The last apartheid state

February 12, 2014

The American Studies Association (ASA) passed a resolution in mid-December announcing its intention to honor the academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions called for by the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The ASA vote helped to catapult discussion of BDS and Israel's denial of rights to Palestinians into the mainstream.

On February 3, Students for Justice in Palestine at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., held a forum on "Why the Boycott? Panel on the ASA Decision and Academic Freedom." Bill Mullen is a professor of English and American Studies at Purdue University and member of the ASA's Caucus on Academic and Community Activism, which made the initial motion for the ASA to consider an academic boycott. Here, we print an edited version of his speech.

MY GRATITUDE, first of all, to Northwestern Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for this invitation, and to my colleagues for appearing, and to the audience for coming out. I'm honored.

I want to start by saying that during the course of working with the American Studies Association (ASA) to pass this resolution, one of the uplifting moments for us was a letter of support for the resolution, submitted by the National Students for Justice in Palestine, which is a conglomerate of more than 38 SJP chapters around the country that signed on with their strong and full support. One of those chapters was the Northwestern chapter, and I wanted to give a big round of applause to them for that act. It was absolutely indicative of the groundswell of support for the ASA's boycott resolution.

In fact, as I stand here tonight, I think it's safe to say that we are getting closer and closer to what BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has called a tipping point in the normalization of the boycott movement of Israel in this country. I think that is for the better, and I want to talk about why tonight.

The American School in Gaza was destroyed during Israel's onslaught
Israel bombed the American School in Gaza during its Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009

I also want to say that in the past 12 months, three North American academic organizations have voted to boycott Israeli universities. The Association of Asian American Studies was first, passing a resolution last spring, then the ASA, and shortly thereafter the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. In fact, this constitutes not a one-off moment, but a wave, and in fact, there are several other professional academic organizations right now drafting their own resolutions, which I think we will see coming forward in 2014.

We've also seen the BDS movement break through into the mainstream media--the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times have all recently carried op-ed pieces in support of the boycott of Israeli universities. For those of you who have been around this movement for a while, you know that this was not thinkable even a year ago or two years ago. This is not because of the ASA; it's because the ideas that have fueled the boycott movement are taking hold in the consciousness of many people in this country, and the news media can no longer ignore this fact.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is trying to negotiate a peace settlement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, has warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a "boycott campaign on steroids" if Israel doesn't come up with a peace agreement in this upcoming round of negotiations. Netanyahu himself has conferred with his own Knesset about how to deal with this "widening menace" of boycott, as he sees it. And in Ha'aretz, one of the leading Israeli newspapers, two Israeli writers have basically said, "You know, what's wrong with BDS?"

SO THIS is not something that is specific to the American Studies Association. It's a global movement that is catching on and making waves, and I want to talk about why.

I think it's safe to say that the BDS movement has broken a taboo in this country about criticizing Israel for its illegal occupation of Palestinian land and its crimes of discrimination against Palestinians. For those of you who are new to the boycott movement, let me provide a brief history. In 2005, 170 organizations from Palestinian civil society formed the BDS movement. They modeled it closely on the divestment and boycott campaign directed against South Africa during the apartheid years.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is a legal, nonviolent response of Palestinian civil society to the illegal and discriminatory occupation. It is predicated on three demands, which many members of organizations like the ASA stand in solidarity with, although the ASA resolution was not a replica of anything that PACBI has written.

The three demands are:

1) an end to the illegal occupation and the return of stolen Arab and Palestinian lands and the removal of the apartheid wall that splits Palestine and the West Bank,

2) full equality for Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel,

3) and respect for UN Resolution 194, which guarantees the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland. The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNWRA) estimates that there are approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees, who since 1947 have been displaced from their homeland.

The first thing you will hear said about the ASA's resolution is that it violates academic freedom. That is absolutely false. The ASA resolution targets only Israeli institutions and not individual scholars, and this is a very important distinction. Secondly, it only pertains to ASA's organizational relationship to Israeli institutions. ASA has agreed that it will not formally partner with Israeli universities, until those universities cease and desist their collaboration with discriminatory aspects of the Israeli occupation. Thirdly, the ASA resolution has no effect on individual scholars. Scholars from Israeli universities were present at the meeting where this resolution was voted on, and they will be present at next year's meeting in Los Angeles. It does not impede the traffic of ideas or thought in any way.

I'll come back later to the fact that university presidents and congressional representatives have decided to use academic freedom as the primary focus of their criticism of this resolution, because in fact they have no arguments that withstand scrutiny in defense of the Israeli occupation.

TO GO into a little more detail, the ASA resolution points to the complicity of Israeli universities in aspects of the Israeli occupation.

Let me enumerate some of those:

-- Some Israeli universities are built on stolen Palestinian land. One example would be Tel Aviv University. Israeli universities provide research on demographics, hydrology, geography and other subjects that directly benefit Israel's illegal occupation. Israeli universities are involved in weapons research and manufacture, much of which is used against Palestinian civil populations. This would include weapons produced by Technion, or the Technological Institute of Israel, which is the largest single research university dedicated to weapons. Just recently, Technion partnered formally with Cornell University to build a campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City. This is a merger that those of us in the BDS movement oppose because the use of weaponry against civilian populations actually violates U.S. export law, International Court of Justice rulings and many UN resolutions as well.

Palestinian students face systematic discrimination in Israeli universities. Palestinians constitute 20 percent of the population of Israel, and less than 10 percent of the enrollment in higher education. Palestinian students are three times more likely to be rejected when applying to Israeli universities than Jewish Israelis, for example. These are conditions that we would readily recognize as discriminatory in the United States.

The premise of the BDS movement is to bring Israel up to a standard of respect for international law and rights which countries that proclaim themselves democracies actually practice. The practices I outlined above are not democracy by any stretch of the imagination.

The ASA resolution aims not only to point out the complicity of Israeli universities in the occupation, but also to extend academic freedom by spreading consciousness of the fact that many Palestinian scholars and students at this moment in history do not enjoy academic freedom.

What do I mean by this? First of all, Palestinian academics cannot travel freely in and out of their homeland. Haidar Eid, a scholar in Gaza, just this morning posted on his Facebook page that because the Israeli government won't allow him to leave Gaza, he's unable to attend the ASA conference in Los Angeles that he has been invited to. Where are the Northwestern University president and the presidents of other universities to express outrage at this violation of academic freedom?

To give another example, a few days ago Israel barred a student in Gaza from leaving to attend the Coexistence Program at New York University (NYU). NYU's president was one of the first to come out and condemn the ASA for its boycott. We have not heard one word from NYU about the discrimination that this student from Gaza is facing. This is not just a double standard. This is the norm in the occupation. Birzeit University, which at one point was a premiere research university in Ramallah, has almost no students from Gaza anymore because Israel has cut off the circulation of students between Gaza and the university.

PALESTINIAN SCHOLARS and students work not only without what we would consider "academic freedom," but also under the threat of violence. In 2008, the Islamic University in Gaza, as part of Israel's Operation Cast Lead offensive, was severely bombed. Buildings were destroyed, and classes were canceled. This is not uncommon in the West Bank and Gaza.

On January 23, Israeli forces invaded Al Quds University in East Jerusalem. Several dozen students were wounded, causing the president of Bard College, which has a formal relationship with Al Quds, to come out and criticize Israel for this action. He said:

As a partner in this mission, and an institution of higher education, we deplore these violent actions and demand that all efforts be made to prevent their recurrence. Military incursions into the university campus fly in the face of the basic mission of any institution of higher education.

But Bard President Leon Botstein has also condemned the academic boycott. This is not just a double standard; this is a miscarriage of justice.

And two last examples of the way in which we might think of "academic freedom," here as an unstable category in Israel under the occupation. How many of you know the name of Ilan Pappé? Ilan Pappé is a superb Israeli historian and has written a book that is indispensable for anyone's understanding of the history of Palestine. It's called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

When Prof. Pappé was at Haifa University and announced his support for the BDS movement, he was asked by his university president to resign. He was harassed so viciously for his support of BDS that he left Israel and now works in the UK. Is that academic freedom? Is that democracy?

In 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed a bill known as the Nakba Law. The word "nakba" in Arabic means "catastrophe." It's a term used by Palestinians to describe the forced, violent displacement of 750,000 people between 1947 and 1949 during the creation of the state of Israel. In 2011, the Knesset made it illegal for any textbooks in schools within Israel to use the term. Schools were threatened with having their funding cut if the word "nakba" appeared.

Is this academic freedom? Is this democracy? The ASA says no. So does the Asian American Studies Association. So does the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

Israel is often described by people in power in the United States as the "only democracy in the Middle East." I think I've given you some pause to think about that problematic formulation just by talking about Israel's universities. I haven't even gotten to the checkpoints, the barbed wire, the indefinite detentions, the arrest of children, the other injustices that characterize life for Palestinians.

My life was really changed when I went to the West Bank in January 2012 and encountered the violence of everyday life. Robin Kelley, a historian of African American history at the University of California-Los Angeles, was on the trip with us. Upon his return, he remarked: "It was a level of racist violence I have never seen." Now this is a man who has seen a lot of racist violence. He grew up in America, and he's a Black man. He studies it. And I similarly felt that it was a level of racist violence that I had never seen.

So to talk about "Israel as a democracy" is something that the BDS movement wants to call into question. Undoubtedly, somebody will ask me tonight, "Why are you singling out Israel?" The answer is simple: Israel has singled itself out by repeatedly violating UN resolutions, by ignoring international courts of law that have called on Israel to stop the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel has made itself a target by violating codes of international conduct. But that's just one answer to the question.

Secondly, the ASA was responding to a call for a boycott from Palestinians. This is an indigenous boycott movement, like the movement against South African apartheid, which was initiated by South African trade unions and the African National Congress to bring down apartheid. This is a call for international solidarity, and the ASA has responded to that call.

And the last thing I will say about singling out Israel is to anticipate and answer the question, "Well, why aren't you boycotting China?" Firstly, no one has asked. But more importantly, China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq--these countries have no formal relationship with the American Studies Association. There is no reason for us to boycott. But also, I will point out, many of these countries have faced sanctions from the international community. The BDS campaign is an attempt to apply the same standards of international conduct to Israel that have been applied to other countries in the world.

THREE LAST points: Why is it important to support the BDS movement? Israel is the last apartheid state on earth. We have to bring apartheid down. If you are in this room and you are a young activist with social justice concerns and you want to fight racism, you need to join this battle. This can be the South Africa of your time, of my time, of all of our times. But it needs to happen.

Secondly, the BDS movement is important, because as you've seen on this campus, it's challenging the way universities do politics. Almost 200 university presidents have condemned this boycott. How many of them ask for a vote by their faculty? How many ask for a vote by the students? How many ask the janitors or the people who work in the cafeteria? None.

You want to talk about violations of academic freedom? Let's look at the conduct of autocratic presidents speaking about international affairs on behalf of communities of 30,000 or 40,000 scholars and students. Michael McRobbie, the president of Indiana University (IU), actually rescinded the institutional affiliation between IU's American Studies program (which he probably didn't know existed until the boycott) and the ASA. This violates faculty governance, this violates any sense of campus democracy, and that's where the threat lies. Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, has just written a very good article about this.

And I want to put this in context. Most of us are old enough to remember 9/11. Do you remember the way things chilled on university campuses? Do you remember the black lists? Do you remember Joe Lieberman and Lynne Cheney's list of dangerous American professors who dared to say that U.S. foreign policy might have had something to do with 9/11?

In late January, the New York legislature passed a law by a wide margin that threatened to defund any program or scholar or group of scholars on campus that participated in a boycott--a massive violation of academic freedom and frankly a violation of the First Amendment. I'm happy to report that the New York legislature today withdrew that piece of legislation from its agenda after a massive phone call and letter writing campaign that I think made them reconsider what they were dealing with.

But also today, the Maryland Legislature drafted copycat legislation. So if you know somebody in Maryland, tell them to pick up the phone and call their legislature to tell them that it is a violation of academic freedom and the First Amendment to push for this kind of law.

The third and perhaps most important point is this: The United States has what is sometimes called a "special relationship" with Israel. Part of that is monetary. The United States sends more than $3 billion a year to Israel. That is more aid than any other country in the world receives from the U.S. We pay for Israel's occupation. We pay for its crimes.

It's one of the reasons that scholars in the ASA said that we need to speak out and criticize our own government and its policies. That's part of the resolution. U.S. power and U.S. imperialism have been centered in the Middle East since 1945. We fought more wars there, we've dropped more bombs there, and we're deploying drones there and in Afghanistan and Pakistan--all because we are fighting for control of the region's oil.

The BDS struggle is part of opposing this. It's part of calling to account U.S. imperialism and its drive to projects its power around the world, and it's part of expressing our support for and solidarity with the continuous victims of this around the world. Palestinians make up one component of those victims. So I urge you to join in solidarity with the BDS campaign. We need to remember that an injury to someone in Gaza is an injury to all of us.

Transcribed by Karen Domínguez Burke

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