by Steven Rose | The Guardian | 27 May 2004
You finish teaching the class on your own campus, and drive to another, six miles away, to give a physiology course. A normal enough activity for a university teacher. Except that en route you are stopped by heavily armed soldiers. You explain where you are going. "How old are you?" they ask. Forty, you tell them. "Go back, we aren't letting anyone through under 45."
A couple of weeks later you try again. You show your papers, which describe you as an assistant professor. "So you aren't a proper professor," says the youngster with the gun. "Go back." Incredible? Not for academics at the two Palestinian university campuses I am talking about, Bir Zeit and Al Quds, where such is their daily experience, as I learned when I visited the Occupied Territories recently. Bir Zeit is on the West Bank, Al Quds is in east Jerusalem, and between them lies the Israeli checkpoint of Qalundia. If you are a Palestinian with West Bank ID you aren't allowed into Jerusalem, and vice versa. The system separates husbands from wives, children from parents, and students from their schools.
The restrictions penetrate the campuses themselves. In Bir Zeit, the collaborative experiments I have been planning with colleagues are hampered by Israeli restrictions on laboratory facilities. Books and journals get mysteriously lost in the post. In the meantime, the nine metre high Israeli "defence wall" is scheduled to drive through the Al Quds campus, cutting it off from its sports field.
There are several thousand Israeli academics. You might imagine that these continual assaults on the freedom of their Palestinian colleagues to teach and research might cause them some concern, that they might be tempted to protest. Sadly, the distinguished Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has estimated that no more than a hundred actively oppose these institutionalised restrictions on Palestinian education and science. So when Israeli scientists complain that those of us in Europe who refuse to collaborate with them in making research bids, or feel that attending their conferences in Israel silently endorses state brutality, are attacking their academic freedom, there is a whiff of hypocrisy. After all, it is surely my right to choose with whom I will collaborate, which meetings I will attend, and whether to referee research papers or grant applications.
So when Israel's defenders in Britain, such as Susan Greenfield in this column two weeks ago, call the boycott movement "shameful", I can only wish that she would visit Palestine and see the conditions under which teachers and researchers live and work.
The truth is that in the modern system of research funding, academic freedom is honoured more often in the breach than in practice. When, just over two years ago, Hilary Rose and I, along with some 120 other colleagues, wrote to the Guardian calling for a moratorium on research collaboration with Israel under the auspices of the European Union's Framework funding for research, we could have gone on to point out that this research funding is itself far from "free". Europe targets its funding towards projects likely to enhance "wealth creation", "competitiveness" and (some way down the list) "quality of life". It particularly welcomes projects which link academic researchers directly with industry. That's fine; the EU is entitled to choose how to distribute its funds - though one might wish for greater accountability for its largesse. But don't think that such contract funding entitles its recipients to some broader academic freedom to research how they will.
The scent of hypocrisy gets more powerful when it is revealed that, in the US, academic journals are being banned from publishing papers submitted by researchers from countries claimed to belong to President Bush's "axis of evil", such as Iran, or from Syria and Libya. At a conference in Strasbourg last week I was told that a journal owned by a European publisher had just rejected a paper submitted from Iran, despite positive referees' reports, for fear of transgressing the American ruling. We wait to see if the journal's editorial board will now resign in protest.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of patents and industry-funded research in universities restricts the exchange of information even between colleagues in the same department. People working side by side in the lab may not tell each other what compounds they are using, for fear of breaching confidentiality agreements.
Academic freedom is being eroded and needs to be defended, in our own institutions, but above all in those places where it is most at risk, including in Palestine under an increasingly savage Israeli occupation.