Beyond “Academic Freedom”: An Argument for Palestinian Liberation

~ Moulshri Mohan

The American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli government-funded academic institutions has provoked much righteous indignation among major news outlets in the U.S. “A repugnant attack on academic freedom” cries the Huffington Post. “Academic Freedom Against Itself” – a ponderous NYT opinion. “92 Universities reject the boycott” proclaims the Jerusalem Post proudly (wow, the neoliberal/corporate university supports you, you must be absolutely in the right). The Wall Street Journal gravely denounces the boycott as “A vote against Israel and Academic Freedom”.

But of course, USian universities and newspapers are the natural arbiters of justice. Who else? They themselves are in general such moral, upstanding institutions, with their consistent support for human rights (such as an affordable education…or unbiased reporting on international affairs…particularly in relation to the U.S.’s many humanitarian wars1).

What really amazes me, though, is how…basic the argument for so-called “academic freedom” in these articles is. Academic freedom is a concept that was put forward to protect academics from political pressure and censure (coming from universities or the state), and to ensure that they have freedom of inquiry. Though contested (which would be another article altogether), I think it is quite a useful idea.

I’m unsure as to how these righteous spokesmen for the public good think the boycott is infringing on academic freedom though, since it is patently, evidently, doing the opposite.

Firstly, and simply, the ASA’s Frequently Asked Questions lay it out quite clearly: individual scholars are largely unaffected by the boycott – they can come to the ASA conference/be hosted by the universities ASA members belong to. ASA members can collaborate with Israeli scholars on research and publications. Therefore, it is only the universities themselves, run on government funding, which are going to be affected by the boycott2.

Secondly…this whole argument rather reminds me of hate speech-spewing individuals defending themselves: “But but but – freedom of speech! The constitution! My rights!” I mean, really – who cares about racists?! Similarly, Israeli and American public voices invoke values of “open-mindedness!”, “tolerance!”, even bringing out that old beaten horse, “cultural exchange!” (i.e. [comfortable] [privilege-reinforcing] cultural exchange) to argue against the boycott. Well, how about some cultural exchange with Palestinians? (Or Iraqis, or Afghans, or Somalis). When Israel occupies Palestinian land, restricts the movement of Palestinians or visitors to Palestinian land, shuts down Palestinian universities and therefore shuts down Palestinian academic [and otherwise] voices; when the United States and its people happily support such an occupation…neither deserves to ask for rights. They already have more than their lot. The freedom of speech, the cultural exchange, the academic freedom they speak about are no more than rights afforded by empire2,3,4,5.

Thirdly, the “academic freedom” news outlets are referring to right now is a twisted version of its ideal self – it is right now a principle meant to protect the oppressed being used to keep the privileged oppressor on his throne. Freedom of inquiry cannot exist without human freedom. The two are inseparable concepts.

An example I’m sure all of us are familiar with: if a person or a group does not have money, forget about access to books, classes, teachers, graduate school, a job, critical thinking and dialogue, a voice. Similarly, if you haven’t been groomed all your life, forget about it. If you look different, forget about it. And if you come from an occupied territory, apparently, you can forget about it. This is all fundamentally at odds with both academic and human freedom.

Academics – or at least the academics that “count”– in Global North countries, and even to some extent those in third world ones, are a pretty privileged bunch. They have an education and a job. In addition, those who succeed in their world are born with other kinds of privilege as well. I’m a Psychology major and I hang out on the social sciences side of things – and I’ve had two professors of color in my whole time here. I’ve never had a non-American professor. This is no accident. And when you’re privileged it’s pretty easy to keep that going by doing “good science” and worrying about “publishing or perishing” rather than looking at the bigger picture of justice and representation. If the more privileged voices continue drowning out the less privileged ones – where’s the freedom in that?

This is what is passing for academic freedom in the United States, which is the global center of research in just about…everything today. And if this is what major news outlets and universities are defending, I want no part in it. The job of the academic is producing (and criticizing) knowledge. Okay, that’s great, excellent! I don’t particularly care what money-hungry universities (cough, cough, Dartmouth) or self-congratulatory newspapers say, but academics need to realize: it isn’t possible to produce a knowledge insulated from a human world (not just a human USA, or a human Israel) though – a world where people bleed, and die, and go hungry, and lose limbs and children, and are seen as at fault if they are poor, and as worthless if they are unemployed.

It doesn’t work to console students and themselves, make a grudging concession to the existence of unheard narratives, by saying “and of course there is a cross-cultural aspect to this…yes there was work on Japan and Israel and Europe…of course nothing is universal…of course there is research…” There isn’t enough research. And there are uglier, unhappier parts of the world that need to be explored, uncovered. And when people who are trying to do that (Palestinian scholars, if that wasn’t clear), trying to amplify their lived, unheard, narrative, are restricted and given less opportunity, and when that is presented as normal, freedom in general is compromised. “Research is me-search,” said a professor to us the other day. Well, the only me’s that are getting to do research are the supremely privileged ones, and that’s where the problem with the argument for academic freedom lies.

When people, and fields, and institutions, tell themselves that it is ok to be producing/disseminating/only getting funding and state permission for such an isolated, isolationist knowledge, they’re really just going along comfortably with the unquestioned narrative, the received wisdom, about morality, and good science, and objectivity (as if). A gentle reminder: another job of the academic is questioning received wisdom (of all kinds, not just limited to their field). This is why we need representation in academia – across the world. This is why the insulation of academics by the state, the corporate university, the capitalist mentality of “publish or perish”, and Ivy League elitism is so very harmful.

Perhaps it’s wrong and silly to care about “the academy” so much – it is rather ironic that I expect U.S. scholars, all benefiting somewhat from the same federal funding that supports Israel, to boycott it. However, simply for that reason I suppose – and also all the ones I have laid out above – I think ASA’s boycott of Israeli government-funded academic institutions, which are instrumental in the silencing of Palestinian voices searching for freedom, is a move that was courageous, and needed for a long time. It protects the intertwined issues of human rights and academic freedom, provides painfully needed representation, and levels the playing field of whose narrative gets heard, at least a little bit.


1Hallin, Daniel. We keep America on top of the world: Television journalism and the public sphere. Routledge, 2006.






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