Monday, September 17, 2007

A double standard on academic freedom in the Middle East

By George Bisharat

Two hundred thousand Palestinian children began school in the Gaza Strip this month without a full complement of textbooks. Why? Because Israel, which maintains a stranglehold over this small strip of land along the Mediterranean even after withdrawing its settlers from there in 2005, considers paper, ink and binding materials not to be "fundamental humanitarian needs."

Israel, attempting to throttle the democratically elected Hamas government, generally permits only food, medicine and fuel to enter Gaza, and allows virtually no Palestinian exports to leave. Lately, it held up delivery of materials needed for printing textbooks. As a result, Gaza students began the year facing a 30 percent shortage of texts.

No full-page advertisements in major American newspapers have publicized Israel's violations of Palestinian children's right to an education. No editors, syndicated columnists or presidents of major universities in this country have denounced this callous measure. Our politicians have demanded no remedial action. Instead, they continue, verbally and materially, to support Israel in its near-total blockade of 1.5 million Palestinians, kids and all.

Israel's trampling of Palestinian students' right to education - the key to a lifetime of opportunity - has rarely evoked official protest from American leaders. The Israeli army has closed Palestinian universities for years at a time. Israeli military authorities have barred Palestinian occupational therapy students from traveling from Gaza to the West Bank to obtain vital clinical training.

Hundreds of Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks can turn a routine trip to a local school into a harrowing ordeal. Israeli gunfire has even killed Palestinian schoolchildren sitting in their classrooms. None of these offenses has merited so much as a congressional resolution, let alone more serious efforts to curb Israeli behavior, such as government-imposed sanctions.

In response to this policy double standard - complete indulgence of Israel on the one hand, and indifference to violations of Palestinian rights on the other hand - a movement has emerged for a citizens' boycott of Israel. Churches, unions and professional associations in the United States, Canada, Europe and South Africa have urged a variety of nonviolent measures to compel Israel's compliance with international law.

American Presbyterians have studied divesting church funds from firms that profit from continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Unison, the United Kingdom's 1.3 million-member union of public servants, voted in June to boycott Israeli goods. In May, a British union of professors opened a yearlong debate over a possible boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The latter action provoked particularly indignant protest by Israel's U.S. supporters as an offense against "academic freedom." Yet many Israeli academic institutions either benefit from or participate in Israeli government actions that violate Palestinian rights.

Tel Aviv University sits in part over land belonging to Sheikh Muwannis, a Palestinian village whose residents were expelled by Jewish militias or fled in fear in March 1948. These and other Palestinian refugees have been denied their right to return to their homes or to receive compensation for their seized properties.

Hebrew University in Jerusalem uses more than 800 acres of land illegally expropriated from Palestinian private owners in the West Bank after the 1967 war. Bar-Ilan University has established a branch in an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

The threatened boycott would target Israeli institutions, not individuals. Thus, formal research and other agreements with Israeli universities would be suspended. But invitations to Israeli professors to join conferences or to publish in foreign journals would continue.

Nonetheless, it is likely that the boycott would impose limitations on freedom for some Israeli academics. Is this fair?

Boycotts are always somewhat blunt tools, and they inevitably impose costs on some who are undeserving of them. That was true of the boycott of apartheid South Africa, which applied to all academics - as well as athletes, businesspeople, artists and others. At the time, the international community weighed the cost to academic freedom against the advancement of justice and equal rights for black South Africans, and the choice was clear.

Two hundred thousand Palestinian schoolchildren are wondering how the world will respond faced with a similar choice today.

George Bisharat, a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, writes frequently on the Middle East.