Australian Academics Should Stand Up For Palestine


At the end of 2013, the UN General Assembly voted by a margin of 110 to 7, to proclaim 2014 as International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian people. The seven votes in opposition included Israel, the US, Canada, Pacific Island nations and Australia. 

At the beginning of 2014, the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop again put Australia in the international minority by questioning the illegality of Israeli settlements, saying, “I would like to see which international law has declared them illegal.” Bishop branded the Palestinian initiated Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic. 

By supporting the BDS movement, which promotes Palestinians’ rights to self-determination, Australians working in tertiary education could challenge this "who cares about human rights" attitude. Academic organisations in the USA and the UK have already shown how to mount such a challenge.    

In early 2013 the US Council of Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) endorsed by a unanimous vote the call to all members of NAISA to honour the boycott call in the BDS movement. In April 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies also endorsed the BDS movement and in December the American Studies Association voted by a ratio of more than 2-1 to boycott Israeli academic institutions which contribute to human rights abuses including the occupation of Palestinian land.

American academics’ support for the BDS movement is explained in numerous articles and letters written by prestigious professors, many of them Jewish. In New York’s Jewish Daily Forward of 19 December, Eric Cheyfitz, Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University wrote,

“I have an immediate interest in a just outcome for the Palestinian people, which would also be a just outcome for the state of Israel. Simply put, I want my grandchildren to grow up in a democracy, not in a state that proclaims itself a democracy while denying human rights to a population under its control — a population that has the right to a sovereign state of its own on territory currently under the colonial domination of Israel.”

In the LA Times, Carolyn Karcher, Professor Emerita of English at Temple University wrote that after a recent visit to Israel “I was profoundly shaken by the brutality I saw toward Palestinians [and therefore]I feel more strongly than ever the urgency of taking a stand in solidarity with Palestinians and their besieged Israeli allies.”

Frances Boyle, Professor of Law at Harvard wrote to the President of that university, “Harvard should be doing something about its own long standing bigotry and racism against the Palestinians, not criticising those of us trying to help the Palestinians suffering from Israeli persecution, war crimes, crimes against humanity and outright genocide.”

In Australia, collective support for the BDS movement could be registered through unions and/or by professional associations such as those representing psychologists or engineers, sociologist, lawyers or doctors. 

But if any individual or organisation dares to support BDS, they should expect to be abused for doing so. Such abuse is part of the Israeli government’s public relations campaign to present Israel as a victim of terrorism and BDS supporters as wanting to de-legitimise the Israeli state.  

As soon as the American Studies Association voted in favour of the academic boycott, their Facebook page received an avalanche of abusive postings. Individual academics across the USA received threatening phone calls and letters. Academics were warned by senior management that by supporting votes in favour of BDS, their careers could be jeopardised. In vindictive establishment circles it seems that nothing provokes official abuse as much as Israeli policies being criticised and Palestinians being supported.

In her LA Times article, Karcher acknowledged that students and faculty who challenge the dominant view of Israel, “risk baseless accusations of anti-Semitism, arrest, blacklisting or denial of tenure, promotion or academic positions”.

In addition to the prospects of a backlash, prospective supporters of the BDS movement will need to be prepared to answer the question, “Why single out Israel?” They will also have to respond to the predictable charges that the BDS movement is opposing academic freedom.

In response to the first question, I could highlight campaigns which the organisations I have represented have waged over human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, Iran, Sri Lanka and West Papua. Such defensiveness is unnecessary. The BDS movement is about Israel, a country that maintains a brutal occupation of another people. The BDS movement is civil society’s responsibility because governments have not had the courage to abide by the international laws to which they say they subscribe. Israel is also unique in terms of the massive military aid — over $3 billion last year — which it receives from a country which has always vetoed any UN resolutions which have condemned Israel’s abuses of human rights.

The claim that BDS supporters limit the freedom of Israeli academics might have merit if academic freedom means you support anyone from any institution under any circumstances. Such an argument might be plausible if all students and academics were free to engage with others, to publish and to enjoy the political and financial resources that give substance to an otherwise abstract notion. This means that the freedom of engagement available to Israeli universities should be enjoyed by all the neighbouring Palestinian students and staff. That has never happened.           

Renowned Jewish scholar Professor Judith Butler argues that academic freedom is valuable if and when it “works in concert with opposition to state violence, ideological surveillance and the systematic devastation of everyday life.”

Karcher says, “Far from curtailing academic freedom, the ASA has extended it in new directions by fostering an honest discussion about the Israel occupation of Palestinian lands and the role of the US in enabling it.”

In his defence of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the President of ASA, Associate Professor Curtis Marez, says of the BDS movement, “The Palestinians are merely doing what the international community including President Obama, have repeatedly called on Palestinians to do — embrace non-violent means in their struggle for freedom and self determination.”

Given the strength of the Zionist Lobby in America and successive US governments’ unwavering support for Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, the stands taken by US academics should encourage Australians. We don’t always have to imitate Americans but following their lead on this issue would at least show a modicum of outrage about massive injustices.      

As citizens of a privileged country, Australian academics can remain preoccupied with their own careers, relatively untouched by the demands facing staff and students in other parts of the world. But in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they could at least inquire into the cruelties meted out to Palestinians on the West Bank, in Gaza and in those medieval refugee camps in Lebanon.

Australian academics’ support for the BDS movement will require learning about the meaning and merits of this campaign. It will require reflection on the role of the intellectual in public life. It will ask individuals to summon the courage to take a small risk, by standing up and speaking out. How will they respond?    

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