Home » Opinion » Letter to the editor: Support for BDS is support for academic freedom

Letter to the editor: Support for BDS is support for academic freedom

Almost 200 people took part in a demonstration held outside the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Dec. 29, 2008, protesting the military operation in the Gaza Strip. The demonstrators held signs reading ‘Free Gaza’ and ‘Free Palestine’ and waved Palestinian flags.

Author Vidar Thorsteinsson writes the call for academic boycott of Israel is a call for the responsible and ethical exercise of academic freedom. Credit: Courtesy of MCT

Letter to the editor: 


One of the arguments frequently made against the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, is that it poses a threat to academic freedom. This fails to acknowledge that one of the casualties of Israel’s decades-long illegal occupation of Palestinian land is precisely what critics of BDS proclaim to defend: academic freedom and the right to education.

Israel’s military rule over Palestinians, described as ‘apartheid’ by South African veteran activists, entails an ethnically-based discrimination against the original inhabitants of the Palestinian lands occupied by Israel in 1967. Since 1967, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been subject to daily acts of military violence, encroachment on their land by lawless Israeli settlers, and the construction of massive, prison-like structures such as the separation wall. Looking at threats to higher education is one way of grasping the urgency of ending Israel’s occupation of the West Banks and Gaza.

Consider the case of Palestine’s leading research university, Birzeit University, located near the major West Bank city of Ramallah. The university cannot be approached without going through checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers, where students are interrogated, searched and frequently subjected to violence and humiliation. The Israeli military has on multiple occasions made incursions onto the Birzeit campus itself, made arrests there, and even used blockades to close down the entire university for extended periods.

Because they do not hold actual citizenship, have no state, and hence no passports, Palestinian scholars or students who seek to study, lecture or teach outside the territories can only hope for travel documents, issued at the Israeli government’s discretion. Even if granted travel documents, they live in fear they will ultimately be denied permission to exit the territories, the internal borders of which are under Israeli control. Similar obstacles are imposed on foreign faculty or exchange visitors wishing to collaborate with Palestinian universities. The uncertainty of whether or not they will be granted entry into the occupied territories is a constant threat, with the consequence that normal cross-national collaboration cannot be maintained.

The BDS campaign, founded in 2005 by multiple Palestinian civil society groups, is currently finding increasing support around the world. Following decades of failed peace negotiations, BDS might emerge as the most effective tool in ending the human rights abuses suffered by Palestinians, including the right to education and academic freedom.

This brings me back to the accusation made, in a recent statement made by Ohio State, that BDS is “the antithesis to academic freedom.” The statement, issued in response to the decision of the American Studies Association to endorse BDS, fails to acknowledge the brutal suppression of academic freedom which takes place on a daily basis in the occupied territories. In contrast, BDS does not entail a violation of the academic freedom of individuals, nor does it mean barring them from their right to education.

The call for an academic boycott of Israel is a call for the responsible exercise of academic freedom, one of those freedoms being the right to choose on ethical grounds which institutions and governments with which to be partnered. By withdrawing from voluntarily collaboration at the institutional level, BDS sends a strong message to the Israeli state, and to the world, that academic communities will not stand idly by as fellow students and faculty are deprived of their basic freedoms.


Vidar Thorsteinsson
Ph.D. candidate in the Department of
Comparative Studies


  1. I suppose the following is Israel’s fault too:

    “A report issued by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) this week criticized the Palestinian Authority [PA] and Hamas for assaults on human rights and freedoms in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
    The report, which has been ignored by mainstream media and human rights organizations in the West, reveals that 10 Palestinians died in January 2014 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a result of anarchy, lawlessness and misuse of weapons.
    The report also lists cases of torture and mistreatment in PA and Hamas prisons. ICHR pointed to an increase in the number of torture cases in prisons belonging to the PA’s much-feared Preventive Security Service in the West Bank.
    During January, ICHR wrote that it received 56 complaints about torture and mistreatment in Palestinian prisons: 36 in the Gaza Strip and 19 in the West Bank. In addition, the human rights organization received innumerable complaints about arbitrary and unlawful arrests of Palestinians by the PA and Hamas.”

  2. I suppose the following is Israel’s fault too:

    “Feb 13, 2013
    In another story the Western media apparently refuses to cover, any Palestinian who dares to criticize Hamas or the Palestinian Authority risks being arrested or summoned for interrogation.
    Palestinian journalists are now hoping to bring this to the attention of President Barack Obama when he meets with President Mahmoud Abbas next month.
    The journalists say they want United States and the rest of the world to know that the crackdown on freedom of expression in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip is designed to hide the fact that Palestinians are governed by two repressive regimes that have no respect for human rights and democracy.”

  3. Is this Israel’s fault too or a result of Islam’s backwards-looking dogma?

    “The official media narrative is that these differences are the results of eons of oppression,
    checkpoints and blockades. Fair enough. But then why does the IMF put Israel’s
    GDP Per Capita well ahead of the oil rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

    Saudi Arabia has no Israeli checkpoints, no Israeli soldiers or planes flying
    overhead. It has wealth literally pouring out of the ground with a fifth of the
    world’s petroleum reserves. And yet the IMF puts it 13 places behind Israel and
    the World Bank puts it 8 places behind Israel. The only Muslim countries with a
    better GDP Per Capita rating than Israel are small monarchies drowning in oil.

    The non-oil Muslim countries who are closest to Israel are Malaysia and
    Lebanon, 32 and 33 places behind Israel. Both countries also have sizable
    non-Muslim populations. Muslims make up only 50 percent of Lebanon and only 60
    percent of Malaysia.

    38 places below Israel is Turkey, which until recently was a secular country
    and actually has a statistically significant atheist population. And that’s it.
    Below that we fall off a cliff into places like Belarus, South Africa and
    Grenada; all of whom still have better GDP Per Capita rates. No Muslim country
    without oil has a better GDP Per Capita than a Muslim country that has sizable
    Christian or Buddhist minorities.

  4. Vidar Thorsteinsson

    The troll poster Arafat has arrived, recognizable by his cheap rhetoric, Islamophobic ranting, and lack of courage to post under his actual name. Like other hasbara trolls, he never offers any constructive or realistic solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    For those interested in what my article discusses, here is some further helpful reading:
    • The Palestinian Right to Education Campaign – http://www.right2edu.org
    • The Campaign for BDS at Ohio State – http://www.bdsohiostate.org


  5. response to "Arafat"'s comments

    ““The official media narrative is that these differences are the results of eons of oppression,
    checkpoints and blockades. Fair enough. But then why does the IMF put Israel’s
    GDP Per Capita well ahead of the oil rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia?”

    Try receiving $8.5 million dollars in aid per day from the United states, or having your citizens move into houses that are already furnished by families of the people that used to be there, the people of Palestine.

  6. Vidar Thorsteinsson

    For those interested in what my article discusses, here is some further helpful reading:
    • The Palestinian Right to Education Campaign – http://www.right2edu.org
    • The Campaign for BDS at Ohio State – http://www.bdsohiostate.org


  7. Vidar Thorsteinsson

    A quick googling will reveal that the comments made by “Arafat” are also found verbatim as comments to multiple other online articles dating back to 2012. The phrases in “Arafat'” comment are from an article by the extreme right-wing Islamophobe Daniel Greenfield, again easily found by googling. Unfortunately, commenters such as “Arafat”, who veil their identity and insert copied postings from various xenophobic and anti-muslim outlets, are a standard feature on online forums discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Readers interested in honest and open-minded debate should be vary of them. I would also advise The Lantern to learn how to recognize posters of this kind, and consider not publishing their comments.

  8. Vidar,

    Accusing me of being an Islamophobe while disingenuously presenting your extremist views of Israel are the norm (by quoting from biased and easily dismissed books) may make you feel holier than thou but it does not mean your understanding of the situation is correct.

    You can run from a debate with me. You can try to silence me – strip away my Constitutional Rights – if you are that afraid of what I have to write (or of the authors I copy and paste from), but it only proves you are a small-minded person.

    The irony of labeling me an Islamophobe while practicing man’s most ancient hatred (that of anti-Semitism) is something that likely escapes you. But that’s not surprising given your propensity for believing anything – regardless of its accuracy – that speaks badly of Jews.

    Did it ever occur to you that it is you whose views are warped by your own hatred and not mine? Or would that be asking too much? Is honest self-reflection not part of your PHD thesis?

  9. This is a great letter! The BDS movement is, fundamentally, about the freedom and dignity of *all* people. The vast majority of Israel’s citizens benefit very little from the system of apartheid. It’s in their interest — and the interest of all of us who care about justice — to end the world’s last remaining apartheid regime and create a new system based on equality and dignity for everyone.

  10. Tim,

    Here’s real apartheid…….

    I love it when Muslims lecture us about diversity or accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid or intolerance. What follows is the percentage Muslim demographic in the following countries. Bear in mind when studying these statistics that in every one of these countries 1,400 years ago (or less) Islam did not even exist.

    Afghanistan 100% Muslim (Once Buddhist, Hindu)
    Algeria 99% Muslim (Once Berber)
    Bahrain 100% Muslim (Once Zoroastrain, Christian)
    Iraq 95% Muslim (Once Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian)
    Iran 98% Muslim (Once Christian, Zoroastrian, etc…)
    Morocco 99% Muslim (Once Berber, Christian, etc…)
    Mauritania 100% Muslim (Once Animist)
    Somalia 100% Muslim (Once Animist, etc…)
    Saudi Arabia 100% Muslim (Once Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, etc…)

    Sudan 97% Muslim (Recent history teaches us what happened to all the non-Muslims in Sudan. It’s called genocide.)

  11. Meanwhile, Tim, this ethnic cleansing and apartheid by Muslims and against ALL non-Muslims quickens. The killing of Christians in Muslim countries has accelerated since the pathetic Arab Spring.

    Meanwhile you live in a fantasy world where Israel is the make-believe practitioner of these sins. This despite the fact that Israel’s Muslim demographic is growing, not shrinking.

    Tim, you and facts seem to have a strange relationship.

  12. Tim, the following is real as opposed to the propaganda you mistake for reality.

    Modern Muslims have religious conflict with: Hindus in Kashmir; Christians in Nigeria, Egypt, and Bosnia; atheists in Chechnya; Baha’is in Iran; Animists in Darfur; Buddhists in Thailand; each other in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen; Jews in Israel; Why is Islam involved in more sectarian and religious conflicts than any other religion today? In fact, why is Islam the only religion in conflict with every single one of today’s major world religions?
    But you think belligerent pugnacious Islam has legitimate grievances in this constant conflict, and that, for example in Palestine, Islam is just defending its own reasonable interests?
    No, not at bottom. At bottom what we have in Islam is a violent, expansionist totalitarianism. That’s why Islam is in conflict all over the world with every other religion.

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  14. The Israeli troll is leaving hateful comments about muslims on the comment section. He’s a hatemonger and idiot. No one cares about his opinions.

  15. But credit to the author . Great article. Thanks bro.

    Amjad ali

    Huddersfield, UK

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