Response to Cary Nelson and Ernst Benjamin

By David Lloyd

The responses by Cary Nelson and Ernst Benjamin to the Journal of Academic Freedom’s recent forum on academic boycott offer little new to the familiar litany of objections to the academic and cultural boycott of Israel [ACBI]. Moreover, neither response shows any signs of having seriously read and considered what the essays in the forum actually propose. When they do even refer to them, their misreadings are so egregious that one would almost prefer to presume malice than to impute obtuseness to a colleague. Most extraordinary is that they proceed as if the matter at stake were Israeli academic freedom, the protection of Israeli rights to debate and criticize, the defense of a largely illusory body of Israeli academics that are supposedly engaged in a vigorous critique of the occupation of Palestine, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian citizens of Israel along with Bedouins in the South Hebron Hills and the Negev, the ethnically exclusive nature of the State of Israel, etc, etc, etc. It would be wonderful if this flourishing sphere of liberal to left critical thought really existed, but it would still not be the issue on hand.

That issue is the systematic assault on Palestinian intellectual life and culture that has been undertaken since the Nakba: the denial of the most fundamental rights of access to education, whether by the direct, punitive closure of schools and universities and their destruction in targeted military campaigns, or by the restrictions on movement and freedom to travel that in innumerable ways and on a daily basis prevent Palestinian students and teachers from functioning normally. Those of us who do enjoy—and take for granted our academic freedoms can scarcely imagine the degree to which those privileges are denied to our Palestinian colleagues. It is not merely their speech, but the very conditions of scholarly life that are daily denied to them. But in these responses, yet again, those realities are overlooked in the rush to defend the academic freedom of Israeli academics, whose rights to speak as individual academics, to research and to propagate whatever truths they believed they had established, would be far less restricted by even the most successful institutional boycott than are their Palestinian counterparts’ freedoms under occupation and blockade. This all too typical overlooking of Palestinian scholars and teachers has an effect tantamount to what Zygmunt Bauman once termed “moral eviction.” Palestinian scholars are disappeared, “present absentees” who furnish the invisible backdrop against which the infringement of the rights of Israeli scholars is lamented. That Nelson or the AAUP may on occasion “have lodged protests” against the treatment of Palestinian scholars may be welcomed, but this focus on the individual case has a dangerous tendency to obscure the systemic nature of Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian education and of its institutions’ collaboration in a system of discrimination and dispossession.

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