In one of the better attended panel discussions, the MLA’s panel on academic boycott of Israeli universities was contentious and one-sided. About 100 people attended the session, titled “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” and featured prominent anti-Israeli professors.
Omar Barghouti was a keynote panelist and speaker, having started the BDS (or boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement and petition. Other co-panelists were David Lloyd of Cal-Berkeley, another leader of the BDS movement, Barbara Jane Harlow of the University of Texas and Richard Ohmann, emeritus professor at Wesleyan. Samer Ali, a professor at Texas, was the moderator.
Ali claimed he was “agnostic” about the subject, even after petitioning for pro-BDS questions on Facebook (as Legal Insurrection noted) and focused on using the terminology “occupied territories” (commonly used by pro-BDS supporters) to emphasize his agnosticism on the subject.
Barghouti railed against Israel and Israeli universities, calling the occupation of Palestinian territories another type of apartheid and how Israelis see Palestinians as “relative humans” with limited rights and privileges. He noted how an Irish teachers’ union, the American Studies Assocation and Stephen Hawkings have supported the BDS movement and called for the MLA to do likewise. Barghouti said that the “academic freedom” of Palestinian academics is limited under Israeli control and added, “Israeli attacks on Palestinian educators is as old as the state itself.” There is too much “fear of repression” among Palestinian scholars, Barghouti said, and quoted Human Rights Watch’s position on academic freedom for Palestinians. He said that the MLA and all academics have a “profound moral obligation” to join the ASA and others to boycott Israeli universities and concluded they would be “hard-pressed to explain” why they should not boycott Israeli universities.
Harlow agreed with Barghouti and called the Israeli’s actions a “longstanding, grievous” violation of human rights and international humanitarian laws and gave three examples:
- Apartheid was not only a South African problem and Israel is committing crimes against humanity. She quoted the International Criminal Court’s Dubon statute and a 1976 convention on crimes against humanity.
- “Ongoing house demolitions that are taking place in Israel” violate the 1949 Geneva Convention’s article 53 that refers to demolishing places of residence for civilians. Harlow said, “600,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel”.
- Harlow cited the International Court of Justice’s position on Israel-Palestine
She went on to say, “I could go on with examples from international humanitarian law and international human rights law” and said that the MLA is full of “academics with a responsibility for our collective concerns”. If academics have any integrity, surmised Harlow, they would join in the academic boycott of Israeli universities.
David Lloyd criticized Israel and Israeli universities, starting with a wordy introduction of the Israel-Palestine controversy relating how fiery weapons rained from the skies as “an act of collective punishment” and one of “extraordinary disproportional firepower” when Israel fired missiles at Palestinian-run Gaza in recent years. He denounced the U.S. Senate’s support of Israel and praised four unnamed “courageous representatives” for voting against the pro-Israeli resolution.
Throughout his speech, Lloyd never looked at the crowd and looked to the ceiling, criticizing Reagan’s “divestment” policy with apartheid South Africa, which he accused academics of mimicking today. He argued that the BDS movement only asked Israel to be a “normal democracy” that is “free of legalized discrimination” against Palestinians. Lloyd said, “This is an invitation, not a threat” and went on to say this is an “invitation of freedom for oneself…to step out of the meshes of the colonial Zionist project….that has become more repressive”. Lloyd wanted to “bring home the lessons of the Palestinian struggle” and compared this struggle to that of South Africa and invoked Nelson Mandela’s name. He envisioned “cohabitation based on a society” that is based on justice and equality for Palestinians.
Richard Ohmann, who was a recipient of heavy criticism in the MLA delegate convention (as reported by Inside Higher Ed), spoke next and said that the U.S. had no standing in the Israel-Palestine conflict. He said that the U.S. was “complicit…in ideological cover known as the peace process” and the “continuing theft of Palestinian water [and] dignity”. Ohmann did not spare professors either and said, “We, U.S., academics help pay with our taxes $3 billion to Israel’s military” and asked what efforts American universities have made to reverse the Palestinian’s current maladies.
Ohmann claimed “I feel hot breath on my neck” from “the Israel lobby” and blamed American professors for going along. He said he “silently cheered” the ASA’s boycott and also enjoyed “the thunderous reaction” of the American public regarding the ASA’s boycott. Yet, he expressed his concerns of how joining the ASA boycott could lead to professors losing tenure, adjunct professors losing their jobs as universities sever ties with the ASA. He praised “the thunderous presidential herd” that is pushing the boycott issue forward.
The question and answer portion of the panel was just as critical of Israel and fellow academics as the speaking portion was. Lloyd rebutted a question about whether Israel is being unfairly singled out and said it is “one of the very few, few countries of the world that is not held to the courts of justice for its persistent…crimes against humanity”. Because of its “division between citizenship and nationality”, this Israeli “the ruse of citizenship masks” “systemic” problem of divisions within the country. He claimed that “Israel is singled out to be the only nation not be held accountable” by world leaders.
He went on to mention how “all of us have been involved in the anti-war movement” and would “have our voices heard in the streets”. Lloyd claimed that their voices had not been heard because “we were not supposed to have town hall meetings under George W. [Bush]” and said it was “ridiculous” to suggest professors do not or should not involve themselves in other political activities.
Lloyd did not spare his own employer, Cal-Berkeley, and said Cal is “a corporate entity” as its presidents try to stamp down on the BDS movement. He boasted “the efficacy of the boycott movement is proving itself” and advised that “it’s time for the MLA to step forward and honor its ethical” standard to support their Palestinian colleagues in Palestine.
Lloyd said, “Nobody forced black people in Alabama to not ride the buses” and that a boycott is a choice for people. He said, “It only asks you to withdraw your consent from” a political system and “ideally, we would have cut off all of interactions with Israeli universities”. He noted that “the difference between calling for a boycott, which is temporary” compared “to an cleansing of an entire people” is large, and that he would rather be with the Palestinians in this case.
Harlow chimed in on the boycott question and asked, “why not?” She noted that apartheid was also a “long struggle” in South Africa and accused Israel of establishing “apartheid on its own territories”. Harlow corrected herself and said Israel is committing apartheid “on its occupied territories”. She admitted that “I don’t know if we have done that much” and hoped that “this is the academic option” to expand and start over again for the MLA.
Omar Barghouti took the stage and said, “as long as they’re [Israelis] repressing us, we’ll resist their repression”. He took offense at comparisons to German discrimination in World War Two and said that there was none, because Israeli discrimination is based on identity and not ethnicity. Barghouti told the audience that American tax dollars are being “used to repress another people” and mentioned how “Palestinian unions warmly saluted the ASA” boycott. When asked if boycotts are targeting the wrong people, he could only offer that boycotts “always impact people” and “limit the infringement of people’s rights”. He admitted “we might infringe on their privileges” but it never always hurts the targeted “evil” people.
Barghouti said that the boycott is necessary because “people under repression have no choice” to study elsewhere in Israel and Palestinians academics who avoid the boycott “have a vested interest” in joint research with Israelis but hardly “represent the majority” of Palestinian opinion. He hoped that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) would also join the boycott with the ASA.
Ohmann claimed over 100 university presidents are attacking the ASA and possibly the MLA, if the MLA would adopt this measure. These presidents threaten to sever ties with professors who support the ASA boycott, which he found threatening to academic integrity. He ended his contribution to the discussion and said, “I have three days left until I’m off the board of the MLA. After that I’ll raise trouble.”