How Academic Freedom Can Be Used to Silence Others

Last month, in the wake of the conflict between Hamas and Israel, more than 130 women’s and gender studies programs at North American universities issued a coordinated statement expressing solidarity with the “Palestinian Feminist Collective.” The statement condemned “Israeli policies and practices,” and calling for a Palestinian “right of return.” 

 We do not subscribe to a “both sides” rhetoric that erases the military, economic, media, and global power that Israel has over Palestine. This is not a  “conflict” that is too “controversial and complex” to assess. Israel is using violent force, punitive bureaucracy, and the legal system to expel Palestinians from their rightful homes and to remove Palestinian people from their land. Israeli law systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

While such a gesture is, on one hand, a legitimate exercise of academic freedom, such political declarations by university departments can have a chilling effect on the academic freedoms of other faculty and students, effectively silencing opposing views and thus diminishing their rights.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, expressed his concern over these and similar statements about the Israel/Palestine conflict, which he called  “a new and dangerous phase in the politicization of the academy.” Nelson argued that departments are official administrative units of their universities—as opposed to professors in their personal capacities—that are “supposed to be politically neutral.”

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