The Judith Butler Affair

Academic freedom in Sweden — a Palestinian perspective

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Over the past weeks a discussion about academic freedom has been taking place on Academia.edu. Yesterday, Victoria posted this:

I am currently active in campaigns for defending the right to academic freedom in Turkey and Palestine, thus, this article caught my eye. It particularly puzzled me, as in the Middle East, the Swedish academy is regularly held up as a bastion of academic freedom. As you may be aware, the situation in both Turkey and Palestine is extremely dire, in both cases we have tens of jailed academics, the state or occupying state dictating the freedom of movement of researchers and students and dissemination of knowledge, plus positions and course content always under political scrutiny.

Aside from the obvious difficulties you have pointed out in your own environment, what is very worrying to me is how this impacts on our campaigns in the Middle East region. At the centre of all our campaigns is the notion of academic freedom as an ideal and in fact as a RIGHT of educators and students. As soon as this notion is watered down, and state interference (with the best intentions) becomes normalized, the very pedagogic and internationalist core of our message to free academic life from political repression everywhere becomes muddied. It worries me that actions such as this within democratic states can potentially become tools and excuses to the power wielders of repressive regimes. This is not good news for us all.

It is very easy to imagine what the Israeli authorities say: we have to limit academic freedom in the name of peace and social order. I.e., if educational institutions on the West Bank tell the truth about the history of the Israeli occupation it will stir up trouble. Truth and social order are the “higher values” in whose name academic freedom is to be sacrificed. The Israeli authorities are probably right. The truth causes more trouble than lies. So, whose side are you on?

Victoria’s point illustrates exactly what is at stake here: to limit academic freedom in one place is to limit it everywhere. This is how universal principles work. I’m in solidarity with her struggle for academic freedom in Palestine and Turkey and she is in solidarity with my struggle for academic freedom in Sweden.

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