor of boycotting Israel. In an unusual move, the council then threw the question to the ASA’s approximately 5,000 members, who have until December 15 to vote. If it passes, the ASA will become the second significant American academic association to boycott Israel, after the Association for Asian American Studies, which joined the boycott in April. It will be a sign that the BDS movement, long far more influential in Europe than in the United States, is gaining a real foothold in American academia.

That’s likely to be alarming to many Israelis, even if they’re not particularly concerned with the opinions of radical American professors. Indeed, one of the strongest arguments in favor of BDS is the degree to which it seems to be shaking the Israeli establishment. As Haaretz editor in chief Aluf Benn wrote in June, “Netanyahu is worried about the growing international boycott against Israel….He hears warnings in the business community about the damage the diplomatic impasse is causing…. If he thought it was harmless noise, he would ignore or minimize the problem. But Netanyahu apparently fears being remembered as the leader during whose time Israel was distanced from the family of nations.”

Many in Israel were shocked earlier this year when Stephen Hawking, acceding to the boycotters, pulled out of Israel’s prestigious President’s Conference. Discussing the reaction of Israel’s leadership, former Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner wrote, “Behind closed doors they’re laughing at Kerry’s peace mission; they’re not laughing at Stephen Hawking or BDS, are they?”

So BDS appears to be working. But even if you believe, as I do, that the Israeli occupation is a great crime, the movement presents real ethical problems when it’s applied to academia. It’s repellant to contemplate Israeli professors being shut out of conferences or barred from journals for no reason other than their ethnicity, or forced to prove sufficient opposition to the occupation to be part of international intellectual life. Arguing against the resolution, New School History professor Claire Potter, who runs a blog called “Tenured Radical” at The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote, “Scholars of any nation ought to be free to travel, publish and collaborate across borders: I consider this to be a fundamental human right, and so does the United Nations. We in the American Studies Association cannot defend some of those human rights and disregard others.”

Some fervent backers of academic BDS reject this argument on the grounds Palestinians are denied their rights to travel and collaborate across borders; in this view, concern for the freedoms of Israeli scholars smacks of bourgeois privilege. Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has been blithely dismissive of academic freedom as a first principle: “The right to live, and freedom from subjugation and colonial rule, to name a few, must be of more import than academic freedom,” he wrote. “If the latter contributes in any way to suppression of the former, more fundamental rights, it must give way.”

This argument is alarming—who, one might ask, gets to decide when academic freedom must be jettisoned?—but it’s not the one that supporters of the ASA boycott are making. To be sure, they believe that they’re championing Palestinian academic freedom. But they also say that their boycott is narrowly drawn to apply only to collaboration with Israeli institutions, not individual professors, and so its impact on the academic freedom of Israeli intellectuals and the people who work with them will be negligible. “There is no limitation on Israeli scholars coming to give lectures or talks or engaging in any other kind of dialogue or project,” says national council member Sunaina Maira, a professor at UC Davis. “It is targeted at formal collaboration with or sponsorship by Israeli academic institutions. Mere affiliation is not boycotted.”

What does that mean in practice? The boycott “bars the ASA as an organization from entering into partnerships with Israeli institutions,” says Matthew Frye Jacobson, a Yale professor and past president of the ASA, another national council member. “Not that there’s a whole lot of that that has ever gone on anyway, so in that sense it’s symbolic.” The boycott would also prohibit invitations to representatives of Israeli universities in their official capacity—in other words, deans and provosts speaking on their schools’ behalf—but, again, that’s not something that happened much, if at all, to begin with.

Still, there’s reason to think that, informally, the boycott will go further. On the ASA website, there’s a link to the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which calls for institutional boycotts like the ASA’s to be broadly interpreted. Even if invitations or conversations with Israeli colleagues aren’t prohibited, it says, “[A]ll academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid. Academics could consider whether equally valuable contributions might not be made by non-Israeli colleagues; whether an invitation to a Palestinian intellectual might be preferable; whether the exchange is intellectually or pedagogically essential.”

This is ugly and stupid. One might just as easily make an argument for shunning Noam Chomsky on the ground that his employer, MIT, is a major defense contractor, making him in some ways a party to America’s manifold misdeeds in the Middle East.

So the boycott could turn into a de facto blacklist, though if it manages to contribute to a powerful movement against the Israeli occupation without discriminating against individual scholars, it could also be a force for good. One of the best arguments in favor of BDS in general comes from Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who wrote in July, “On the assumption that the current status quo cannot continue forever, [BDS] is the most reasonable option to convince Israel to change…As long as Israelis don’t pay a price for the occupation, or at least don’t make the connection between cause and effect, they have no incentive to bring it to an end.” But when it comes to the university, exacting that price has a price of its own.

Update, December 7, 2013, 5:30pm:After I posted this piece, I learned that Claire Potter had changed her position on the ASA resolution and voted yes. Reached by phone, she explained how the shift in her thinking came out. When she first expressed qualms about the academic boycott, she says, “The response was overwhelming. There were massive numbers of people, including a lot of people I know, just writing these nasty things on my blog about what a horrible person I was.”

As the debate about BDS and academic freedom has moved forward, she looked for a way to engage in it constructively, but increasingly felt like she couldn’t do so from outside. “The problem, when you hold to a position so rigidly, you yourself become part of the polarization,” she says. “I all of the sudden became a cause célèbre for all kinds of other people, when that is really not what I intended at all. I would like to have a conversation about academic freedom within this strategy.”

A couple of things convinced her that that was possible. First, the ASA National Council adapted the boycott resolution to make its commitment to academic freedom clearer. And then, rather than simply passing the resolution itself, it took the unusual step of putting it to a vote of the ASA membership, which struck her as an effort at compromise. “If there had been concessions on both sides and they had been able to come to a consensus around this vision, I felt like I should support them, because compromise is hard work.”

Essentially, she decided to give her colleagues the benefit of the doubt. “It has become clear to me that there is a shift in political concerns, that maybe I need to see how it works,” she says. “Everybody in BDS says this is not a restriction of academic freedom, that individuals will not be targeted. I’m going to take a leap of faith and say ok, lets see if this does in fact work out the way you say its going to work out.”

Notes and links

ASA resolution on Israel boycott

Whereas the American Studies Association is an organization dedicated to the preservation and support of academic freedom and of the right to education for peoples the world over;


Whereas the United Nations has reported that the current Israeli occupation of Palestine has impacted students “whose development is deformed by pervasive deprivations affecting health, education and overall security”;


Whereas Palestinian universities and schools have been periodically forced to close as a result of actions related to the Occupation, or have been destroyed by Israeli military strikes, and Palestinian students and scholars face restrictions on movement and travel that limit their ability to attend and work at universities, travel to conferences and to study abroad, and thereby obstruct their right to education;


Whereas the Israeli state and Israeli universities directly and indirectly impose restrictions on education, scholarships, and participation in campus activities on Palestinian students in Israel;


Whereas Israel imposes severe restrictions on foreign academics seeking to attend conferences and do research in Palestine as well as on scholars of Palestinian origin who wish to travel to Israel-Palestine;


Whereas Israeli institutions of higher education have not condemned or taken measures to oppose the Occupation and racial discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, but have, rather, been directly and indirectly complicit in the systematic maintenance of the Occupation and of policies and practices that discriminate against Palestinian students and scholars throughout Palestine and Israel;


Whereas Israeli academic institutions are deeply complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and human rights and in its denial of the right to education and academic freedom to Palestinians, in addition to their basic rights as guaranteed by international law.


Whereas the American Studies Association seeks to promote academic exchange, collaboration and opportunities and supports the right to education and academic freedom for students and scholars everywhere;

Be it resolved that the American Studies Association endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.   

Be it also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

American academics break the last taboo

Agreement signed for UNESCO Chair in maths and theoretical physics at Palestinian University

From Unesco, February 2007

Support for UNESCO Chair by world-famous quantum cosmologist Stephen Hawking during his visit to Birzeit University ©Birzeit University.gifAn agreement was signed on 1 December 2006 by Marcio Barbosa, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, and Nabeel Kassis, President of Birzeit University, to establish a UNESCO Chair in Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the Palestinian university. The Chair will promote an integrated system of research, training, information and documentation in mathematics and theoretical physics.

This UNESCO Chair in maths and theoretical physics will facilitate collaboration between high-level, internationally recognized researchers and teaching staff of Birzeit University and other institutions in the Palestinian Territories, the Arab States, Europe and elsewhere to enhance the quality of research at Palestinian universities.

World-famous quantum cosmologist Stephen Hawking expressed support for the Chair during his visit to Birzeit University on 13 December, where he gave a lecture on the Origins of the Universe which drew hundreds of faculty and students. At the end of his four-hour visit, he told the thousands of students gathered to greet him, ‘I will come back’.

In addition to broadening Birzeit University’s existing programme in mathematics and theoretical physics, the Chair will provide grants, run workshops and conferences, invite international scholars for lectures and build up a first-rate library with computer facilities. It will also develop research materials and methodologies for secondary education. The Chair will have a long-lasting effect, since students will be trained in strategic areas of today’s and tomorrow’s technology-based job markets.

Chairholder Henry Jaqaman will take up his post at the start of the new academic year in September. He is currently Professor of Physics at Bethlehem University. This UNESCO Chair in Mathematics and Theoretical Physics is a first step towards establishing a Centre of excellence in mathematics and theoretical physics at Birzeit University.

For more information, please contact:

European Committee for Establishing a Centre of Excellence in Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Birzeit University, Palestine (ECCE-Birzeit)

The Churchill College Palestinian Studentship Fund

Jointly funded by the Saïd Foundation and the Cambridge Commonwealth, European & International Trust
Applicants will be Palestinian residing in the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem. There will be no maximum age and applicants may be male or female. They will be required to explain how their course of study will help them make a greater contribution to Palestinian society, with the expectation that they will return to Palestine after completing their course.

Applicants will have to be accepted for the course of their choice at the University of Cambridge. Requirements include holding a good first degree and proficiency in English.

The studentship will pay all university and college fees together with a substantial allowance towards living costs.

Patrons of the studentship are:

Professor Stephen Hawking
Lord Rees of Ludlow – President of the Royal Society
Professor Nabeel Kassis – President, Birzeit University
Professor Manuel Hassassian – Palestinian Authority Ambassador to London
The Countess of Sandwich – Research Associate, Middle East Institute, SOAS

Applying for the scholarship

Scholarship applications must be submitted online at:

Applicants must also select Churchill as their first choice of College AND tick the Cambridge Trusts Funding box on their University Application.

The deadline for submission for the 2014/15 academic year is 5 January 2014.

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