Anti-BDS bill would have stifled free speech on campus

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Irene Chen/Staff

This week, a student senate committee voted 5-0 to indefinitely table a bill calling on the ASUC and Chancellor Nicholas Dirks to condemn the activism of UC Berkeley faculty and students advocating for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. BDS is a campaign of international solidarity with members of Palestinian civil society, who in 2005 asked the global community to place economic and institutional pressure on Israel until it respects Palestinians’ human rights under international law. An essential part of BDS on campus is the academic boycott, which calls on scholars and universities not to cooperate, financially or otherwise, with Israeli institutions that refuse to speak out against their government’s policies.

The bill, deceptively titled “A Bill in Support of the Free Flow of Ideas and International Academic Collaboration,” is nothing of the sort. Rather, it aims to stifle campus Palestine solidarity, explicitly attacking the UC Berkeley professors involved in coordinating an international campus day of action Tuesday. The bill demands that the administration and student leaders erroneously declare the activities of pro-Palestinian organizers to be in violation of academic freedom, while making no mention of Israel’s routine material violations of Palestinians’ academic freedom.

This bill tellingly neglects to explain the reason for the academic boycott. Israeli universities are apartheid institutions in an apartheid state: Jewish applicants are three times more likely to be offered admission than Palestinians, only 1 percent of faculty at Israeli universities are Palestinian, and none of Israel’s eight universities teach in Arabic. Furthermore, like universities in the United States, Israeli institutions actively collaborate with the government in numerous areas such as the development and application of military technologies Israel uses to violate Palestinians’ most basic rights, including their right to education.

The state that reduced universities and schools to rubble during its massacre in Gaza this summer also massively underfunds schools for its Palestinian citizens. Israel’s racist transportation checkpoints, which allow Jewish Israelis to pass freely while detaining Palestinians for hours or even days, make freedom of movement impossible for Palestinian scholars and students, who are regularly prevented from attending conferences, accepting offers to study abroad or simply making it to class every day.

In the bill, however, these crucial facts on the ground are nowhere to be found. This privileging of abstract Israeli academic freedom over actual Palestinian lives is disturbing. It also fundamentally misrepresents what the academic boycott is in order to exclude it from the realm of acceptable discourse. The bill claims, for example, that the academic boycott entails “stifling partnerships and research with Israeli academics for the sole reason of their national origin.”

This just isn’t so. On the contrary, BDS is consistent with academic freedom, because — according to the official guidelines for the academic boycott — it doesn’t target individuals, only institutions. As renowned UC Berkeley scholar Judith Butler explains, “The only request that is being made is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used … scholars can continue important collaborative work with Israeli filmmakers, sociologists, philosophers, archaeologists or artists outside of Israel”.

In fact, it’s those who advocate Palestinian rights and BDS who face political and administrative repression. In August, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign revoked the job offer of prominent Palestinian American scholar Steven Salaita over his vocal defense of Palestinians and criticism of Israel. Faculty and students are now organizing impressively around Salaita’s case. Phyllis Wise, the university’s chancellor, doubled down on her decision in an email about “civility” to the UIUC community that echoes the recent one sent by our own chancellor about the need for a “balance between communal interests and free expression.”

Civility isn’t an academic norm, and there is simply no “communal interest” in curtailing UC Berkeley’s celebrated history of free speech in order to attack and misrepresent Palestine solidarity activism. By voting to postpone SB 11 indefinitely, the ASUC refused to affirm a factually incorrect bill that is devoid of context and suppresses open debate about Israel and Palestine by marginalizing campus organizers. A “yes” vote would have affirmed Dirks’ apparent belief that it is in the “communal interest” to legitimize Israel at the expense of Palestinians, when in reality nothing delegitimizes Israel more than its own racist policies.

If you want to be part of the international day of action or just learn more about Israel and Palestine, please join us Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. on Sproul Plaza. We hope to see you there!

Kumars Salehi is a doctoral student in German literature and culture and a member of Cal Students for Justice in Palestine.

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