By Bhargav Rani.
The Doctoral Students Council, at its plenary meeting on 15 April, passed a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The resolution is in response to a global call for a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement issued by Palestinian civil society, and it binds the DSC, as a body, from establishing any official affiliations with Israeli academic universities or their official subsets. It reflects an organizational stand of solidarity on the part of the DSC against the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine and the violations of the rights of its people, and does not in any way endorse the boycott of individual Israeli students or scholars nor does it prohibit collaboration between GC students and Israeli individuals.
This is not the first time that such a resolution was put to vote at the DSC, and the debate at the plenary was as contentious as its first iteration. In October 2014, a BDS resolution against Israeli institutions failed to pass at the DSC plenary due to the lack of a quorate. The vote reflected the polarization of the DSC body on the issue with thirty-one voting yes, twentyfive no and ten abstentions. The latest resolution is significantly different from the old one in that it only calls for boycott and not divestments and sanctions, and secondly, it narrows its scope to specifically academic institutions. These changes proved effective in addressing some of the criticisms leveled against its earlier version, and the resolution passed with fortytwo voting yes, nineteen no and nine abstentions.
This revisit to the resolution in its modified form in the last DSC plenary was largely precipitated by a recent letter to CUNY Chancellor James Milliken by two Jewish New York state assemblymen, Dov Hikind and David Weprin, both Democrats, demanding an immediate suspension of the group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), from CUNY campuses. SJP is a pro- Palestine student group with 126 chapters at various universities in the United States, and is the primary organizer of anti-Israel events on US college campuses. The letter, which has been endorsed by thirty-three other elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, described the group as a “toxic” organization that calls for “nothing short of the total destruction and elimination of the State of Israel.”
Leading up to the much anticipated resolution, proponents of both factions of the debate were mobilizing support on social media platforms and in the student community. The advocates of the resolution have been operating a WordPress page, https://cunyboycott. wordpress.com, detailing the context and implications of the resolution, providing links to relevant resources on the debate, and addressing some of the common criticisms. In the “FAQ” section, they note that, “academic boycott, nor BDS at large, does not imply an end to the Israeli state.” To the allegations of anti-Semitism that are being leveled against the resolution, the advocates assert that the academic boycott is not anti-Semitic as it “has no ethnic or religious component because it targets the Israeli state and not individual people.” Meanwhile, its opponents were mobilizing support for a petition (http://cunydocsfordialogue. com) calling for the DSC members to reject the proposed resolution again on the grounds that it would “violate long-established academic principles defending the free exchange of ideas, and will make our CUNY campuses divisive and uncomfortable for many of our Jewish and pro-Israel students and faculty.”
At the beginning of the plenary on Friday, the opposing faction employed its now usual strategy of deferral by proposing a motion to table the resolution on the specious grounds that there “wasn’t enough time to deliberate,” despite the weeks of mobilizations. While the motion did not pass and the resolution was put to vote in the plenary, a particular disambiguation of this argument persisted throughout the debate with certain DSC representatives claiming there isn’t enough awareness of the resolution in the student community, particularly in the various programs. Such facile arguments seemed to garner some traction till Dominique Nisperos, one of the authors of the resolution, asserted that “it is the job of the DSC reps to generate awareness of the issues under discussion throughout the year,” and “a failure to do their job” cannot be presented as an excuse to defer the vote on the resolution.
The debate on the resolution at the Friday plenary, in its general contours, was substantially different from one triggered by its previous version in October 2014, which was inordinately preoccupied with the question of whether the DSC should even be involving itself in “political” issues instead of focusing on “issues that affect students.” While some traces of this misguided argument found its way into the Friday plenary, the debate on the revised resolution, for the most part, concerned itself with the efficacy and implications of academic boycott. The terms of the debate traversed a particularly slippery ground on the allied question of academic freedom, with both factions claiming to stand for the right to academic freedom even in their greatly divergent stands on the resolution.
But this muddled understanding of academic freedom that evinced in the debate begs the essential question – Whose academic freedom is in question here? The authors and proponents of the resolution read out statements in the plenary from Palestinian academics and scholars both at the GC and in the West Bank that invoke a very specific seventy-year history of violation of Palestinian people’s right to education. In addition, they pointed towards the complicity of Israeli academic institutions in “developing military hardware, weapons, drones, and surveillance technologies; offering military training courses and posts for high-ranking military officers; declaring, via their leaders and other surrogates, their support for Israeli military offensives; discriminating against Palestinian students; and repressing voices in support of Palestinians and their struggle for self-determination.”
As opposed to that, its opponents, even as they ignored this real, material history of violations of human rights and academic freedom in Palestine, mounted a defense of a largely abstract idea of academic freedom, exemplified by such blanket statements as “there can be no such thing as academic freedom with academic boycott.” Not only do such statements misrepresent the actual terms of the resolution, which reflects an organizational stand of solidarity and does not prohibit individuals from establishing linkages with Israeli academics and students, but they also fail to realize that academic freedom means nothing when deployed as a universal abstraction, divested from the social and political conditions of its existence. The question of academic freedom is brought into sharp focus precisely in instances of its encroachment and violation, and to stand in its defense is to necessarily stand for the rights of those who are marginalized and oppressed. That is, to stand for academic freedom is to necessarily stand for Palestinian people’s right to education, it is not to stand in defense of institutions that are complicit in the violation of these very rights.
This resolution comes at a crucial time. Recently, the New York State Senate passed a resolution approving Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget cuts of $485 million USD from the CUNY system on the basis of anti-Semitism allegations leveled against the university. These allegations are largely baseless, as Gordon Barnes notes in this month’s feature article, and “while there are surely individual anti-Semites on CUNY campuses, there exists no organized or concerted effort to espouse anti-Semitic politics or propaganda.” The DSC’s successful adoption of the resolution at its last plenary denotes not just solidarity with Palestinian people but also signifies an unequivocal stand against the CUNY administration’s subservience to state interests at the expense of its student community.