Academic freedom, boycott and the question of Palestine

What does academic freedom mean in a context which presses that concept to its limits?

In September 2017, David Landy, Ronit Lentin and I held a conference at TCD, Freedom of Speech and Higher Education: The Case of the Academic Boycott of Israel.

Our intention was to explore the idea of academic freedom in a context which presses that concept to its limits – the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and the international boycott campaign against it, including the academic boycott campaign.

The conference was opened by Prof Steven Salaita, who had in 2014 suffered the withdrawal of an offer of a tenured position at the University of Illinois, in the wake of tweets critical of Israel which he posted during the Gaza bombardment of that year.

Speakers – Palestinian, American, European and Irish – gave talks on matters as various as the politics of the concept of civility in public speech, the various legal methods used by so-called “friends of Israel” to attempt to suppress critique of Israel, the risks attendant on boycott activism by the academic precariat, and the complex constitutional and funding situation of the American University in Beirut as it touches on campus boycott activism.


The conference passed off successfully, though not, as we later learned, without efforts made to block its happening or to derail its smooth running. We’ve now edited a book of essays, Enforcing Silence: Academic Freedom, Palestine and the Criticism of Israel (Zed Books 2020), arising from that conference.

What is academic freedom? Put most simply, it is the right of university teachers and researchers to teach and research without moral or political restraint, and, flowing from that idea and in the interests of its defence, the right of universities to govern themselves.

The concept is most rigorously defined and debated in the United States, where it has been codified in the precepts of the American Association of University Professors since 1940 and has been enshrined in the idea of tenure.

In many other countries, however, including in Europe, since universities are largely state-funded institutions, academics are regarded as civil servants, whose work is obliged to maintain strict objectivity and avoid controversy. The dangers of academic work subsumed to the requirements of the state are most obvious in totalitarian regimes, as the terrible history of Lysenkoism in the USSR demonstrates.

Arguments about academic freedom and the academic boycott of Israeli universities tend to divide in certain ways. Critics of boycott who claim that it is antiSemitic or that it damages dialogue with Israeli liberals are conducting a wider political project and neglecting the crucial issue. For us, the crux is how so often Israeli academic freedom is prioritised over Palestinian academic freedom in mainstream discussion.

Putative liberals, such as Cary Nelson and Martha Nussbaum, agitate furiously against the boycott of Israeli universities, while paying no attention to Palestinian academic freedom. But abstract articulations of academic freedom break down in Palestine and Israel.

We and our contributors are interested in Hannah Arendt’s famous maxim in The Origins of Totalitarianism that one must have the “right to have rights”: that rights are only worth their practical conditions of possibility. Palestinian academics and students suffer blockade, harassment, campus invasion, the denial of the right to travel, and an immiseration of resources. Palestinian academic freedom, and Palestinian rights to education generally, are catastrophically disrupted and interdicted by the occupation.

Those who argue that the academic boycott of Israel betrays the liberal principles of academic freedom often appear to assume that academic freedom is synonymous with what we might call “academic entitlement”. But one scholar’s academic freedom does not place an obligation on her peers always and everywhere to engage in scholarly debate, co-operation, publication, conferencing, grant application, teaching and other academic activity just because it is desired. One scholar’s academic freedom cannot override another scholar’s academic freedom.

As our contributors explain, various forces and techniques are arrayed against those who campaign for the academic boycott or indeed who engage in critique of Israel. The space for dissenting academic activity is especially compromised on many campuses in many jurisdictions, most particularly by the related phenomena of precarious working conditions for many academics and the relentless commercialisation and instrumentalisation of higher learning which is demanded by contemporary university funding models.

When the bottom line is the ultimate (though unspoken) priority in an academic setting, values of rigour, originality, radicalism and dissent risk going by the board. Another bureaucratic weapon used against both academic programmes and conferences is the idea of balance: the assumption that all debates have two sides of equal worth, that headcounts of scholars of opposing positions offer the conditions for illumination and knowledge, that such notional “equality” somehow produces an overall “objectivity” or “neutrality”. Where, in this bland bureaucratic landscape, lie the paramount values of truth and critique?

The TCD conference was in part occasioned by the extraordinary campaign of smear, vilification, propaganda and disruption which was waged against the conference, International Law and the State of Israel, held in 2017 at University College Cork. Watching the events in Cork made clear to us that such extreme tactics are a much more serious threat to academic freedom than any boycott.

Yet such campaigns – and the Cork conference was originally to be held at Southampton in 2015 but was forced to postpone and then to move by a comparable campaign in England – rarely are held up to scrutiny and condemnation, partly because they act in defence of the state of Israel, which brings formidable diplomatic, legal, commercial and propaganda resources to bear against Israel-critical scholars.

In the wake of our conference, we learned of concerted efforts by the Israeli academic establishment, first, to pack the attendance with Israel-friendly, anti-boycott scholars; and, when that failed, to persuade Trinity College to distance itself officially from the conference. Fortunately, TCD (which has an impressive official commitment to academic freedom) did not bend to this pressure. Clearly, the price of true academic freedom remains constant vigilance. We offer our book and the work of our contributors as part of that perpetual watch.
Enforcing Silence, edited by Conor McCarthy, David Landy and Ronit Lentin is published by Zed Books, priced £18.99. Conor  McCarthy teaches in the English Department at Maynooth University