BDS is the key to academic freedom

BDS is the key to academic freedom
6 min read

Samar Saeed

19 April, 2022
The historic passing of BDS by The Middle East Studies Association should be celebrated for strengthening academic freedom and countering Israel’s implication of institutions within the oppression of Palestinians, writes Samar Saeed.
Student activists have been crucial in BDS victories within academic institutions.

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) last month endorsed the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the state of Israel. MESA, the most prominent association representing scholars and students studying the Middle East and North Africa, ratified the resolution by referendum. Nearly half of all members participated, which is the largest voter turnout in MESA’s history, and 80% of those who did voted in favour of BDS.

The historic vote is a testament to collective organising carried out by faculty and graduate students over the past decade—producing critical knowledge on Palestine and Israel across academic disciplines, educating colleagues about Israeli settler-colonial policies in Palestine including at Israeli universities, and insisting that academic freedom for all also means academic freedom for Palestinian students, teachers, and academics.

Opponents of BDS have previously accused MESA members who support the movement of “violating the key tenets of academic freedom” and “prohibiting faculty from engaging their Israeli counterparts.” Both claims distort the strategies and intended aims of BDS, and of its supporters within MESA.

At its core, the BDS resolution is about ensuring academic freedom for all, including Palestinians. It is not, after all, an abstract or neutral concept; it does not exist in a vacuum. As Amahl Bishara notes in her work on news production on Palestine, invocations of neutrality and "balanced objectivity," including within academia, often obscure unequal relations, institutions, and power brokers constantly shaping the production of knowledge. Facts and knowledge are products of specific political contexts.

In Palestine, Israel’s settler colonialism implicates academic institutions in the process of subjugating Palestinians. These institutions are not free from state politics but are entangled within a broader system of settler colonialism. When BDS opponents speak of academic freedom they obscure the enormous power asymmetry between Palestinians and Israel and conceal the role Israeli academic institutions play in silencing Palestinian speech, ideas, and knowledge. They decontextualise colonialism and mischaracterise the strategies of political resistance against it.

The BDS movement does not target individuals. It instead focuses on institutions implicated in the ongoing hindering of Palestinian freedom, through land theft, dispossession, and holding hostage Palestinian bodies.

The Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) systematically raid university campuses in Palestine and arrest and shoot students. In January 2022, the IOF raided Birzeit University campus and arrested five students. They shot and injured Ismail Barghouti as he tried to escape.


In a recent attack on Palestinian academic freedom, Israel’s defence ministry decided it will be the sole attributor of who can and cannot teach in Palestinian universities, and what disciplines are permitted to be taught. Such infringements are compounded by the fact that Israel already controls who can leave Palestine. In 2021, Israel prohibited more than 10,000 Palestinians from traveling abroad, including students and academics.

These restrictions on Palestinian academic freedom are not new and Israeli universities play a central role in the colonisation of Palestine and the violence that it entails. One example is the “Dahiya Doctrine,” which was developed by the Tel Aviv University-affiliated think-tank Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Its name comes from Israel’s indiscriminate attack on military and civilian infrastructure in Beirut’s southern neighbourhoods in 2006. This doctrine of disproportionate force was subsequently adopted in the Israeli military attacks against Gaza. In 2014, several Israeli universities also publicly supported Israel’s war on Gaza, joining the bombardment efforts by collecting donations in support of the operation.

Additionally, contrary to claims made by BDS opponents, MESA’s resolution on BDS does not infringe on scholars’ academic freedom in North America. It instead protects the academic freedom of scholars of Palestine who have long been targeted in the academy through personal and professional reprisals.

Examples of academic freedom violations include denying tenure to Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University, firing Professor Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, denying tenure to Cornel West at Harvard University, and withdrawing an offer of employment from Valentina Azarova at the University of Toronto.

The BDS resolution also highlights the value and importance of student activism on campuses across North America. Student groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, continue to push for divestment campaigns targeting companies and institutions complicit in Israel’s colonisation.

At colleges and universities where divestment campaigns have taken root, school administrators often try to quash these initiatives—ironically infringing on students’ academic freedom that their institutions purport to uphold. At McGill University, for instance, the administration threatened to suspend funding to its student society that passed a BDS resolution, further exposing the persistence of the Palestine exception to academic freedom.

MESA’s vote not only helps advance BDS but also supports and further legitimises student expressions of activism and solidarity with Palestinians through BDS campaigns.

The vote by MESA shows that many of its members are committed to scholarly work grounded in collective freedom, liberation, and justice. They acknowledge that their work has social and political implications. The vote offers a way to build and nurture active solidarity with other groups experiencing injustice and violence.

In the past few years, university administrators have been forced to reckon with decades of various forms of institutional racism including anti-black, anti-Asian, and anti-indigenous. The MESA BDS resolution and the Palestine student activism taking place on US campuses should be seen as part of this reckoning.

Faculty and students are demanding that university administrators no longer punish those who speak for Palestinian freedom. The BDS vote reinforces commitment to academic freedom for all. It gives us hope that persistent collective organising connecting Palestinian, black, and indigenous liberation will continue to challenge administrators' biased, exclusionary, and distorted treatment of minority and oppressed groups in the academy.

Hope is a radical act, maybe especially in academia. We should insist on being hopeful that more tangible outcomes will materialise to demand that academic freedom applies to all.

Samar Saeed is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Georgetown University.

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