Department statements on Gaza war have implications for academic freedom (opinion)
On May 21, in the wake of the announcement of a ceasefire in the last war between Gaza and Israel, a coalition of women and gender departments and studies programs made it clear that for their part, the war of words, at least, will not stop. More than 100 of these university programs have signed a declaration condemning Israel’s “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza, thereby endorsing the charge that Israel’s conduct constitutes a war crime. Academic freedom protects the individual right of professors to adopt aggressive political positions. But departments and programs speak for the institution. A ministry’s adoption of a controversial political position has implications for all who work with that ministry.
The statement in question, “Departments of Gender Studies in Solidarity with the Palestinian Feminist Collective,” is far from generic, harmless, appeals to basic decency, sensitivity or fairness that academic bodies often emit. On the contrary, he uses inflammatory rhetoric not only to support Palestinian rights but also to condemn Israel for taking sides in the political struggle: “We do not subscribe to a ‘two-sided’ rhetoric that erases military, economic, media, and the global power that Israel has over Palestine. The declaration characterizes the current war as part of an ethnic cleansing program that began in 1947, thus condemning the entire history of Israel. By declaring “we call for an end to the military occupation of Palestine by Israel and for the right of Palestinians to return to their homes,” they make clear that their attack on “settler colonialism” applies not only to the West Bank. but to Israel within its pre-1967 borders as well. “This is not a ‘conflict’ that is too ‘controversial and complex’ to be assessed,” he concludes.
Should programs and departments endorse this explicitly anti-Israel political perspective?
This national effort to organize an entire academic discipline – its teaching, research, policies and administration – around anti-Zionism represents a new and dangerous phase in the politicization of the academy. Individual faculty members of these departments have academic freedom; they have the right to express these opinions without being penalized, and professors and students have every right to study, discuss and debate the opinions expressed in the declaration. They can debate, for example, the claim that “Israeli law systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel”.
But for ministries, formally adopting a position in such a debate is another matter. A department is an administrative entity, a branch of the university. There are academic and professional standards for departments, such that students and faculty members with opposing views will be free to take their own positions and be treated with respect. Ministries and their administrators are responsible for a series of business decisions that are supposed to be politically neutral.
If departments violate these standards, as those departments have pledged to do, then it is reasonable for their governing bodies to act to ensure the integrity of the school, college or university as a whole – for example , when necessary, restricting the authority of these departments must make academic and personal decisions.
Once a department and its chief administrator adhere to a set of political positions, the academic freedom of those who disagree is compromised. Students who hold other opinions face the intimidating power of their teachers. Dissenters – whether professors, staff, or students – who may remain in perfect shape as academics and teachers become officially defined as outlaws, members of neither the department nor of a discipline collectively engaged in anti-Zionism.
Will the departments that signed the declaration hire or favor someone who does not agree? What additional attention will Jewish candidates receive? Will department heads support a research proposal, grant application, or sabbatical proposal from a current faculty member or student with different opinions? Will students or staff who express opposing positions be greeted and treated with respect? It would be illusory wishful thinking to assume that the commitment to the declaration has no bearing on the decisions a department or department head must make. In a final gesture of spurious bravado, the signatories declare: “We will not tolerate any censorship or retribution against Palestinian academics, activists and those who openly criticize the Israeli state”, but they are in reality those who support the state. Jewish whose freedom academics that this action endangers.
This model of disciplinary politicization has now started to spread. For example, ethnic studies departments on three California campuses: the University of California at Berkeley; University of California, Davis; and the University of California at Santa Cruz – issued equally politicized statements firmly rooted in the anti-Zionist tenets of their discipline. More remarkable still, the University of California Press has given itself an official political mission.
This is an opportunity for faculty members and senior managers to show the courage to condemn the statement as a threat to academic freedom. Presidents, deans and rectors should be particularly concerned when a department involves the university as an institution in policy advocacy. Indeed, departments of other disciplines have started to adopt the same positions. We need leadership ready to restore colleges and universities to their true mission as forums for open debate. This effort to stigmatize a set of political opinions must be fought.