Last week, when Neve Gordon, an Israeli professor of political science, published an article in The New York Times arguing that boycotting Israel is the only way to make any progress towards justice for Palestine, Israelis and Jews all over the world called for his dismissal. Their excuse for opposing boycott is ‘academic freedom’.
Yet, as philosophy professor in Tel Aviv University Anat Matar reminded Ha’aretz readers, only when well-heeled Israeli academics begin to pay a real price for the continuous occupation of Palestine, will they take genuine steps towards ending the occupation.
Academic freedom is relative. On the one side of the fence we have Gaza’s children beginning the school year in shattered classroom, with no building materials allowed by Israel to rebuild their bombed schools, without school books, notebooks or writing utensils that cannot be brought into Gaza because of the Israeli embargo – Israel can boycott Gaza’s school, yet no one protests.
In the West Bank hundreds of students are under arrest in Israeli jails, and the ‘separation fence’ (otherwise known as the ‘apartheid wall’) preventing students and lecturers from reaching classes, libraries and research labs. Conferences abroad are an impossibility – yes, Israel can boycott Palestinian universities and no one protests.
On the other side of the fence Israeli academics guard their freedom of research what the regime wants them to research, appointing former army officers to university positions. Tel Aviv University prides itself on having 55 of its research projects funded by the Israeli Ministry of Defence; the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Defence Department is funding nine other projects. All Israeli universities offer special study programmes for the military. Yes, Israel can conduct military research and no one protests, and only a small number of academics speak against the occupation. And when brave academics like Gordon and Matar call for a boycott, they are accused of opposing academic freedom.
As Obama, Mitchell, Netanyahu and Abbas eventually get together to rekindle the ‘peace process’, let’s spare a thought about freedom. What is the meaning of freedom when you cannot send your child to study in a school building rather than rubble? What is the meaning of freedom when you never know whether you will reach your university lecture on time, due to the interminable checkpoint regime? What is the meaning of freedom if, as a Palestinian Israeli citizen, you can be detained for hours in the airport before you can reach the conference you were invited to give a keynote lecture in abroad – as has happened to a number of my Palestinian colleagues? What is the meaning of freedom if, brave Israeli academics who call for boycotting the occupation regime are met with international calls for dismissal as happened in Gordon’s case? I am an Israeli citizen, and I believe that boycotting Israel is the first step towards freedom.