David Landy, Ronit Lentin and Conor McCarthy (eds.), Enforcing Silence: Academic Freedom, Palestine and the Criticism of Israel (London: Zed Books, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book? 

David Landy, Ronit Lentin, and Conor McCarthy (DL, RL & CM): Our experiences are as academics teaching on and as activists working in solidarity with Palestine. In both arenas we saw how our colleagues and our comrades have faced powerful censorious forces, designed to silence criticism and critical thought on Israel, and to prevent solidarity with Palestine. While Palestinians in the academy, as outside it, face the brunt of the campaign to silence criticism of Israel, the specific trigger for the book was the “International Law and the State of Israel” conference, originally scheduled for Southampton University in the UK, but forced by a campaign of threats and lawfare to relocate to University College Cork, Ireland. There, we saw how our colleagues faced a tidal wave of harassment for daring to think and talk critically on Israel.

It was clear to us that the forces seeking to close down conversations in academia are similar to those threatening activists with a combination of lawfare, online bullying, accusations of antisemitism, and workplace harassment. We organized a conference in Trinity College Dublin in September 2017 to tease out these issues, and also to ask what academic freedom means in an age of neoliberalism—that is, in an age where donors steer the agendas of universities, and where bureaucratic goal-setting and precarity threaten the ability of academics to think freely about anything, not merely Palestine. However, we did not simply want to talk about the pressures that those seeking to think and talk critically on Palestine and Israel face, but also what we, collectively, can do to counter these forces. The conference was a hugely enriching event, and the book emerged from it.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DL, RL & CM: The book works on the premise that, far from the academic boycott being a threat to academic freedom, as the powerful forces arrayed by Israel and its supporters against BDS now argue, the greatest threat to academic freedom in this area comes from anti-boycott action and ideas. These actions and ideas now include “lawfare,” the funding of new, ideologically slanted “Israel Studies” programs in universities, attacks on academic speech (most notoriously the Steven Salaita case), and, as always, the charge of antisemitism. Contributors to this book discuss these issues, while also covering matters such as the techniques by which conferences and academic events judged to be pro-boycott are attacked or thwarted, the difficulty faced by vulnerable or precarious scholars in getting involved in boycott work, the complicated funding and constitutional structures underlying the American universities in the Middle East, and the ways that academic disciplines can be and are being re-shaped so as to exclude criticism of Israel. The underlying concept of academic freedom itself is also discussed by several contributors, who ask the question if this idea, which is part of the Enlightenment heritage of Western universities, is limiting or restrictive as much as it may be enabling and protective.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

DL: I have previously written about progressive social movements including the Palestine solidarity movement. In this book we were more concerned with the enemies of social progress, the forces arrayed against Palestinian solidarity. The book, for me, was a way of working out what we, as academics and activists, can do about these censorious powers arrayed against us.

RL: Having published extensively on Israel’s permanent war against the Palestinians, exploring Israel’s campaign of silencing academics’ freedom to criticize its policies, motivated by Israeli exceptionalism and settler colonialism, was a natural sequence.

CM: Extensive previous work on Said—as a critic and as a dissenting intellectual—feed into my interest in this book.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

DL, RL & CM: In the Black Lives Matter era, anti-racist and anti-colonial campaigns are becoming more mainstream and many pro-Palestine activists have been linking with the BLM campaign. The question of Palestine is becoming increasingly global, and with it the growing realization of the impunity enjoyed by Israel regarding its ongoing occupation, oppression, and siege policies against the Palestinian people. We hope this book will be read by academics concerned with academic freedom to teach and publish, with the specific freedom to express criticism of Israel being increasingly silenced by university managements, and with academic precarity—all topics this book covers. We also hope it will be read by pro-Palestine activists, monitored and often accused by Israel of antisemitism whenever they criticize Israel’s apartheid regime and racist policies. We expect the book will be of interest also to undergraduate and graduate students interested in academic freedom and in solidarity activism.

We hope that in clarifying issues such as lawfare and legal mobilization, and the policing of academics depending on whether they support colonialism, express themselves with “civility,” or choose to dissent—as have prominent academics such as Steven Slaita, Marc Lamont Hill, and Rabab Abdulhadi, to name but a few—the book will empower academics and activists wishing to protect their freedom to criticize Israel’s policies. Although the book does not focus on the pros and cons of the academic boycott of Israel per se, it should also be of interest to supporters of the boycott.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DL: I am working with Aileen O’Carroll on a research project into the campaign to repeal the abortion laws in Ireland, an example of a long-term, grassroots, and ultimately successful campaign. We are asking what other campaigners can learn from their success, especially in how they used digital tools and how they organized in an inclusive, non-hierarchical way.

RL: I am working on the co-edited Race, Israel and the Question of Palestine with the Sydney-based Palestinian scholar Lana Tatour. It will discuss race-making in Israel-Palestine and how race—as a political structure, a discourse, a performative signifier, and a classificatory technology—has been constitutive of the architecture of the Israeli state and of the colonization of Palestine. Bringing together Palestinian, Israeli, and international contributors, the book is under consideration by Stanford University Press.

CM: I have several projects running concurrently: I have a couple of essays coming out shortly on Said, but I am also working on a Marxist history of twentieth-century Ireland, also to be published in French, and a history of Irish reception and appropriation of the ideas of Edmund Burke.

J: What makes the book timely?

DL, RL & CM: Enforcing Silence is particularly timely in a couple of ways. Firstly, defending academic freedom and free speech are projects now taken over by a supposedly embattled traditional academy. Our book’s contributors expose the fallacy of this right wing “defence of academic freedom and free speech” for the cynical and anti-intellectual ploy it is and show how Zionist forces and friends of Israel  work strenuously to attack academic freedom and to quash critique.

Secondly, the book is timely due to the ever-increasing confidence of the State of Israel in its ability to consolidate the occupation and push forward the agenda of annexation. At a time of the most violently pro-Zionist administration in the White House, but also at the moment when that same racist and authoritarian administration is faced by a massive wave of protest and dissent precisely on the terrain of policing, freedom of expression, and race—in other words, just at the moment that the ghastly similarities between the “greatest democracy on earth” and the racist state of Israel are made most apparent, the book’s appearance is timely.


Excerpt from the book (from the introduction)

Contributors to Enforcing Silence: Academic Freedom, Palestine and the Criticism of Israel explore the meanings and limits of academic freedom as it relates to the academic boycott of Israel and the narrowing of campus spaces for criticizing the Israeli colonization of Palestine in a variety of ways. Several contributors discuss the case of the Palestinian-American academic Steven Salaita, who was fired from his tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a result of a series of tweets he posted in 2014 expressing his outrage at the Israeli assault on Gaza. The Salaita case has become a cause celebre in the struggle to maintain the right to criticize the Israeli colonization of Palestine on campus and elsewhere. In  “My life as a cautionary tale”, Salaita critically examines the limits of academic freedom, proposing that “academic freedom is inhumane… because it cannot provide the very thing it promises: freedom.” Academic freedom, they write, can do little to alter the cultures of obedience that govern most universities, particularly those possessed by “wealthy donors, legislative overseers, defence contracts, and opulent endowments.”

Salaita knows that speaking about Palestine is one of the so-called “dangerous ideas,” like “anything that conceptualizes racism or inequality as a systemic problem rather than an individual failing.” Indeed, in an academic environment that encourages obedience, academic freedom cannot prevent sexual violence, disrupt racial capitalism, hinder inequality or deter genocide, and while Salaita does not attempt to convince us to dispose of academic freedom, he points out that the academic ruling elites monitor and control faculty and potential faculty’s online presence, leading in their case to a situation where, “I can’t find a single university president who will affirm my right to extramural speech. I can’t get an office job with any campus or corporation that has access to Google. I now drive a school bus.”

Although Salaita’s 2019 piece was written after we finished writing and editing this volume, its clarity helps us think about this book, which, we hope, makes a thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing debate regarding the multi-faceted links between the abstract concept of academic freedom and the limits set by Israel and its supporters on voicing our criticism of the Zionist colonization, occupation, siege and oppression of the Palestinians.

The first section, “Universities and academic governance,” asks what academic freedom means in specific institutional settings and begins with Hilary Aked’s chapter “Whose university? Academic freedom, neoliberalism and the rise of Israel Studies”. Aked examines the recent expansion of handsomely funded programs in Israel Studies in the UK, revealing how funders typically see themselves as contributing to the pushback against BDS. By tracing the emergence of Israel Studies in the US and recent expansion in the UK, Aked’s chapter suggests that Israel Studies faculty posts serve as academic “facts on the ground” that undermine the movement for a boycott of Israel.

Nick Riemer’s chapter, “Disciplinarity and the boycott,” links the suppression of debate on Palestine to the wider violation of academic freedom. They argue that this is innate in the way that academic life is structured and parcelled out within distinct disciplines that are shaped by an exclusionary logic of practice. It is not simply morally but tactically advantageous to link Palestine solidarity work to a wider democratization of university culture wherein the ability to think and act freely is not confined to elite actors.

In the same section, David Landy’s chapter “The academic field must be defended: Excluding criticism of Israel from campuses,” tackles the conundrum whereby purported “defenders of academic freedom” attack, smear or undermine practices of academic freedom in the name of that defence. Landy examines the arguments used to sustain this position, and why university administrators often accept the legitimacy of these arguments, made by politically motivated outside actors. Taking a somewhat different inflection from the other authors, they argue in favour of the value of working within university structures to defend academic freedom.

Using the specific case study of the American University of Beirut, Tala Makhoul’s chapter, “Lebanese and American law at the American University of Beirut: A case of legal liminality in neoliberal times,” teases out the legal complexities which attend resistances to BDS in AUB. Offering an activist perspective on clashes within AUB on boycotting Israel, they discuss how both neoliberalism and neo-colonialism in universities in the Arab world are weakening anti-Zionist policies. The chapter argues that neo-colonial ties with the US have driven university administrators to undermine Lebanese law (which enforces a boycott of Israel), and to promote normalization with Israel.

Sinead Pembroke’s chapter, “Precarious work in higher education, academic freedom and the academic boycott of Israel in Ireland,” focuses on academic precarity, often ignored by tenured academics, even those committed to academic freedom. Pembroke shows  how the increasingly managed neoliberal university, dependent on an ever-growing academic precariat of teachers and researchers on short term contracts, acts to restrict the space for dissent of many kinds, including BDS.

The second section, “Colonial erasure in higher education,” puts the issue of colonialism and colonial discourse front and centre. . In “Colonial apologism and the politics of academic freedom,” John Reynolds provides a broad analysis of the ways academic freedom has operated to defend work that distorts the legacy of historical colonialism and to support the status quo in spaces of ongoing colonization, of which Palestine is one. They conclude by arguing that while  we might think that anti-colonial challenges to racial and imperial discourses offer a more meaningful illumination of the substance and necessity of academic freedom, we must be conscious of the structural context in which these are engaged.

Yara Hawari’s chapter, “The academic boycott and beyond: Towards an epistemological strategy of liberation and decolonization,” focuses on the need for the boycott to be situated in larger movements for Palestinian rights. Suggesting that while aiming to protect knowledge production and the right of scholars to research, publish and teach without hindrance, their discussion as to who gets silenced within academic arenas is important both in relation to the Palestinian struggle and more generally in the context of strategies of liberation and decolonization.

Ronit Lentin’s chapter, “Colonial academic control in Palestine and Israel: Blueprint for repression?” discusses how Israeli academia has always colluded in the ongoing colonization of Palestine, and delineates how this colonial program of surveillance and control of Palestinian and Israeli academics and students has adversely affected academic freedom in Palestine and in Israel. The chapter outlines how Israel’s attempts to suppress dissent within academia are being exported abroad by arms of the Israeli state, including universities, and by Israel’s Zionist supporters.

The third section, “Interrogating academic freedom,” discusses the limits and possibilities of academic freedom, as illustrated by the situation of Israel and Palestine. In “Lawfare against academics and the potential of legal mobilization as counterpower,” Jeff Handmaker argues that the realm of law has become a cockpit in anti-BDS control. At the core of their chapter is a pragmatic defence of “legal mobilization” by Palestinian rights activists to advance their cause against attempts by Israel and its Zionist supporters to shut down free speech in academia. Handmaker argues that it is wrong to see Lawfare and legal mobilization as similar forms of legal instrumentalism, one used by “our” side and the other by “their” side. Legal mobilization, the “pragmatic use of law as a legitimate form of counterpower,” offers a defence against the hegemonic use of law to silence dissent.

The section continues with Jamil Khader’s “Rethinking academic Palestinian advocacy and activism: Academic freedom, human rights, and the universality of the emancipatory struggle.” Khader develops a new direction for thinking Palestinian human rights, inflected by the writings of Slavoj Žižek, deriving a new form of universalism from Zizek’s philosophy with its Hegelian inheritance, to buttress the Palestinian claim to universal rights.

The two final chapters provide the most pertinent responses to Salaita’s reflections on academic freedom and its discontents. Heike Schotten’s  “Against academic freedom: ‘Terrorism,’ settler-colonialism, and Palestinian liberation” uses a Nietzschean mode of argument to daringly argue the usefulness of the very concept of academic freedom, which has been so crucial to the discussion of this book. Coming from the opposite direction to Khader’s, and fully aware of the risks attendant on their strategy, Schotten argues that academic freedom, as a discursive marker, has become a weapon of the forces of neoliberal university administrations and, hence, needs to be abandoned by BDS campaigners.

Arianne Shahvisi’s final chapter prises open the discourse of “civility,” which was applied so fiercely to police the speech of Steven Salaita. In Salaita’s case and in similar cases, the concept of “civility” was deployed to limit academic freedom, yet was not defined or defended, leaving university administrators able to wield the concept to impose limitations which serve other interests. Providing one aspect of the silencing of what university administrations regard as “dangerous” speech acts, Shahvisi describes how more rigorously defining the concept of civility might be helpful in understanding the objectives and limitations of academic speech.

Salaita asks “whether my sharp criticism of Israel and subsequent recalcitrance – my unwillingness to grovel my way back into academe’s good graces – was worth it,” and answers: “I wouldn’t change anything, nor do I entertain regret. I endure the punishment not because I’m a sucker or a martyr – I have no illusions about the ruthlessness of capital, and I despise the lionization of public figures – but because I want the vision of freedom ubiquitous among the dispossessed to survive.” It is worth reiterating Salaita’s claim that this is the only way to win: “by defying the logic of recrimination, by depleting its power through unapologetic defiance.” For Salaita it meant being willing to drive a school bus, for others it means being willing to perform other menial tasks, even at the cost of giving up cushy academic positions.. We hope that the contributors to this volume have succeeded in teasing out the complexities of the notion of academic freedom and its uses and abuses by academia, and in making links between it and the freedom to criticize Israel and its colonization of Palestine, because, to quote Salaita again, we value: “The one thing they can’t extinguish: a fixation on equality, recorded in steady rhymes with an uncapped pen. In other words: freedom.”