Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"Can the Anti-Boycotters Please Stand Up?" - A response

Free Palestine wrote:
Dear Professor Weintraub,
If you are to going to talk about academic freedom, then perhaps you will look at the lack of academic freedom in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Blog: Altahrir
Post: Can the Anti-Boycotters Please Stand Up?
Sure. See below.

More generally, it is quite inaccurate for Laura Ribeiro to say in the piece referred to that these issues have been ignored by supporters of academic freedom who oppose blacklists of Israeli academics. This would be clear, for example, to anyone who had followed the discussions on the Engage website since it was first set up a year ago to oppose the AUT blacklist of Israeli academics.

Of course, opponents of academic blacklists--and others--could and should do more in this connection. But it's also true that people who put so much effort into promoting academic blacklists of Israelis (fraudulently called "boycotts") could be putting these energies more usefully and constructively into trying to protecting the academic freedom of Palestinians and helping to improve their conditions. In a piece he contributed to Engage back in May 2005, John Strawson made the basic point quite cogently.
For the past ten years I have been associated with Birzeit University through the European Consortium that supports the Institute of Law. This involves some academics mainly in Belgium and Britain who have been assisting in the teaching on a law masters program and increasingly becoming involved in research collaboration. Teaching at Birzeit over these years, I am fully aware of the impact of the occupation on education: checkpoints, roadblocks, violent settlers, IDF patrols, curfews, closures, military attacks – the re-occupation of the cities after 2000. In solidarity with my colleagues in Birzeit I think that generally I cannot accept invitations to Israeli universities until such time as they can accept such invitations on the same basis as I can – i.e. without having to apply for special permission. [....]

The curious aspect of the AUT boycott activists is that they do very little about actual solidarity with Palestinian Universities. The simple, although less headline grabbing tasks of making institutional links, developing teaching and research activities, enabling academic and student mobility, mobilizing educational resources, developing and maintaining academic contacts, seem low on their agenda. I just wonder what they were doing during the terrible years of Sharon’s war against the Palestinians? In my opinion the priority should be the building of effective links with Palestinian Universities. This is a positive contribution that extends academic freedom. [....]

I do not think that an academic boycott of Israeli universities is correct in principle. Boycotts of universities always undermine academic freedom which must be seen as undesirable. The Chinese occupation of Tibet (for nearly 5 decades) has not provoked a call for a boycott for this reason. Exchanging ideas, debating issues, working on common projects, collaborative publishing ventures are valuable in and of themselves.

The university sector in Israel is currently under attack from the right wing for being too liberal, particularly on the Palestine question. Many academics need our support. [....]

There is much original work being undertaken on history and politics, which undermines many of the reactionary ideas which are used to justify the occupation, settlements and the wall. [....]

Academics at the end of the day, have little power in the political arena. However, what we can do is through teaching, research, publication and broadcasting attempt mobilize ideas for freedom. Working with people positively seems far more likely to help create conditions that will end the occupation than the negative boycott. The boycott is a call to do nothing about the occupation at all – and it plays directly into the hands of a growing body of Anti-Semitism in Europe where the boycott has a long tradition.

It is quite possible to be simultaneously pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian, and in fact I think that is the right position both morally and practically. It is also possible to be anti-Israeli under the guise of being pro-Palestinian, while supporting actions that in practice are simultaneously harmful to Israelis and Palestinians--and, in some cases, to the principles of academic and intellectual freedom as well. The second approach, unfortunately, seems to be more common than the first one.

Yours for academic freedom & political sanity,
Jeff Weintraub
-------- Original Message --------
Subject:Petition Supporting Academic Freedom for Palestinians
Date: Sun, 19 Jun 2005 11:49:13 -0400
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: undisclosed-recipients

I have just signed this on-line Petition Supporting Academic Freedom for Palestinians, and I urge others to consider doing so as well. It was apparently written by the historian John Womack for FFIPP (Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace).

=> I signed it with some reservations and hesitations, and it seems only fair to spell some of them out.

In principle, I would welcome the opportunity to sign a petition that
  • defends academic freedom for Palestinians and criticizes conditions that effectively undermine Palestinian institutions for scholarship and higher education;
  • condemns the unjust and politically lunatic long-term policies of permanent occupation and large-scale settlement pursued over the decades by a succession of Israeli governments (above all Likud governments, starting in the late 1970s, but unfortunately not by them exclusively);
  • and makes it clear, by its closing call for "sustained reconciliation," that there is no necessary incompatibility between being pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli.
Therefore, I wish that this particular petition had been written a little more carefully (starting with the title).

The second paragraph of the petition, in particular, contains several statements on significant issues that are misleading or simply inaccurate. Without going into detail, I want to indicate that my strongest concerns involve the fact that the second paragraph several times asks us to condemn the building of the so-called "Separation Wall"--not the route of this barrier, but the barrier per se. "And now, the building of the Separation Wall, which constitutes a clear infraction of international law [etc.]" Well, this is simply untrue. This barrier--which was first advocated by the Israeli peace camp, before it got hijacked by the Sharon government--may or may not be a good idea (and if there were no systematic campaign of terrorism that indiscriminately targets Israeli civilians, there would be no need for it at all). But if it were built along the Green Line, it would raise no problems of international law whatever, and Israel's right to build such a defensive barrier is morally and legally unimpeachable.

The third paragraph of the petition rephrases this issue in terms of WHERE this barrier has been built: i.e., "we oppose the building of the settlements and the Separation Wall on Palestinian lands...." I am quite willing to endorse this position when it is framed this way, but unfortunately the preceding paragraph says something different, and this is not a minor point. Many people do claim that this barrier, wherever it is built, is in itself a violation of international law and constitutes some kind of "apartheid wall" (which is a bizarre position for people who also claim to support a two-state solution based on partition of what was once the British Palestine Mandate). That position is simply wrong (as well as politically pernicious and counter-productive) and it bothers me that signing this petition could be taken as endorsing it.

This petition raises other concerns as well, but that one strikes me as the most important and troubling..

=> Nevertheless, on balance and overall, it seems to me that this petition makes a worthwhile and useful statement that ought to be endorsed by people who genuinely support both academic freedom and a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian (and Arab-Israeli) conflict.

=> And I would add that people who signed this petition because they genuinely want to "Support Academic Freedom" should also want to sign this Anti-Blacklist Petition (described HERE).

Yours for academic freedom & political sanity,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Incidentally, another sentence in the second paragraph struck me as a little odd: "With the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and especially in recent years with the increased Israeli militarization of the territories, Palestinian institutions of higher education have become devastated by the effects of war." The problem with this formulation is that, before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank & Gaza, there were no "Palestinian institutions of higher education". In the grand scheme of things, I don't regard this error as so crucial, and it doesn't affect the fundamental issues at stake. (So I hope no one will deliberately misread me as claiming that this somehow justifies the occupation.) But this does seem like the kind of thing a major historian should know about.