Response to Cary Nelson: A Response to the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, Volume 4

By Bill V. Mullen

Cary Nelson’s response to essays published in the Journal of Academic Freedom which support the boycott of Israeli universities reproduces the settler-colonial logic contributors to the issue identify as reasons for supporting the boycott in the first place. For example, in response to my argument that “the casual fetishization of academic freedom” is part of a “liberal hegemony that provides ideological cover for brutal acts of intellectual and political terror by Israel,” Nelson writes, “But no one argues that academic freedom covers military action or justifies political terror.” Yet Nelson does just this: making undocumented claims for “academic freedom” in Israeli universities the basis both for opposing the academic boycott and ignoring the overwhelming evidence provided in essays by Omar Barghouti, Malini Schueller, David Lloyd, Sami Hermez, Mayssun Sukarieh and Rima Kapitan that Israeli universities directly and indirectly support the illegal military occupation of Palestine. He does this without a single mention of the detrimental effects on academic freedom for Palestinian scholars cited throughout the special issue. This is precisely the logic of “exceptionalism” brilliantly critiqued by contributors to the Journal.

This exceptionalism is underscored by Nelson’s accusations of “opportunism” against supporters of the boycott. As the contributors to the special issue make clear, their support for the academic boycott of Israeli universities is in response to a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2004, a call which has now won supporters in countries across the world, including from the South African National Congress. Nelson avoids mention of South African support for BDS in his response, because it is the former South African apartheid which the world now knows most closely resembles the conditions under which Palestinians live today: formal and legal segregation; second-class citizenship; crippling economic exploitation and subordination; racist violence. These conditions inspired South African Bishop Desmond Tutu in 2002 to condemn Israeli apartheid, and to call just yesterday for the release of Palestinian political prisoner Marwan Barghouthi. Nelson also avoids South Africa because the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was inspired directly by the South Africa boycott campaign. What Nelson deigns to call “opportunism” in support for the academic boycott is in fact international humanitarian outrage against the last apartheid state in the world.

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