Academic Freedom with Violence: A Response to the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, Volume 4

By Roderick A. Ferguson and Jodi Melamed

If we believe the waning coverage of the American Studies Association’s resolution in the popular press, we would say that the controversy has been retired, and fresher news-items have taken its place. But news cycles have never been tools to measure the importance or duration of a discourse, and they aren’t going to start now. In fact, a discourse has emerged around the legitimacy of knowledge and critique that has to be addressed, a discourse that has gained and will continue to gain footing because it surrounds the issue of whether or not we can bear collective witness to the Palestinian situation. To understand that discourse—its itineraries and its anatomy—we would do well to revisit recent events that may seem residual but are actually still quite dominant.

The majority of those who condemn the American Studies Association’s resolution to endorse an academic boycott of Israel have one thing in common with many who support it. Both appeal to academic freedom. But when we consider the desired effects of such statements (not just what they say), we see that appeals to academic freedom on both sides are heavy with the unspoken weight of a contest over what counts as legitimate knowledge and over legitimacy itself. As two co-chairs of the American Studies Association program committee (writing solely as individuals stating our own views), we seek to call attention to the increasing use of the slogan of “academic freedom” to punish dissenting scholars and to undermine the university as a home for the kinds of debates, critiques, and movements that bring about social change. At stake is not some mystifying ideal, but whether scholars can engage in activities that question the status quo and challenge where the line is drawn between prohibited and permissible knowledge.

Most immediately, what is at stake is whether U.S.-based scholars may frame relations between Israel and Palestine through the lens of occupation and write and teach in a manner that ascribes equal value to the human rights and wellbeing of Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Palestinians. On another level, what is at stake is the legitimacy of efforts to expose and critique the violences that are often the conditions of possibility for the freedoms enjoyed by the privileged in the United States and Israel alike. For the United States and Israel indeed share a “special relationship.” They reflect to each other an image of an exceptionalist nation-state with a unique errand to advance democracy under conditions that presumably require expanding apparatuses of legitimate violence, including military force and complicated internal apparatuses of securitization, from prisons to border control.

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