Updated: January 23, 2014 7:08PM
The annual convention of the 30,000-member strong Modern Language Association (MLA) passed a resolution earlier this month by a vote of 60-53 censuring Israel for “denials of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” The MLA has never captured the news headlines like it did this year. The reason can be summed up in three letters: BDS.
Coming on the heels of unprecedented decisions by four U.S. academic associations, including the American Studies Association (ASA), to endorse the boycott of Israel’s academic institutions, an MLA panel debating the fast-growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and particularly its academic component, generated a flurry of media reports and opinion columns. Ranking members of the Israeli government regard the spreading academic boycott as a strong indicator that BDS is “advancing uniformly and exponentially,” isolating Israel like apartheid South Africa.
Almost all detractors have lobbed at the ASA and BDS supporters wild, unfounded and inflammatory accusations, including claims of circumscribing academic freedom, but completely ignoring Israel’s decades-old occupation, its two-tier discriminatory legal structure in the occupied West Bank, the over 50 discriminatory laws in Israel itself, and the persistent and often violent denial of Palestinian rights, including the right to education and academic freedom.
The Israeli establishment is genuinely concerned about the overall impact of BDS. In the last two years alone, the ruling party in South Africa endorsed BDS; the most famous scientist on earth, Stephen Hawking, canceled his participation in a high-profile Israeli conference; the Irish Teachers’ Union unanimously adopted the academic boycott of Israel; and the large $200 billion dollar Dutch pensions management fund, PGGM, divested entirely from all major Israeli banks because of their illegal involvement in the occupied Palestinian territory, a move that sent shock waves throughout the investment world. BDS, as many today recognize, is reaching a tipping point.
What the vilification campaign against supporters of the academic boycott of Israel omits is the root cause of the boycott — the well-documented and entrenched complicity of Israeli universities in planning, implementing, justifying and whitewashing Israel’s violations of international law. This complicity is manifested in many forms, including the unparalleled partnership between these institutions and the military-intelligence establishment, particularly the indispensable research, from military technology to demography; what Human Rights Watch has condemned as institutionalized racial discrimination in the entire Israeli education system; the suppression of academic research on Zionism and the 1948 Nakba (the forced dispossession and ethnic cleansing of a majority of the indigenous Palestinians); and the construction of campus facilities in the occupied Palestinian territory, as Hebrew University has done in East Jerusalem, for instance.
The obsessive, yet hypothetical, claim that the boycott undermines the academic freedom of Israelis is not just patently misplaced; it is quite insincere. It ignores the institutional nature of the boycott, which does not target individual scholars. If the boycott spreads, Israeli institutions will be isolated, but Israeli academics will still be able to pursue their normal academic activities, such as teaching, conducting research, publishing, and speaking at international conferences. What they are likely to lose are their privileges, not rights.
The current concern is disingenuous because it omits Israel’s relentless attack on Palestinian education, which is as old as the state itself. As recent Israeli research reveals, during the Nakba, Zionist militias and later the state of Israel systematically pillaged and destroyed tens of thousands of Palestinian books. In the first few weeks of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), Israel shut down all Palestinian universities, some, like Birzeit, for several consecutive years, and then all 1,194 Palestinian schools and then even kindergartens. This prompted Palestinians to build an “illegal network” of underground schools.
Those who are still reluctant, on principle, to support a boycott that expressly targets Israel’s academic institutions while having in the past endorsed, or even struggled to implement, a much more sweeping academic boycott against apartheid South Africa’s academics and universities are hard pressed to explain this peculiar inconsistency.
If boycott constitutes “withdrawing … cooperation from an evil system,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, then BDS, at the most basic level, calls on people of conscience to end business as usual with Israel’s system of oppression of the Palestinians. Given the billions of dollars in U.S. tax money that underwrite Israel’s occupation and denial of Palestinian rights, heeding the BDS call is hardly heroic; it is a profound moral obligation.
Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights activist, co-founder of the BDS movement and author of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket: 2011).