At its annual convention this week, the Modern Language Assn., which represents 26,000 language and literature scholars, will become the latest academic body to consider the merits of adopting a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. This follows endorsements of such a boycott by the Assn. for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Assn. and, most recently, the American Anthropological Assn., which voted 1,040 to 136 to endorse a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions at its November annual meeting in Denver; the AAA's entire membership will soon vote on the resolution, which is expected to pass.
The justification for an academic boycott — which targets institutions, not individual scholars — stems from the peculiar relationship between Israel's educational system and its broader structures of racism.
FOR THE RECORD:
Israel: A Jan. 8 Op-Ed arguing for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions cited a study saying there wasn't a single high school in Palestinian communities in the Negev desert in southern Israel. The author and the study were referring specifically to Bedouin villages that are unrecognized by Israel. —
The United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination points out with alarm that Israel maintains two separate educational systems for its citizens — one for Jewish children and another for the children of the Palestinian minority — a structure that reinforces the profound segregation of Israeli society in everything from matters of citizenship and marriage to housing rights.
According to official Israeli data cited by the human rights organization Adalah, by the turn of the 21st century Israel was investing three times as much on a per capita basis in the education of a Jewish as opposed to that of a Palestinian citizen.
The consequences are obvious: Schools for Palestinians in Israel are overcrowded and poorly equipped, lacking in libraries, labs, arts facilities and recreational space in comparison with schools for Jewish students. Palestinian children often have to travel greater distances than their Jewish peers to get to school, thanks to a state ban on the construction of schools in certain Palestinian towns (for example, according to Adalah, there is not a single high school in the Palestinian communities of the Negev desert in southern Israel).
These naked forms of discrimination extend into the university system as well. "The hurdles Palestinian Arab students face from kindergarten to university function like a series of sieves with sequentially finer holes," Human Rights Watch points out. "At each stage, the education system filters out a higher proportion of Palestinian Arab students than Jewish students."
In other words, children denied access to adequate kindergartens do less well in elementary school; students in dilapidated and resource-starved high schools find themselves funneled into work as carpenters or mechanics rather than doctors, lawyers or professors. Indeed, the university admissions process is the point at which the country's two separate and unequal schooling systems converge, with calamitous results for Palestinian students, who fall short on matriculation or psychometric exams that are weighted toward the Jewish school curriculum, according to Human Rights Watch.
About a quarter of Israeli schoolchildren are Palestinian. But as a recent study by the Assn. for the Advancement of Civic Equity points out, the higher you go in the system, the lower the number of Palestinian students. As of 2012, according to data published by the Israeli Council for Higher Education, Palestinians constituted only 11% of bachelor's degree students, 7% of master's students, and barely 3% of PhD students. A mere 2.7% of the faculty in Israeli universities are Palestinian, and the percentage of Palestinians in administration is even lower.
According to sociologist Majid al-Haj of the University of Haifa, Israeli universities systematically fail their Palestinian students. These students end up feeling alienated in an academic environment that stubbornly resists integration and seems designed to consolidate rather than challenge discrimination.
All of this is damning, but there is more: Israel's long-standing assault on the right to education of Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Israel has bombed schools and besieged university campuses; it detains and harasses students and teachers at army checkpoints; it has restricted the flow of school materials to Gaza; it has prevented Palestinian students from studying overseas.
One must conclude that Israel's educational system is intended to consolidate the nation's putative Jewish identity and further dispossess the Palestinians. This is a process that the Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling once identified as "politicide." Surely one of its components could be called educide, which international educators ought to reject by endorsing the academic boycott of institutions that engage in it.
Such a boycott wouldn't affect individual Israeli scholars, whose freedom to participate in international conferences, publish in journals or collaborate with other scholars would not be threatened. Rather, it calls for a break in institutional cooperation and affiliation. For example, the MLA would not co-sponsor an event with Tel Aviv University.
Boycotts have been among the most effective means of nonviolent protest against institutional injustice in the modern era. They played a key role in bringing about the transformation of the Jim Crow South and the downfall of apartheid in South Africa, both of which bear an unmistakable resemblance to the situation in Israel. It is as unthinkable to turn a blind eye to the racism of the Israeli educational system as it would have been to disregard those earlier forms of injustice.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA and a member of the Modern Language Assn. He presented a longer version of this piece at the MLA convention in Austin on Thursday.