Saturday, October 6, 2007

A shameful silence

by Priyamvada Gopal

We have become accustomed to theatrical displays of intolerance: death threats against writers, bonfires of novels, plays shut down, vandals defacing paintings. The danger, however, is that this obscures the more insidious forms that the suppression of dissent can take.

Announcing that the proposed boycott of links with Israeli universities would be illegal, the University and College Union asserted that debates related to the topic under its auspices would also be "unlawful". On the basis of last week's legal opinion (the details of which remain shrouded in mystery), the union's leadership has summarily cancelled public debates to have been attended by "legitimate representatives of organisations from both Israel and Palestine". Scheduled for a national tour this autumn, the carefully balanced debates had been described by the union leadership itself as a "sensible basis" on which to approach the divisive issue. As such, they were supported by many of us who, while condemning the abuse of Palestinian human rights by the Israeli state, questioned the ethical and strategic merits of a boycott. Now all engagement on the issue is off the table.

Some argue that this fractious union would do better to focus on domestic matters, after the ignominious end to last year's action for better pay. Academics, however, can't afford to ignore this appalling attempt to undermine that most fundamental intellectual value - free debate. How, in an apparently democratic context, can it be "unlawful" to discuss an issue or possible action? Are discussions of economic sanctions against, say, Burma illegal? What about sanctions against Hamas-led Palestine? It is a particular travesty when such a blatant attack on civil rights comes from the very organisation members expect would defend them were they to be harassed for their scholarly opinions.

The move comes at a time when academic freedom cannot be taken for granted. In the US, it is under increasing assault from within and outside academia. Even as freedom of speech is invoked as the great western value to be spread across the globe, by force if necessary, its limits are marked by two unbreachable taboos: anti-Americanism, and criticism of the Israeli state and its occupation of Palestine. Organisations such as Campus Watch monitor what academics write and teach, compile blacklists and attempt to shut down debate, despite their claim to support free speech. Respected scholars who have faced campaigns include Columbia University's Middle East specialist Joseph Massad, who was accused and then cleared of anti-semitism; outspoken Michigan professor Juan Cole; and Norman Finkelstein, refused tenure and forced to resign after DePaul University came under external pressure. Most recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was banned by the University of St Thomas in Minnesota because of his stance on Israel/Palestine.

Dissenting Jewish academics are themselves the target of what Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer call "the Israel lobby". These authors, by no means anti-American radicals, came under fire simply for attempting to open discussion on US-Israel relations.

Though encomiums to free speech underpin displays of civilisational superiority by America and other western polities, it is undermined in practice by flagrant breaches of academic integrity and protocol. It is impossible to imagine a white European or American head of state, even an authoritarian such as Putin, being described in the demeaning way that the Columbia University president Lee Bollinger introduced Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - as "a petty and cruel dictator". The same Bollinger was president when the investigation of Massad and other scholars took place. There is no excuse for inviting an elected leader to talk at your university only to undermine him as lacking in "intellectual courage" before he has had a chance to speak. It's called a set-up.

The UCU leadership's call for constructive engagement over a divisive boycott is looking like a set-up, too. Sadly, the pressure exerted by people identified as part of the Israel lobby - including the Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who is quick to denounce criticism of Israeli policy as anti-semitic (never mind if it comes from Jewish intellectuals as well) - has succeeded in shutting down discussion, let alone criticism, of the Palestinians. Is silence the only constructive approach to the Palestinian question?

Writers and intellectuals have a moral obligation to criticise violations of human rights and freedom wherever they occur - Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Guantánamo or South Africa. The military occupation of Palestine should be no exception. Whatever their views on boycotts, academics must not allow such persistent exceptionalism to suppress debate in an organisation expected to defend, not undermine, their right to freedom of speech and engagement.

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the English faculty at Cambridge University
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