Amidst calls for boycotts of Israeli products, institutions and the many minds behind them, and with increasing instances of American academics and writers being muzzled, a new initiative seeks to introduce some intellectual and moral clarity.
As reported by the JTA and other outlets, and sponsored by the progressive Zionist group Ameinu, 50 North American academics have signed on to form an Academic Advisory Council opposing academic boycotts and promoting efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution. The council will advise the Third Narrative project, an already-launched web-based forum to discuss a progressive approach to Israel/Palestine.
I am one of the 50 academics on the advisory council. (Disclosure: I also happen to sit on the board of Ameinu.) I am aware that the link between opposing academic boycotts and pushing for a two-state solution is no longer universally self-evident. In examining the space between the two positions, though, some deeper insights about this tragic conflict are revealed.
In short, the council’s mandate spans a principled view over both scholarly process and political outcome. How do we, as scholars, think it appropriate to ply our public trade? And which policy outcomes to the Israel/Palestinian conundrum do we think are best?
Although those who call for boycotts of Israeli scholars often state that it’s the institution, rather than the person, being banned, in practice the boundaries are too often blurred. Our initiative takes the opposition to academic boycott seriously. We also aim to protect the academic free speech of those with whom we disagree -- that is, even if those scholars are themselves seeking to promote academic boycotts.
Critics of our two-pronged approach -- anti-academic-boycott and pro-two-state solution -- might assert that we are simply cloaking support for Israel in the language of academic freedom. After all, as the debate over Israel/Palestine has intensified, many advocates for Palestinian rights have sought to oppose Israel’s core identity and promote a one-state solution, instead. Those who cling to this view may see our initiative as nakedly ideological.
Yet those on the right may have an equally negative view: that our support of Israeli academic freedom is merely a craven way to ingratiate ourselves to Israelis before demanding that their government make tough -- and certainly partly unwanted -- concessions to a partner they don’t believe exists and for a peace they don’t believe will hold.
Maintaining the middle ground -- seeking to deepen a “third narrative,” in the words of the broader initiative -- is never an easy task. Of course, seeking a center path is not inherently noble; sometimes the center solution to a given policy problem is simply wrong.
Yet as I see it, there is a fundamental ethical link between guarding academic freedom and promoting the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Though the first is about speech and the second is about political arrangements, both sets of precepts hew to similar guiding principles: mutual respect and a commitment to absorbing the truth of human experience.
For far too long, Israelis and Palestinians have denied each other collective legitimacy. At the level of the person, they have failed to extend physical safety and emotional dignity, including protection for human life and all the inalienable rights that come with it. Pushing for a two-state solution reflects an intellectual stance that is not only pragmatic, but also empathic. Neither side will get everything they want. But each side will have its minimum identity and security needs met.
In the parallel universe of academic interchange, this sort of commitment to respect and dignity means listening to each other reveal whatever insights that flow from a commitment to the scholarly search for knowledge production and dissemination. That may mean, of course, challenging each other to marshal more evidence, clarify an essay’s prose, situate one’s hypotheses more deeply within the scholarly literature, or even acknowledge one’s privilege or innate subjectivities. Like many human pursuits, sometimes academia is guided too much by egos and insecurity. But what the academic realm demands absolutely is that knowledge flows freely and no one is silenced. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, these principles extend to the idea that each nation be given a chance to flourish free from the bounds of occupation, and that within each current and nascent state, every individual be granted the civil, political and religious rights and dignity that flow from being human.