Examining Academic Freedom for Palestinians

What follows is condensed from a review article in the British online journal Fathom of Cary Nelson’s “Not in Kansas Anymore: Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities”: 

. . . .  The book opens with an account of violent attacks on two senior academics in different Palestinian universities. One of these academics took some students to visit Auschwitz. In his absence, other students denounced him as a traitor, trashed his university secretary’s office, and threatened to kill him if he returned to the university. His academic union cancelled his membership; his university did not defend him (they eventually accepted his resignation); and he was the target of an assassination attempt. Academic freedom did not protect him. The second (unconnected) case involved a different academic, one who was opposed to reconciliation with Israel and was certainly not opposed to violence. Nonetheless when he criticised the Palestinian authorities, accusing them of corruption, he was arrested and imprisoned. Academic freedom did not protect him either.

In fact, much of the conflict in Palestinian universities is not focussed on Israel at all. There is violent conflict between groups which support Fatah and those which support Hamas, and also between splinter groups within these broader affiliations. . . . Administrators are too frightened to enforce respect for freedom of expression, and with good reason.

. . . Failure to acknowledge Palestinian violence effectively denies Palestinians agency, treating them as purely helpless victims. In Nelson’s view they are indeed victims, but they are also agents; . . . victims both of unjustified aspects of the occupation, and of their own tradition of committing and celebrating violence.

Palestinian universities cannot plausibly be seen as serene and untainted sites for the pursuit of learning: they are too often socially and intellectually coercive environments where political debate is infused with physical violence. There is a violent campus culture with a lengthy history, and its threats to the safety and indeed the lives of students and faculty is the greatest erosion of academic freedom which they have to face. In fact the attacks on those who are seen as ‘normalisers’ or ‘collaborators’ are part of a general attack on dissent: this problem is not one exclusively for academic freedom. There is no free press in the West Bank or Gaza; dissenters are subject to arbitrary imprisonment, and many websites are simply banned.

Another locus of academic unfreedom resides in the curriculum: . . . Nelson cites observational research, by an academic from the Danish Institute for International Studies, into some literature teaching sessions at the Islamic University of Gaza. The tormented forcing of discussion (of a humorous children’s poem about cats!) into anti-Zionist and antisemitic conclusions is a quite extraordinary example of indoctrination, . . . .

Click here to read the entirety of this article by Eve Garrard.