Israel/Palestine and the paradoxes of academic freedom. A paper by Judith Butler

Butler, J (2006). Israel/Palestine and the paradoxes of academic freedom. Radical Philosophy;135:8-17. 

She came here last week and I missed her, so I thought I’d read this. It’s a paper which responds to people (namely anti-boycott members of the AAUP I think) who object to the academic boycott of Israel on the grounds of the sacrosanct, absolute nature of academic freedom and, more explicitly, to those who seek to pre-empt dissent on campus. She makes two very simple, and good points.

The first is that you cannot pin down what is a ‘balanced view’ – it is not something we can regulate and peddle at university. Moreover you can’t impose a template for a balanced view (a la David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights) on campus without a) being reductive and caricaturing all points of view in a way which compromises learners’ opportunities to engage with each and apply their critical faculties and b) implementing Macarthyite censorship and surveillance of political views of existing academics and also discrimination during recruitment on the basis of political views. These measures have the effect of damaging the academic freedom the initiative purports to uphold, with implications for our civil liberties and the political health of our states.

The second is that the solicitude of academics about academic freedom as the most important objective to the boycott is indefensible given their comparative neglect of the circumstances of disruption and devastation in the Palestinian Universities where academic freedom does not exist. She argues that you can only be said to have a right if there is a concomitant opportunity to exert that right – it’s pointless to argue that Palestinians have a right to education ‘in principle’ and then fail to uphold that right when it is threatened or negated.

By this she returns the onus to those Libertarian academics who oppose the boycott on the grounds of academic freedom; she – very insistently and repetitively – prods them to be true to their values and find a way to defend the academic freedom of Palestinians. At the same time, she resists the response of the Right to regulate campuses and their expectation that they can identify and weed out the wrong kinds of dissenters without any repercussions.

I think I was frustrated because she did not allude to any other reasons for objecting to the boycott – “…by staying internal to the academic freedom debates as they are currently staged, we risk becoming blind to questions of material devastation and to the anti-democratic effects of heightened regulatory surveillance” – and so framed the objections as rooted in academic freedom alone. In that respect it was very much a paper for US readers – the debate in the UK is not exclusively or even primarily about academic freedom. The paper was also repetitive and though she used repetition to reinforce her point, it added to my frustrations. But the paper is constructive.


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