Boycotts against Israel and the Question of Academic Freedom in American Universities in the Arab World

By Sami Hermez and Mayssoun Soukarieh

How can we understand academic freedom in the Arab world today when it comes to the question of Palestine and Israel? What does the concept mean, practically speaking, for American universities in the region? And how should it be deployed? These universities operate, today, in the context of a colonial present and serve to promote values not dissimilar to those imagined by American missionaries in the 1820s. Instead of an explicit resort to discourses of backwardness, or a mention of native defects, American university presidents today speak of promoting values that are “uniquely American,” such as “a sense of mutual respect, tolerance for people of very diverse backgrounds” or solving problems “without recourse to violence.” One can only assume that this implies that such values do not exist where these universities are operating. What kind of agendas, then, does academic freedom promote when invoked by American universities in what we may call a neocolonial context? How might it be employed for or against collective struggle in the region? And what role can such universities play in advancing or being obstacles to an academic boycott of Israel?

The Arab-Israeli conflict has meant that, with few exceptions, most Arab countries have not had diplomatic relations with Israel. This state-imposed Arab boycott has provided legal protection as one line of defense against the normalization of Israel’s ongoing violations of international law against the Palestinian people, but underlying this is an even more crucial ethical claim against any dealing with Israel, whether economic, cultural, or, for our purposes, academic. It is an ethical claim that presidents of American universities in the region do not seem to consider when they describe the only obstacle to Arab-Israeli academic exchanges being visa issues, and “hope that in time that we can have exchange relationships,” as, for example, Winfred Thompson, former chancellor of the University of Sharjah, remarked at a public forum at the Council for Foreign Relations.

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