An Open Letter to University of Maryland President, Dr Wallace Loh

January 20, 2014

President Wallace Loh
Office of the President
University of Maryland
College Park, Md 20742

Dear President Loh;

I have read your response to the ASA boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In fact, if reports are correct, you said:

We firmly oppose the call by some academic associations—American Studies Association; Asian-American Studies Association—to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Any such boycott is a breach of the principle of academic freedom that undergirds the University of Maryland and, indeed, all of American higher education.

Faculty, students, and staff on our campus must remain free to study, do research, and participate in meetings with colleagues from around the globe. The University of Maryland has longstanding relationships with several Israeli universities. We have many exchanges of scholars and students. We will continue and deepen these relationships.

…  To restrict the free flow of people and ideas with some universities because of their national identity is unwise, unnecessary, and irreconcilable with our core academic values.

A high sounding tone. Defense of academic freedom.  However, your statement is silent on the rights denied of Palestinian people living under Israeli military occupation to enjoy the benefits of academic freedom, and fails, as well, to recognize the academic deprivations imposed on the Palestinian people by the 46 year long occupation by Israel of land conquered in the ’67 War. It also ignores the siege of the Gaza Strip where 1.7 million Palestinian people live on the edge of starvation and other depravations intentionally and consciously imposed on the civilian population by the state of Israel. Like so many western diplomats over the last century, you have completely ignored the interests of the Palestinian people.

Like most high ranking western leaders, you have ignored the Palestinian people altogether.

Your final sentence: “To restrict the free flow of people and ideas with some universities because of their national identity is unwise, unnecessary, and irreconcilable with our core academic values.” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what the resolution is all about.

The Boycott resolution is not about national identity.  It is about the denial of academic freedom to the Palestinian people and their associated suffering as an intentional policy of the Israeli government.

Consider the following: The Gaza strip is under siege with both imports and exports being severely restricted, as I hope you are aware.

According to John Ging, the Gaza Director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency of which some 200,000 Gaza school children attend is schools, says that many of the children come to school ‘hungry and unable to concentrate due to the fact that many Gaza families can only afford to provide their families a single meal a day. The children also experience many nights of lost sleep due to sonic booms or air or artillery bombardments. UNRWA reports high rates of failure in its schools. (Makdisi, Palestine Inside Out, 2007)

Perhaps you are also aware of the arrogant statement of Dov Weisglass, a former senior adviser to the Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

The Red Cross says the siege has led to a steady rise in chronic malnutrition among the 1.5 million people living in the strip. According to the UN, 80 per cent of the population is dependent on foreign aid and 61 per cent is classified as “food-insecure”; it also says 90 per cent of the water supplied to residents is not suitable for drinking.

According to a joint report by U.S.-based NGO Save the Children and British aid group Medical Aid for Palestinians titled,” Gaza’s Children: Falling Behind” The report cites a number of ailments suffered by Palestinian children in Gaza. Ten percent of children under 5 have stunted growth due to prolonged exposure to malnutrition. Anemia, caused by an iron-deficiency, affects 58.6 percent of schoolchildren, 68.1 percent of children nine to 12 months old and 36.8 percent of pregnant mothers.

Incidents of water sanitation-related illnesses such as typhoid fever and diarrhea have increased sharply with cases doubling in children under the age of 3, which will carry with it long-term health implications, the report added.

Gaza’s medical facilities are underfunded, outdated and lack essential supplies. Travel restrictions make it difficult for Gazans to seek medical treatment elsewhere.

There are more than 400,000 people of Gaza of university age. Yet Gaza’s already overcrowded universities have at most a capacity of 70,000. Even if a student should win a foreign scholarship, having the resources for foreign travel as well as obtaining an Israeli permit to exit Gaza is a very difficult matter. Even for a Gaza resident to attend a university in the West Bank is a near impossibility due to Israeli restrictions, even though, according to the Oslo Accords, The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are to be regarded as a single unit. The siege of Gaza prevents visitations by international scholars.

You may or may not be aware that Israel bombed the science center of the University of Gaza during the 2009 assault on the Gaza Strip which also killed 1400 residents of Gaza, one third of whom were children.

Two of the main universities on the West Bank, Birzeit University and Bethlehem University have been closed repeatedly by the Israeli military for extended periods

Hundreds of military checkpoints, on the West Bank, make travel to and from classes by both students and faculty a difficult matter involving time consuming delays and hours long and frequently humiliating queues for trips of only a few miles.

Perhaps you also know that school children are often harassed by settlers who throw stones or spit at or otherwise harass them in their transits to and from schools. These settlers owe their presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem directly to Israeli policy of state expansion and settlement expansion into occupied territories.

Having observed for some time the behavior of settlers, I am convinced that the Israeli government and the radical settlers have a common purpose – to make life as miserable as possible for the Palestinians living under occupation so as to encourage emigration.

It has always been the intent of the Zionist movement to capture as much land as possible for a Jewish state with as many Jews and as few Arabs as possible. Any study of the Zionist movement must come to this conclusion. This is the fundamental premise of Zionism and of the Zionist movement.

You cannot be both a supporter of the Zionist project, of the state of Israel, and also uphold the Enlightenment liberal egalitarian ideal of John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, not and be consistent. If you want consistency, you must make a choice.

Professor of genetics and biology at both Bethlehem and Birzeit universities, Mazin Qumsiyeh, reports that one of his students was arrested just before graduation and taken to Gaza. The handful of Gaza residents studying at West Bank universities do so surreptitiously and are subject to being arrested and deported back to Gaza at any time.

It is a difficult matter for international scholars to attend conferences or to take temporary teaching assignments at institutions inside the West Bank due to the military restrictions on entrances into the military controlled territories.

Al Quds University in Jerusalem is cut off from the rest of the West Bank, to all but a few students who have been able to gain permits, due to Israel’s policy of severing Jerusalem from the West Bank and ‘Judaizing’ Jerusalem.

I do not know if you troubled yourself to read the actual ASA resolution. I sounds like to me that you did not. If you did read the resolution, you failed to note or to understand the humanistic impulses from which the resolution is derived.

For your convenience:

American Studies Association Resolution on Academic Boycott of Israel
December 4, 2013

Whereas the American Studies Association is committed to the pursuit of social justice, to the struggle against all forms of racism, including anti-semitism, discrimination, and xenophobia, and to solidarity with aggrieved peoples in the United States and in the world;

Whereas the United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians, which has had documented devastating impact on the overall well-being, the exercise of political and human rights, the freedom of movement, and the educational opportunities of Palestinians;

Whereas there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students;

Whereas the American Studies Association is cognizant of Israeli scholars and students who are critical of Israeli state policies and who support the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement under conditions of isolation and threat of sanction;

Whereas the American Studies Association is dedicated to the right of students and scholars to pursue education and research without undue state interference, repression, and military violence, and in keeping with the spirit of its previous statements supports the right of students and scholars to intellectual freedom and to political dissent as citizens and scholars;

It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.

The American Studies Association is the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history and of America’s place in the world.

The endorsement of the Academic Boycott of Israel was a highly deliberative process which had its origin in the wake of the 2006 assault on Lebanon by Israel when the call from Palestinian civil society for ASA’s participation of a boycott of Israel was discussed by the International Committee of ASA.

In 2009, in the wake of the assault by Israel on the Gaza, several committees of ASA, in response to requests by its members, again revisited the question of support for the boycott. The consensus at that time was that the members needed more time to study and acquaint themselves with the issues.

Thus began a deliberative process, as open as possible to varied opinions within its membership, consisting of students, faculty, and professionals, which culminated, this past November, in an election by members that attracted 1252 voters, the largest voter turnout in ASA’s history, of which 66.5% endorsed the resolution. 30.5% voted no, with 3.43% abstaining.

Since you purport to champion academic freedom, perhaps you have followed the efforts of the defenders of Zionism to block and impede the free expression of opinion if that opinion is not to their liking.

I remind you of the effort of these people to block the recent presentation by speakers supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement which took place at Brooklyn College.

Perhaps you also recall similar efforts by Mr Alan Dershowitz who threatened the University of California Press with a law suit in an effort to prevent the publication of a book by Norman Finkelstein critiquing Mr Dershowitz’s book defending Israel. And also recall Mr Dershowitz’s successful efforts to prevent Depaul University from granting tenure to Mr Finkelstein, and effectively firing him – one instance of widespread efforts to punish the critics of Israeli policy.

According to Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), January 2005, Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi “… taped an anonymous phone call he received, subsequent to the Campus Watch dossier publication, that said: “Khalidi, Columbia alumni love Campus Watch because they keep an eye on thugs like you. We have our eye on you. You’d better watch out.”

Have you ever championed the academic freedom of these victims of Zionist efforts at thought control, Dr Loh?

Of course, you may be all too aware of the practice of Mr Dershowitz, Daniel Pipes, and organizations like Campus Watch, which seek to intimidate, not without some success, academics and others.

You have not championed academic freedom, Dr Loh, as you no doubt believe, not for those who are actually in need of it. You have only helped to sustain the ability of one party of a conflict to deny academic freedom to the other – to those living under its military rule and its never-ending occupation.

Rather than actually stand up for academic freedom and freedom of expression, you have only chosen the easy path.

William James Martin
College Park, Maryland

William James Martin writes frequently on the Middle East. He can be reached at Read other articles by William.