Academics boycott Israel to help end oppression

Scholars need to demand the end to Palestinian oppression.

Trent M. Kays

We often stereotype higher education and academics and expect them to live up to the clichés. We expect professors to be cloistered in their classrooms or offices, pontificating about subjects that put their students to sleep. Films, television shows, books and other media reinforce this stereotype with overtly academic archetypes.

While it’s certainly true there are people who embody such stereotypes, there are academics actively interacting with the world and key issues.

Following this idea, academic boycotts are starting to garner attention.

The American Studies Association national council unanimously passed a resolution last week supporting the academic boycott of Israel. The ASA then turned the boycott to its approximately 5,000 members, who can vote on it until Dec. 15.

The resolution includes a boycott of Israel’s academic institutions, arguing Palestinian students have strong barriers between them and an education. The resolution cites challenges to travel, admissions, work and study abroad.

The issue of Israel’s occupation and treatment of Palestinians is divisive. The ASA was in many ways following the Association for Asian American Studies’ lead in boycotting Israel over its treatment of the State of Palestine and its academics.

The limit on travel is especially troublesome because academics travel and spread knowledge outside their home institutions. Conferences and speaking engagements are often necessary for academic promotion.

Out of this briar patch arises the issue of academic freedom versus academic boycott. In higher education, academic freedom is fiercely defended. It allows scholars to critique society and culture free of reprisal. The focus on ideas and discussion — even of unsavory or risqué topics — is what sets higher education apart from other, more regulated parts of the world.

However, in many ways, such a focus is mainly just talk. Scholars do what they do best: think and talk. This isn’t a bad thing. We need people who focus on these traits of humanity.

But in the ever-changing digital age, talk can only get you so far before concrete and clear action is necessary. Some may suggest that the problem with the ASA boycott is that it infringes on the very academic freedom it’s seeking to ensure.

I find this objection to a boycott of a country that physically and emotionally oppresses a population specious. How can academic freedom be allowed to exist if the people in most need of it are not free? Academic freedom becomes moot in that circumstance.

Famous academic Judith Butler suggested that “The right to live, and freedom from subjugation and colonial rule, to name a few, must be of more import than academic freedom. If the latter contributes in any way to suppression of the former, more fundamental rights, it must give way.”

Butler is correct. Academic freedom must not act as a conduit for the subjugation of the fundamental rights of humans to exist. Otherwise, academic freedom is nothing more than a tool of oppressive states.

Either way, passions run high on both sides of the argument. Perhaps the strongest counter to any boycott of Israel comes from the American Association of University Professors, which has long held a stance that any boycott is antithetical to academic freedom. While initially I agreed with this stance, I’ve come to understand higher education differently.

A boycott is not antithetical to academic freedom, but instead, it is the very embodiment of it. A group of scholars coming together to say enough is enough, and to begin fighting oppression through words and limited action, is admirable.

Scholars should fight for the academic freedom of their oppressed peers. Certainly, a boycott isn’t law, but it is a powerful symbolic measure to show that the oppression of a population is unacceptable.

Scholars should be activists. They should fight to reverse oppression and disseminate knowledge across the globe. Education can be a great equalizer, but only if everyone has access to it.

Education is a deeply political thing. It always will be. The right to education is political. The rights to think, believe and speak are all political; thus, boycotts are also political. That’s the point. Some scholars refuse to take political stances; however, their entire profession is political. It becomes paramount to not take a backseat to such important realities.

Noted educator Paulo Freire once wrote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

This is the reality of today’s world. The powerful dominate our world’s hierarchies and the political structures that oppress the powerless.

In our world’s narrative, those who stood to the side and allowed oppression will not be lauded for their abstention. Instead, those who did nothing will be remembered for their inaction.

Scholars can no longer be publicly silent on the issues facing our world. They must act, or their academic freedom will mean nothing.