The founder of the Jesuit Order, Ignatius of Loyola, is credited with having infamously said, “In a fortress under siege, all dissent is treason.” This is the psychology of the besieged: an impossibility to discern the actual contours of a situation. The absolute is self-evident. Any and all potential attacks, no matter how apparent, are transformed immediately into actual attacks which require being dealt with swift punishment if survival is to be ensured. What Loyola is saying is that the besieged mentality knows no freedom.
Under a hail of a machinegun’s bullets, in the sights of a sniper, in the crosshairs of a tank, what freedom is possible? Such violent situations are direct and corporeal threats that certainly impede or hinder all freedom, including the academic type. Academics are fond of detailing the ins and outs, the particularities, of the material requirements and conditions for fruitful academic research. In conditions of war and siege the material attack on those conditions becomes a real, violent, thing.
There are, of course, other hindrances to freedom, including academic, that do not take such a bodily harmful form. Concern for privacy has driven opposition to the heightened use of technological security and surveillance apparatus against civilians in the United States and the world, but does it not also impinge upon freedom? Academics all over the world ask themselves if their emails are being read when they write or research controversial topics, if their views will be held against them or if their research will be found subversive. Fear arises and in its presence, understandably, all actions are taken with pause. Is this a condition in which academic freedom may thrive?
It would be narrow minded to think that this situation can only happen in the sphere of the state. Not only state surveillance and state censorship work against freedom. In an academic setting, many threats to freedom abound, from the economic to the political. In the United States we know this to be the case, especially in regard to the pernicious effects on academic freedom of the precarious labor of adjuncts. And there is one political issue in particular that has recently proved to be highly volatile and controversial, which actually instills fear of reprisal for expressing the “incorrect” position: that of the conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people.
If we are to defend academic freedom, we must not only fight against those who would impose their particular way of thinking on everyone, but also resist the temptation, the ease of classifying enemies and friends, provided by the besieged mentality. Yet, in the present state of higher education in the United States, it is not hard to feel besieged. Especially if one holds views critical of the state of Israel. Presently, the discussion of this particular issue instills fear in academics all around the country. Not only fear of being scolded for holding an unpopular position, but actual fear for one’s position or possibility of having a career.
In the most famous recent case, a professor lost his appointment to the University of Illinois, after his hiring had been all but done, for forcefully expressing his views on social media about Israel’s most recent military intervention in Gaza. The student senate president at Ohio University was harassed and received death threats after a performance art piece against the bloodshed in Palestine. The chaplain for the Episcopal Church at Yale University was forced to resign after a three-sentence letter to the New York Times was found to questionably relate state violence and anti-Semitism. Lists of academics being called a “threat to Jewish students” for supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement have been published, in a reminiscence of McCarthyism. Attempts to pass legislation seeking to limit academic protests against the state of Israel have been made in the New York State Assembly. Here at CUNY, as recently as last year, the New York City Council threatened to defund the University over one department co-sponsoring an event about the BDS movement, in an action that former Mayor Michael Bloomberg compared to North Korea. Also at CUNY, the student organization Students for Justice in Palestine has faced continued unfair treatment from the administration in an effort that has been perceived as an attempt to hinder its activities.
All of these events should give us pause when debating the BDS movement and academic freedom. There is not a single instance of academics in the United States being targeted or harmed for their support or solidarity for the state or the people of Israel. Yet there is an impending fear that expression of solidarity and support for the people of Palestine, even in the context of a military intervention that has left thousands dead, may be punished. This is the state of threats to academic freedom in the United States. In spite of this bleak reality, those who wish to express their solidarity with Palestinians should not fall prey to a siege mentality: the purpose of the movement for justice and freedom for Palestinians is not to make enemies out of some but to support the oppressed.
Too often, the debate around the academic boycott makes invisible those who are most harmed. If the debate is to have a meaningful relation to arguments about of academic freedom, its perspective must be broadened. Regardless of the fact that the call for BDS is not an attempt to cut all ties and collaboration with individual scholars, but with institutions directly related to the state of Israel because of its violations of international law, the movement is portrayed as an attack on the academic freedom of Israeli academia. Concentrating only on the effects a call for boycott has on the free collaboration between academics from the United States and Israel is too narrow a scope.
Rather, the argument about the boycott and academic freedom should primarily take notice of the situation of academia in the Palestinian territories. In a situation such as the one existing in Gaza is academic freedom not grossly impaired? There, it is not the stance and vocal protest of activists that impedes collaboration with scholars, but the state of Israel’s continued embargo and blockade (with the support and complicity of other countries such as Egypt) and its periodic military interventions, helped by billions of dollars in military aid from the United States, the latest of which left over 2,000 civilians dead. Understood in this broader sense, the call for an academic BDS of Israel is certainly about defending and expanding academic freedom: namely making it extensive and guaranteed to Palestinian scholars and students.
Recently, a motion to pass a resolution in support of the academic boycott against the state of Israel has been debated in the Doctoral Students’ Council. After an initial debate, the DSC tabled the motion, underscoring one of the problems that supporters of BDS face, in the Graduate Center and elsewhere: that is, making clear what the BDS movement actually stands for and dispelling myths and cartoonish representations in order to persuade. Here, the burden falls on those who support the academic boycott to convince others, not on all to agree as if its justification was self-evident.
The purpose of the academic boycott, which is part of the broader non-violent BDS movement, is clear: to prevent and combat, within academia, the normalization of the systematic violation of Palestinian rights and of international law by the state of Israel until it changes its policies. Jewish, or even Israeli, students and scholars should not feel targeted for who they are when activists demand boycott or sanctions against the state of Israel. In fact, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, one of the primary organizations organizing the call for BDS, clearly states that it:
“rejects on principle boycotts of individuals based on their identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion) or opinion. If, however, an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution (such as a dean, rector, or president), or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to “rebrand” itself, then her/his activities are subject to the institutional boycott the BDS movement is calling for.
Mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott.”
Targeting Israel for its relation to the Jewish people would be clearly anti-Semitic. As would be targeting individuals because of their identity. But this is not what the BDS movement is about. It is has nothing to do with the relation of the Jewish people to the state of Israel. The movement is only about that state’s oppressive and repressive actions against Palestinians and its continued disregard of international law. What is at stake is not the right of the state of Israel to exist, but the right of the Palestinian people to justice, life, and freedom.