If We Truly Value ‘Open Inquiry,’ We Must Support ASA’s Boycott of Israel

(This article is a response to “Open Inquiry is Essential in Higher Education,” an anti-BDS statement released by the President of the University of Kentucky, Eli Capilouto. I submitted the piece on 15 January 2014, a mere day after Capilouto published his article. The student paper The Kernel—which had a long history of censoring and rejecting my letters to the editor in my time at the university—ignored my submission.)

With President Capilouto’s recent statement “Open Inquiry is Essential in Higher Education,” we can now add yet another instance of vacuous official statements to the ever-growing list of politically-motivated university apologetics—this one just happening to be a little closer to home. President Capilouto’s rhetoric, almost entirely bereft of any actual sociopolitical substance, is a paragon of how political speech works: Throw out a bleary bouquet of buzz words about “openness and accessibility” (strange, coming from perhaps the least open and accessible administration in the history of the University of Kentucky) that everyone can get behind—it doesn’t matter that the subjects are virtually irrelevant; they sound nice, and distract the reader from the fact that you’re defending apartheid.

For we must remember, that’s what we’re talking about here, apartheid. Israel has imposed martial law in Palestine, militarily occupying Palestinian sovereign land, absolutely in violation of international law. Israel has been torturing the indigenous Palestinian people for over six decades, with crippling sanctions and “scientific” forced starvation. Israel engages in vehement prosecution of non-violent protestors; forcible arrest, detainment, imprisonment in shackles and cages, and even torture of thousands of Palestinians (including hundreds of children) every year without charge; racial segregation of hospitals, roads, buses, and more; construction of a 700-kilometre-long concrete West Bank barrier; imposition of harsh curfews; and more. Note, these are all policies of apartheid states.

The United Nations, and the overwhelming majority of the international community, has, time and time again, spoken out against Israel. Virtually no prominent party, save for the U.S. and a few other countries, supports its continuous violence. Capilouto, nonetheless, fails to address this political reality (and most conveniently, at that). Instead of addressing the deplorable “open air prison” conditions the Palestinians must live in under the draconian Israel “Defense” Forces—what Israeli Miko Peled, the son of a prominent Israeli military general who participated in the state’s 1947-1948 ethnic cleansing (read: genocide) policies, often refers to as a very well-funded “terrorist organization”—our university’s president prefers to appeal to attractive yet empty tautologies with which no rational person would possibly disagree (a popular propaganda technique).

Of course open inquiry is essential in higher education. No one contests that. This problem is not about “open inquiry,” however. This statement is a feeble attempt at constructing a straw man, to distract us from the real issue—Israel’s internationally illegal restriction of the human rights of Palestinian scholars, intellectuals, and citizens.

The ultimate irony is that, when Capilouto speaks of promoting conditions of “open dialogue” and creating a world in which “a scholar’s capacity to build a body of work in his or her field must run unimpeded by politics and external forces,” he is raising the very same reasons for which the American Studies Association is boycotting Israel. If he actually acknowledged the organization’s official statement, we would see that. Alas, such an acknowledgement might involve further acknowledgement of Israel’s culpability in the matter.

If we wish to find the ASA’s actual reasoning behind boycotting what the vast preponderance of the international community sees as an inveterate rogue state, perhaps we might read the ASA’s official statement. For those interested in truth, and not in disingenuous, politically-motivated, intellectual vacuity, it follows.

The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians. The ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott emerges from the context of US military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and finally, the support of such a resolution by a majority of ASA members.

It is incredibly important that we note the eery reminiscence of President Capilouto’s and others officials’ statements to the barrage of pro-South Africa propaganda many university officials wrote just over two decades ago, in the midst of the growing student anti-apartheid movement. We must remember, the U.S. and Israel supported the virulently racist, authoritarian Botha and Verwoerd and their virulently racist, authoritarian government until its very last days. Mandela and the African National Congress were officially considered “terrorist organizations” by the U.S. government. (On Larry King Live, Mandela quipped “I was called a terrorist yesterday, … but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.”) When university organizations began to boycott South Africa, similar hollow arguments sprung up from the highest of places, insisting that supporting the boycott movement hindered ambiguously defined values like “open inquiry” and “open dialogue.”

By appealing to these values, Capilouto is insisting that his defense of Israel is apolitical. It is anything but. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” explained Desmund Tutu. If we do not speak out about Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights, we have chosen the side of Israel. If we truly care for academic freedom, open inquiry, and open dialogue, we must not remain neutral in this situation of extreme injustice.

Lamentably, we, as a country, are once again on the wrong side of history. Let’s not fall for the same trick a second time.