Earlier in February, a panel held at Brooklyn College on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel was subjected to relentless vilification, bullying and unfounded allegations. The campaign against Brooklyn College was so intense that even the New York Times and the mayor of New York intervened to express their support for academic freedom by urging the event to go ahead as scheduled. PACBI watched as one of its founding members, Omar Barghouti, was subjected to verbal abuse and the movement as a whole was demonized. We watched as media coverage of the Brooklyn College controversy suppressed Palestinian voices, those that can best explain why Palestinian civil society has embarked on this non-violent, rights-based struggle for Palestinian rights and how it is deeply inspired by the South African anti-apartheid and the U.S. civil rights movements.
Yet, despite this, we stood strong with admiration as our supporters around the US pushed back and rallied to ensure not only that the event took place, but also that the movement’s principles were communicated with clarity and articulated with patience.
At PACBI, we feel it is necessary to offer a few words as we move forward, building from all the momentum that this episode has brought to the movement. In the case of the accusations of our adversaries from the far right and center left, Professor Judith Butler has already addressed these with eloquence in her comments at the Brooklyn College event. We would like, here, to deal with two specific issues that continue to be raised, unfortunately, by some supposedly well-read supporters of Palestinian rights, as we feel these are important issues to respond to as we build the movement, even if we have done so elsewhere over the years. Those who sought to shut down the Brooklyn event also held onto these two points. The first is that BDS does not take a position on a one or two state solution, and really just seeks to destroy Israel. The second is that BDS targets Israeli academics and is thus against academic freedom, and worse, is racist.
In the first instance, Israel and its well-oiled lobby groups, which even Thomas Friedman accuses of buying allegiance in Congress, have been trying to delegitimize the Palestinian quest for equality by portraying the BDS Call’s emphasis on equal rights and the right of return as aiming to “destroy Israel.” One must wonder, if equality and justice would destroy Israel, what does that say about Israel? Did equality and justice destroy South Africa? Did they destroy the US southern states during the civil rights movement? Justice and equality only destroy their negation, injustice and inequality. Indeed, the BDS movement does not take a position on political solutions; no matter what solution is reached, it must respect the three basic rights of the Palestinian people that are stated in the BDS Call and upheld by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians.
Specifically, BDS calls for an end to Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967; an end to what even the U.S. Department of State slams as Israel’s “institutional, legal, and societal discrimination” against its Palestinian citizens; and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands from which they were forcibly displaced.
BDS advocates equal rights for all and consistently opposes all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. One can imagine a fulfillment of our demands, which are enshrined in international law, through a number of solutions. We do state, loud and clear, that any solution would have to be founded on international law, which would imply that Israel could not be an exclusivist Jewish state.
Those who condition their support for BDS on the movement‘s adoption of the so-called "international consensus," which is nothing more than an unjust solution dictated by Israel and the world‘s only current superpower, the US, are asking us to forfeit some of our basic rights as humans, which reveals a deeply disingenuous position. They are also asking us to forget the history of struggles from South Africa to Algeria to Northern Ireland to the U.S. south, where the "consensus" was once entirely unjust, until it shifted, with persistent, principled struggle, and tireless efforts by many, towards a more just solution. Our basic rights are not negotiable; solutions are.
On the second charge, PACBI has already stated clearly that the movement targets complicit Israeli institutions and not individual Israeli academics. However, some have continued to accuse the movement of targeting individuals, either because they do not read the BDS movement’s literature, they are trying to spread misinformation for the sake of propaganda, or they legitimately feel that individuals represent the institutions they work in and thus see some inconsistency with this. We address the latter.
color:#222222">guidelines explicitly state that, “mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is therefore not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott”. This is important because one could indeed draw the extremist position that affiliation is de facto complicity, and one would not be entirely wrong. However, PACBI has striven to ensure that guidelines could be properly implemented without falling into the traps of litmus tests for individual complicity, and was careful not to target individuals. Our guidelines do leave room for individuals to go further in their personal implementation of the boycott, even if we may not specifically endorse this. Thus, Israeli academics are regularly invited to speak in international venues with no objection by PACBI; our objection would arise should their participation be institutionally funded or sponsored by a complicit Israeli or Brand Israel institution. To not boycott at all on the grounds that the movement does not target institutional affiliation becomes counterproductive in this context, and may reveal dishonest motivations.
Still, for others, the fact that PACBI has consistently refrained from adopting blanket boycotts against individual Israeli academics, despite the involvement of a great majority of them in planning or at the very least justifying and maintaining Israel’s occupation, colonization and apartheid, has not been sufficient, and they accuse academic boycott of infringing on academic freedom. In holding to international law, we take
color:#222222">the definition of the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights on academic freedom, which includes:
the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction. The enjoyment of academic freedom carries with it obligations, such as the duty to respect the academic freedom of others, to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views, and to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds. [emphasis added]
Keeping in mind the validity of this definition, we are keenly aware of the importance of the academic freedom of the individual, but also recognize that such freedoms should not extend automatically to institutions.
color:#222222">Judith Butler has called on us to question
the classically liberal conception of academic freedom with a view that grasps the political realities at stake, and see that our struggles for academic freedom must work in concert with the opposition to state violence, ideological surveillance, and the systematic devastation of everyday life.
It is incumbent on all of us to develop such a nuanced understanding of academic freedom if we are to call for social justice and work alongside the oppressed in their struggles. Without increasing international pressure to hold it accountable to human rights principles, Israel will carry on with total impunity its brutal and illegal siege of Gaza; its untamed construction of illegal colonies and wall in the occupied West Bank; its “strategy of Judaization” in Jerusalem, the Galilee, the Jordan Valley and the Naqab (Negev); its adoption of new racist laws; and its denial of refugees’ rights, to name just a few violations. A total and comprehensive boycott, including academic boycott, is a necessary and ethical form of resistance to achieve freedom, equality and justice when the international community has failed to do so.