Academic boycott resolutions voted on by the memberships of the various professional associations have preambles that outline their “problems” with the Jewish state. In this article I present just one of the many misrepresentations of the Israeli situation and show how it may just not hold water. I cannot claim to have all the answers, but I seek here to stick a tiny pin in the boycott-Israel balloon and raise some reasonable doubt regarding the far-reaching complaints against my country.
One of the arguments that appears repeatedly in preambles of boycott resolution declarations relates to the lack of freedom of movement for Palestinian Arab students and faculty resulting from the evil Israeli occupation. We will look at one such statement: In October 2014, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) published their rationale for proposing the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In it they write:
More generally, the Israeli state discriminates against Palestinian students in Israeli universities and it isolates Palestinian academia by, among other tactics, preventing foreign academics from visiting Palestinian institutions in Gaza and the West Bank.
They base this claim on a report entitled Right to Enter. That report discusses the difficulty in developing doctoral programmes and says that the problem is largely due to the inability of educational institutions in the Palestinian Authority (PA) to attract qualified faculty. They state (p 14) that Israel engages in:
. . . arbitrary denials of entry and residency that harm Palestinian educational life and development.
Right to Enter says that there are suitable Palestinian academics, currently teaching in other countries, who are interested in teaching either permanently or temporarily in PA universities, but Israel makes it difficult to impossible for them to obtain the relevant visas. Furthermore, the university administration sees great import in having teachers from outside the Palestinian Arab community as this would expose students to other cultures and world views. Again, they claim that Israel restricts their entry for such reasons as “because they had Lebanese and Tunisian roots and Arabic names” (page 12).
What Can We Make of This Criticism?
A European Commission publication from 2012 on the state of university education in the Palestinian Authority made no mention of difficulties getting visas to teach or conduct research. Their section on staffing problems is stated thus:
Teaching and training staff: low salaries have led staff members to take up extra work, which has a negative impact on the quality of teaching and on the amount and quality of research carried out. The professional development of staff members is restricted due to the absence of regular fellowship and scholarship programmes to upgrade their qualifications and their teaching skills.
Is it possible, then, that part of the problem in attracting foreign academic faculty is the inability to pay what these professionals expect?
Regarding the difficulties in receiving visas – it is true that Arabs from other countries and Arabs who were born in areas now governed by the PA or who have a parent who was born there may experience problems entering and staying in the PA. Before we can claim that this is discrimination we would need a list of all those denied visas and investigate their backgrounds for possible anti-Israeli activities. Anti-Israel activities would certainly qualify them to be regarded by Israel as persona non grata and denied entry – as is the right of any self-respecting nation.
Furthermore, I easily poked holes in 3 articles published in Mondoweiss last summer, claiming that Israel denied entry to 2 Americans of Palestinian origin and 1 Jew. For one thing, international entry into the PA is via Allenby Bridge at the border with Jordan and they tried to come in via Ben Gurion Airport. Secondly 1 of the Arabs and the Jew were clearly anti-Israel activists.
Birzeit University complains that foreign professors, generally only given 3-month tourist visas, cannot teach a semester course since the semester is 4 months long. I think that a tiny bit of creative thought outside the box would allow for a way around this: to allow a visiting professor to teach 3 months and a local to cover the remaining month, for example. Where there is a will there is a way!
Is Academic Boycott Justified Based on This Item?
To explore the claim that movement of foreign professionals into the PA and movement of PA students and faculty to other countries are restricted, I opened the last annual report available online (2012-13) for Birzeit University. The university proudly lists the following international activities for that academic year:
1. September – 2-day conference on “Nutrition-Related Chronic Diseases” – foreign presenters
2. December – a Birzeit professor participated in the annual TED-talk conference in Spain
3. March – 2-day conference – 7th International Chemistry Conference” [http://www.birzeit.edu/news/7th-international-chemistry-conference-links-industry-academics] : ”We have academics from Germany, the United States, Denmark, Jordan, the UAE and Egypt,”
4. March – university hosted lecture by Palestinian-American inventor and entrepreneur living in USA
5. June – university sponsored international volunteers camp – 50 volunteers from around the world join their Palestinian Arab peers to visit villages and learn about the culture and attend lectures
6. Director of Women’s Studies Institute selected to spend one year as visiting scholar at School for Advanced Research in USA
7. Birzeit student wins 2nd place in Berkeley Prize for Architectural Design
8. Cooperation agreements signed with universities in Germany, Ireland, Spain, Jordan and more
9. July – the French Consulate promises to support teaching and research missions by sending French professors to the Faculty of Law and Public Administration
10. July – Birzeit student participates in 10th International Conference on Hands-on Science, held in Slovakia
11. July – 18 students graduated from intensive training course in Italy on development design and management in the Middle East
12. July – representatives from China discussed ways to exchange professors and students between Chinese and Palestinian universities
13. Discussions with Turkish representative about scholarships and encouraging academic relations with Turkish universities
14. Meetings with groups of representatives from other countries who are told of hardships because Gazan students cannot study in the West Bank and Israel doesn’t give visas to visiting professors
15. Princeton professor teaches summer course and does intensive week-long research study.
16. Two students participated in training (didn’t say in what) in Oman and Sudan; relations between Israel and Oman are cordial but not official and Sudan is considered an enemy of Israel. (I wonder about how restrictive Israel really is since they gave permission to this student to travel to Sudan and return home to the PA.)
Birzeit is rightfully proud of its extensive activities in community outreach, social programming and cultural and arts events and promotion. Especially worthy of note is the fact that Birzeit is the site of the first gender studies programme in any Arab country (to date there is only one other) – it was established in 1994 (i.e., under the Israeli “occupation”).
I recommend you read the Birzeit annual report and then tell me if this seems like a university at which academic freedom is being suppressed by us oppressive Israelis. Just think about the fact that, according to an EU report mentioned above, until 1970 there were NO universities in areas currently under PA administration, only 2-year colleges of low standard. That means that when Gaza was controlled by Egypt and Judea & Samaria was controlled by Jordan, higher education was unavailable.
As a result of the Oslo Accords, responsibility for education transferred to the PA and there has been a mushrooming of programmes and institutions, all under conditions of the so-called Israeli occupation. They have had impressive achievements – at the time of the EU report there were 49 institutes of higher learning and a total of 213,000 students. That’s 49 institutes and 213,000 students more than when Egypt and Jordan occupied Gaza and Judea & Samaria.
I have only looked into the activities of a single university in the PA. There are 48 more to explore. Why don’t you do that for yourselves?
And remember, when Arabs in the PA say Israel doesn’t grant appropriate visas to foreign professors who could help raise the teaching and research standards of the PA universities, check and see whether or not anti-Israel activism lies behind the refusal of entry before you blame Israel. Then check and see what kinds of salaries and employment conditions they are offering and see if professionals to whom Israel would give visas just aren’t prepared to work for that.
In short, make sure you do your homework before you decide to support academic boycott of Israel.
This article first appeared in Israel Diaries.