A Reply to UNC’s Statement against the ASA Vote to Disengage from Formal Collaboration with Israeli Universities
by Neel Ahuja
On December 31, 2013, UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost James W. Dean, Jr. released an official statement opposing the American Studies Association’s recent two-thirds majority vote to institutionally disengage with Israeli universities. They join dozens of university presidents who have taken the unusual step to denounce a decision of an academic organization to democratically determine its institutional policies.
Skirting the ASA’s call to recognize and protect basic freedoms for Palestinians including the right to education and academic freedom, Folt and Dean propose that the ASA resolution violates a principle of “open access.” As an educator whose research and teaching involves the study of disability, I regularly encounter discussions on questions of access. One of the pressing issues disability educators face is how best to design classrooms, built environments, and social policies that ensure access to a broad array of individuals and groups, disabled and nondisabled. But as disability theorist Michael Davidson notes, in neocolonial situations in which basic civil liberties, social goods, and freedom from violence are denied, the ideal of “increased access” is often “thwarted by narrowing the meaning of access.” This limited notion of access may derive from privileges unequally shared across the populations served. In such scenarios, the most difficult questions concern how to address competing claims to access and how to evaluate when certain forms of access inhibit others. Access, then, happens relative to a context, and must be actively pursued through the work of addressing the particular populations who face socially-reproduced barriers to participation.
Folt and Dean narrowly defend institutional access rather than broader notions of academic freedom, freedom of speech, or a right to education. Yet even on these narrow grounds, Israeli universities and the Israeli state regularly violate open access principles. Arab students in Israeli schools face systematic barriers to access deriving from compromised citizenship status. Israeli universities build dormitories and facilities on Palestinian territory and produce research that sustains the illegal US-sponsored military occupation. Meanwhile, the Israeli military has shuttered thousands of schools in the West Bank and Gaza since 1989 and routinely denies Palestinian scholars visas to study abroad or even to move freely across territory under Palestinian Authority control.
These direct threats to education exist within a larger ecology of deprivation. As Eyal Weisman describes, the Israeli occupation involves a policing of space that divides Palestinian populations from each other and subjects them to constant surveillance. This denies Palestinians basic necessities such as shelter, water, transit, and health care, much less the shared public sphere central to sustained creative and intellectual exchange. The settler-colonial system of educational “access” is thus deeply imbricated in the dispossession of Palestinians, a violence that results in diminished access to life itself.
In addition to everyday violations of Palestinian access to education, Israeli faculty have been regularly targeted by their government for questioning the occupation. The Knesset has passed laws banning the teaching of the Nakba (the expulsion of 750,000 Arabs from 380 villages in 1948) and authorizing civil penalties for public speech supporting boycotts of Israel (this “boycott ban” is currently frozen pending judicial review). Folt and Dean have made a vague public defense of “access.” The question now is whether they will do concrete work to ensure that UNC, which markets itself as a “global” university, actively opposes policies that exclude Palestinians from access to education and that threaten Palestinian and Israeli academic freedoms.
Folt and Dean are correct to draw attention to the important historical role that UNC plays as “the nation’s oldest public university”; however, they distort UNC’s record by claiming that the university has “promulgated the concept of open access to higher education” throughout its 220-year history. Built in the days of slavery on territory historically occupied by the Eno, Shakori, and Sissipahaw peoples, UNC failed to provide substantive access to women or to black and American Indian students until the second half of the twentieth century. And despite the official end of Jim Crow, economic inequality, resegregation, and budget cuts to schools and universities continue to block equal access for underserved North Carolinians today.
Given the continuing work that is necessary to expand access to education here and elsewhere, what is the form of ethical leadership that “the nation’s oldest public university” should take? In 2005, a near-consensus of Palestinian civic groups launched the call for international boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel in order to call attention to pervasive discrimination and the ongoing Israeli settler-colonization of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Modeled on the international South African boycott movement of the 1980s, the BDS resolution is a call for the universal recognition of basic rights and invites participation regardless of nationality, religion, class, or race. The ASA vote to disengage from Israeli universities—which recognizes the “special relationship” in which the US funds the Israeli occupation—is consistent with opposing educational apartheid in all its forms, including the Israeli, South African, and Carolinian variants. It is an excellent starting point for reaffirming academic commitments to justice locally and transnationally.
Neel Ahuja teaches postcolonial studies in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC.