Keefer: Letter to UW President calling on him to support Academic Freedom

To Dr. Alan Wildeman, President & Vice-Chancellor, University of Windsor

I am writing to tell you how dismayed I am by your attempt to have the student union on your campus suppress the results of a student referendum in which a substantial majority voted to support the international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions that seeks, through peaceful means, to induce the state of Israel to comply with international law and end its oppression of the Palestinians.

I believe that the position you have taken violates the principle of academic freedom–which I regard as being not just a privilege to which tenured academics lay claim, but a foundational principle of the university, and something to be protected for all members of the university community. Of course, a commitment to academic freedom implies at the same time a commitment to civil, humane, and rational discourse, whose goal might be described, in the simplest terms, as one of determining truths (to the best of our abilities) and disseminating them.

I believe that faculty and administrators have a joint responsibility to ensure that discourse within our universities lives up to these standards–and a responsibility, as well, to act in defense of members of the university community who are subjected, from within the university or outside it, to discourse that violates those standards and that commitment to truth–by, for example, having recourse to smears, defamation, and ad hominem attacks of the sort that have been heaped upon the organizers and supporters of this referendum.

I would ask you to consider whether you are living up to this responsibility. The international struggle in support of the rights of Palestinians is one of the great moral issues of our time. It is not an edifying spectacle when a university president obstructs students who are engaging, civilly, humanely, and rationally in that struggle.

I do not ask you to take my word as to the moral import of this struggle. Take instead the word of one of Israel’s most distinguished sociologists, Eva Illouz, a full professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the recipient of major academic awards in the United States, France, and Germany, and also concurrently the President of Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, her country’s national art academy.

Professor Illouz proposed in a long essay published in the newspaper Haaretz on February 7, 2014 that the 19th-century anti-slavery debate in the United States provides a useful analogue to help us understand the present-day debate over the morality of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, which (as other scholars have also observed) has divided Jews both in Israel and internationally. In that essay, to which she gave the resonant title “47 years a slave,” Professor Illouz argues that Palestinians under Israeli occupation are living in what amounts to “conditions of slavery.”

Note, please, that Illouz’s essay, together with the work of other distinguished Jewish public intellectuals including Judith Butler, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Jacqueline Rose, Norman Finkelstein, Naomi Klein, Shulamit Aloni, and Yakov Rabkin, refutes any claim that profound and systematic critiques of Israeli policies and structures of governance can be dismissed as antisemitic.

You accept at face value the statements of some members of your academic community that they feel “threatened” by the outcome of the student referendum, and you appear to regard this as a reason to invalidate it. I would propose that except in cases where the people in question have been subjected to clear deviations from proper standards of civility and humaneness (which would include racist language of any kind), such claims to victim status should be rejected–gently, but firmly–as attempts to infantilize universities, which are or should be places for adult discourse.

It is easy to understand how shocked and saddened a student can be who has grown up thinking of Israel as a great good place, and then discovers that there may be compelling reasons to think otherwise. But the intellectual and moral growth of university students often includes moments of painful cognitive dissonance and dislocation. One should treat such students sympathetically, while at the same time remembering that however arduous it may be for them to deal with competing ethical commitments–which may include well-substantiated claims that some of their prior commitments cannot measure up to generally accepted standards of justice and decency–these students are not in any sense victims of those who invite them to consider unfamiliar evidence and arguments; they are maturing adults.

The real victims are the Palestinians subjected by the state of Israel–with the Canadian state’s full complicity–to what Eva Illouz calls “conditions of slavery.” These are the people to whom the BDS movement brings support and solidarity, and whose oppression it seeks by peaceful means to end.

I invite you to move beyond an uncritical acceptance of the slanders of opponents of the BDS movement, to read the statements of its Palestinian proponents, and to learn why it has gathered the support of so many leading Jewish scholars and public intellectuals. You will also learn to respect the courage, integrity, and decency of the supporters of this movement within your own academic community.

Yours sincerely and respectfully,
Michael Keefer, Professor Emeritus
School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph

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