The Threat to Academic Freedom: From Palestinian Exception to Global Norm 

by Lori Allen, SOAS, University of London; and Ajantha Subramanian, Harvard University

Since the American Anthropological Association narrowly missed passing a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions in 2014, the conditions of academic life in Palestine have sharply deteriorated. Anthropologists considering support of the 2023 boycott resolution should understand it as an issue of academic freedom that operates at many levels in cross-cutting contexts.

First, within Palestine and Israel, the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students is intentionally stifled—both as a direct aim and as a consequence of the Israeli military occupation and the Israeli state’s discrimination against its Palestinian citizens. Palestinian civil society organizations continue to call for a boycott of Israeli institutions as an urgent protest against the systematic repression of Palestinians and as a show of solidarity with their liberation struggle. 

Second, the academic freedom of scholars and students advocating for Palestinian rights is being violated, often on spurious grounds with false accusations of antisemitism. A campaign of harassment and surveillance against Palestinian scholars and scholars of Palestine has spread across North America and Europe. Speech about Palestine is a prime target of liberal actors and authoritarian forces alike.

Third, attacks against Palestinian scholarship and advocacy are being orchestrated in a political environment of widespread and increasing right-wing repression of dissent. Violations of academic freedom are on the rise everywhere—as a glance at the American Association of University Professors’ Journal of Academic Freedom attests for the United States and around the world.

That Palestine advocacy stands as a lightning rod at the center of far-right trends in Israel   and globally makes passage of the AAA boycott resolution an urgent necessity. 

The suppression of people categorized as intellectuals and left-wing elitists. The exclusions of people demonized as “other” to the nation or civilization. The targeting of Jews. That incidents of antisemitism, violations of academic freedom, misogynist legislation, anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and Islamophobia are on the rise across North America and Europe should come as no surprise. They are manifestations of the far-right turn that has swept much of the globe into its stifling embrace, squeezing the air out of democracy. These are cuffs that authoritarian “strong men” and their supporters have clamped onto their victims in their efforts to reorder the world according to traditional hierarchies. In the spaces where the defense of human rights, democratic freedoms, and civil liberties should be happening, authoritarian politics and supremacist ideologies have muscled in. To vote for the AAA boycott resolution is to push back against these terrifying trends.

Repression of Palestine Scholars and Scholarship

In March 2022, a new Israeli government policy—the “Procedure for Entry and Residency of Foreigners in Judea and Samaria Region”—was passed, granting the Israeli occupation authorities new powers that further infringe on academic freedom. Condemned by the Middle East Studies Association Committee on Academic Freedom “as an attack on the Palestinians’ right to education,” the policy “grants the Israeli military the authority to prevent international faculty, students, and researchers who wish to teach, study, and conduct research at Palestinian universities from entering Occupied Palestinian Territories.” In their call for colleagues to oppose this draconian policy, members of Insaniyyat, the Society of Palestinian Anthropologists, explain that “the regulations will exacerbate the already besieged status of Palestinian higher education, further legitimize its de facto international isolation, while divesting it of the ability to exercise basic decisions that are a fundamental condition for academic freedom.”

In addition to severely restricting interaction between Palestinian and foreign students and scholars, Israel is also actively undermining the legitimacy of Palestinian academic institutions. There is a proposal before the Israeli cabinet to discredit degrees awarded by Palestinian universities on the grounds that students at these institutions “are exposed to anti-Israel materials and messages.” If this proposal is approved, it will extend an earlier December 2018 decision to not recognize degrees from Al-Quds University on the grounds that it “supports terrorism against the state of Israel.” Palestinian students, faculty, university leaders, and campuses are also the direct target of Israeli violence and interference. The blockade of the Gaza Strip in place since 2007 severely restricts freedom of movement, including that of people seeking higher education outside.

Members of the AAA might expect Israeli universities to be vocal in their condemnation of violations of Palestinian rights, including to academic freedom. They are not. Not a single Israeli university has ever spoken out against or condemned the occupation. Nor has the Israeli Anthropological Association. 

In fact, Israel’s academic institutions are directly and materially involved in the occupation. Virtually all Israeli universities are involved in defense-related research with the Ministry of Defense. Ben Gurion University, Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Haifa University all made explicit statements of support for the summer 2014 assault on Gaza, including providing financial benefits to soldiers. Universities have been part of the colonization of Palestinian territory: part of Hebrew University’s campus is built on confiscated Palestinian land; Ariel University is located in a West Bank settlement.

Israeli universities also discriminate against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Some 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinian, yet they make up only a tiny percentage of university faculty; these scholars face barriers to promotion, especially if they are known as critics of the government. Palestinian students in Israeli universities have less access than their Jewish counterparts to scholarships and campus housing, as a result of privileges offered to those who serve in the military. The freedom of political and cultural expression by Palestinian citizens of Israel is regularly curtailed. The 2018 Jewish Nation-State Basic Law comprised a raft of principles further demoting the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, granting exclusively to Jews the right to self-determination, and downgrading the Arabic language from an official language to one with “special status.” In the words of the civil society organization, Adalah, it “transforms discrimination into a constitutional, systematic and institutional principle” of Israeli law.” Israeli Jewish faculty members openly critical of state policies are also marginalized and threatened.

In addition to Palestinians in the region, scholars and students who teach about and study Palestinian society and who support Palestinian rights are also targeted. So extensive is the repression of peaceful advocacy for Palestinian rights that two organizations—Palestine Legal (founded in 2012) and the European Legal Support Center (ELSC, founded in 2019)—have come into being to fight back against the criminalization of the Palestine solidarity movement in the United States and Europe. 

New Gags on Freedom of Expression

In recent years, the controversial redefinition of antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) is being used increasingly to facilitate and justify anti-Palestinianism. Ostensibly devised “to address this rise in hate and discrimination” of Jews, the IHRA’s working definition conflates antisemitism with criticism of Israel and Zionism. In doing so, it short-circuits legitimate political debate. As a university working group on racism and prejudice at University College London found, the IHRA definition “may in fact undermine institutional responsibility to enforce [existing university] policies and procedures” to combat antisemitism and other forms of prejudice on campus. With a venomous energy resembling a purge, Palestinian academics in Germany—where the association of public and government-recognized universities has publicly supported the IHRA—are being surveilled and hounded relentlessly. Forty countries have adopted this IHRA definition, despite the fact that it is widely recognized as a method of liberal virtue signalling—attempts to claim social conscience without taking the necessary actions for being moral. The IHRA definition is not a serious tool to combat antisemitism.

Unfortunately, rather than strengthening the fight against antisemitism, the IHRA definition has been weaponized to stifle speech and intimidate scholars and student activists. As evidence of its use in an intensified campaign of lawfare against Palestine scholars and scholarship, the work of Palestine Legal shows how often antisemitism accusations are levelled against faculty and students as a form of legal bullying to suppress speech critical of Israel. The Trump administration’s cynical deployment of the IHRA definition makes obvious the political intent behind its abuse—reasons far from addressing antisemitism meaningfully. Some universities in the US have recognized the flaws of this definition and rejected it as a model for preventing prejudice on their campuses, but this has not stopped frivolous claims and campaigns against Palestine solidarity organizations. A forthcoming briefing paper to be issued by the ELSC and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies shows that the vast majority of cases accusing Palestine advocates of antisemitism in the UK are false allegations, the main purpose of which is to chill free speech.

A similarly repressive tool is the “Prevent Duty” (originally devised in 2003, revised in 2015 and updated in 2021) part of the UK government’s antiterrorism agenda. It requires public institutions, including institutions of higher education, “to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” Its terms are vague, and some UK universities have bent over backwards to police student and faculty research and teaching and vet events, narrowing the space for critical public debate. In schools and universities, “Prevent” has encouraged institutional surveillance of Palestine solidarity on campuses. It has given academic administrators motivation and justification to interfere with conferences and other events about Palestinian rights and Israel, sometimes leading to their cancellation.

Why Vote for the AAA boycott

Supporting the AAA boycott resolution is support for anti-racism and for the fight against Islamophobia and xenophobia. But opponents would cast it as something sinister. Since Palestinian advocacy involves criticism of Israel, a state that falsely claims to represent Jews everywhere, a cloud of suspicion can immediately be summoned, especially in this disturbing climate of rising antisemitism. It may be easier, for some, to decry Palestinian advocacy as antisemitic than to address the problems of Israel as a state that deserves scrutiny and criticism as any other state. 

But if you stand against racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, then you should stand also against anti-Palestinianism as a manifestation of those social ills. It may be easier to ignore violations of Palestinian rights than to speak out for them and risk the label of antisemite. But it is those false accusations of antisemitism that stifle research and shield Israel from analysis and legitimate critique. Jewish Voice for Peace is one among a growing number of organizations that decries antisemitism and the suppression of Palestinians simultaneously.  So, too, should the AAA. 

Assaults on academic freedom—relentlessly lobbed from every direction—can be stultifying, leaving those who care about rights and democracy unsure how to respond. One modest action by which to stand up and shake the malaise is voting for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In standing for Palestinian academic freedom, we anthropologists can do our part to refuse fascism and defend the rights of all.