Increase Academic Freedom by connecting to Israeli Universities

Mandy Zheng/Staff

UC Berkeley is not only one of the most respected institutions of higher learning but the standard bearer of the Free Speech Movement. We should expect the debates at the ASUC to confirm this legacy and call out those who would undermine our fine traditions. During the recent conversation about the ASUC Senate bill supporting academic collaboration with Israeli universities, we have fallen short thanks to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that thrives on the intimidation of critics and the advancement of propaganda masquerading as facts. We deserve better.

The BDS movement’s exclusive focus on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza requires ignoring the Palestinians who have been living as full citizens in Israel proper for generations, known as Israeli Arabs. The loyalty to this strictly anti-Israel ideology, furthermore, would also necessitate an acceptance of how Palestinians have been treated by the likes of Bashar Assad in Syria, who has carpet bombed the Palestinian Yarmouk Refugee Camp, killing thousands of civilians and forcing tens of thousands more to flee. Or, take Jordan’s King Hussein, the current king’s father, who killed more Palestinians on Black September from 1970-71 than have been killed during Israel’s entire occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  Jordan’s population is more than half Palestinian, yet the country is run by a Hashemite monarchy that provides few rights to the majority-Palestinian population. Where are the academic boycotts or protests against the University of California Education Abroad Program in Amman, Jordan?

Israel certainly bears responsibility for the real and legitimate challenges accompanying its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, furthermore, holds itself to a far higher standard than these dictators, as showcased by its daily cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who commute to Israel each day for work. This has prompted even far-left-leaning columnist Roger Cohen in the New York Times to oppose the BDS movement “because (he does) not trust it.” Cohen correctly wonders how the BDS movement can claim it is working on behalf of the Palestinian cause when it advances policies that would end Israel, which he believes to be the movement’s goal.

All those who consider themselves supporters of Israel, the Palestinians and a two-state solution should be united in opposing an academic boycott of Israeli universities. The irony of this boycott is that it hurts Palestinians. Israeli Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population and have equal rights under the law. Moreover, they represent about 11 percent of the student populations of the very Israeli universities singled out for protest. This actually makes Israel, in most cases, far better than UC Berkeley when it comes to the student populations of underrepresented minorities. Unlike many universities across the Middle East, Israeli academic institutions are egalitarian bastions of free speech, freedom of religion and academic opportunity for all.

There is an academic problem that prevents a two-state solution. In many Palestinian schools, children are taught some of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes and to hate Jews.  Hamas, part of the Palestinian Unity Government, has a charter that calls for the destruction of Israel and the annihilation of Israel’s Jewish inhabitants. How can we take the BDS movement seriously when it calls for an academic boycott of Israel while at the same time ignoring these flagrant violations of academic ethics?

The BDS movement has also been known to claim that it focuses on Israel, because Israel is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. What is puzzling is how this argument is used to justify criticism of Israel’s response to rocket fire — shot from civilian areas and aimed at civilian areas — but not to justify any actions by other foreign-aid recipients. Where are the protests against Saudi Arabia for exporting the hateful ideology of ISIS as these fighters make their way across Syria and Iraq, oppressing minorities, enslaving women and beheading journalists? Where are the hashtags and social media campaigns against Bahrain as it uses U.S.-manufactured weapons to gun down peaceful-democracy protesters? How about against Pakistan for harboring Osama bin Laden?

The reason for this lack of moral clarity is that many who claim to be “for justice in Palestine” or “pro-Palestinian” are simply obsessively anti-Israel. I myself am a supporter of a Palestinian state and denounce these anti-Israel movements as antithetical to the cause. The only way there is a conflict between Zionism and Palestinian statehood is if the goal is an end to Israel.  Hold the BDS movement accountable for its moral relativism, because its reflexively anti-Israel view not only discourages Israeli compromise but also keeps Palestinians from making good on any of their obligations.

UC Berkeley can play a role in fostering more mutual understanding and freedom of speech by increasing ties with Israeli academic institutions. In the same way UC Berkeley does not speak for the U.S. government, Israeli universities are independent of their government and are global leaders in science, engineering, technology and medicine. By increasing these relationships that provide opportunities to Palestinians as well, we foster open societies and a powerful antidote to the curriculums of hate found in too many Middle Eastern classrooms.  Mario Savio said in 1994 that “freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is.” Let’s live up to the history of our great campus and not let hateful propaganda hijack a worthwhile free exchange of ideas.

Daniel Frankenstein is a UC Berkeley alumnus from the class of 2004 who served on the ASUC Senate from 2001 to 2002 and on the UC Academic Senate in 2003. Daniel lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, from 2008 to 2012. He is currently a managing partner at JANVEST Technologies.

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