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Hopkins is hypocritical on academic freedom

On Sept. 26, an interdisciplinary cohort of students, faculty and staff at Johns Hopkins University answered President Ronald Daniel's call to join the conversation on academic freedom, which he wrote, "deserves dialogue and debate" ("Hopkins welcomes debate on academic freedom," Feb. 26). After months of planning, our "Teach-in for Gaza" was coming to fruition with a schedule of prominent academics.

A smaller group sent a letter of invitation and request to President Daniels and Provost Robert Lieberman. Our aims were modest: to ask for their support through attendance, a contribution to offset the costs of live streaming, and/or approving our event to be broadcast on JHU's official UStream. The provost responded with platitudes expressing support for academic freedom while also rejecting our invitation. We have yet to receive any response from the president.

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I hope the president's silence is not born of cowardice but more akin to my own inability to express the despair and helplessness I felt when watching the unapologetic razing of Gaza from afar. The Russell Tribunal concluded that over 50 days, Israel had once again decimated Gaza's infrastructure, killing 2,188 Palestinians and injuring 11,231.

Though bereft of words and hope for a time, I began work to bring such an event to JHU. Even before "Operation Protective Edge," the impulses for such a teach-in were already in place.

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On December 23, 2013, President Daniels and Provost Lieberman e-mailed an official statement to the JHU community. The statement represented not only a rejection of the American Studies Association's support of the academic boycott of Israel but it disallowed critical discourse. Messrs. Daniels and Lieberman fell in line with the mass of American university presidents by unilaterally rejecting the ASA's decision on behalf of the JHU community. Communal dialogue on the issue would have represented an opportunity for the very "exchange of ideas" and expression of the "intellectual heart" of university life that they claimed to be defending.

The recent assault on Gaza, the continued occupation of Palestine, as well as the proliferation of misinformation, calls upon each of us to (re)evaluate our own assumptions, biases and commitments. At a university that lacks the resources and commitment to offer its students adequate study of the peoples, cultures, and languages of the Middle East and North Africa, what can we expect other than gross distortion, impotent posturing, and feigned interest?

There is a long history of nonviolent forms of resistance, including the academic boycott, in the global movement against Apartheid in South Africa. In the 1980s, JHU students formed the Coalition for a Free South Africa, which was part of the larger DC Coalition Against Racism and Apartheid. We hope to emulate the spirit of these movements and invite the participation of all. As engaged members of JHU, we will continue to participate in critical discussions and offer forums in which we might learn, question, and act.

Following anthropologist Marshall Sahlins and the teach-in movement that he and his colleagues at the University of Michigan initiated as a form of protest against the Vietnam War, we have forged the very space for discussion of the academic boycott that the JHU administration denied us. Our invited faculty presenters will offer their own insights, field questions, and help our community scrutinize Israel's recent military action, the longue durée of colonialism, the military occupation of Palestine, as well as explore the means by which we may resist such wanton violence and everyday forms of hegemony and domination enacted upon the Palestinian people.

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Though anticipating resistance on campus, which has been plentiful, I was surprised by the attempts at intimidation — including e-mails and phone calls — directed at public signatories of the anthropologists' call for the academic boycott of Israel. Interestingly, even those mobilized to harass were severely misinformed of the historical significance of the academic boycott and its focused aim. It is not meant to be generalizably punitive; rather it is to undertake a boycott of those Israeli institutions that "actively or passively accept a status quo that condones and expands the occupation, violates international law, enforces military control and denies Palestinian rights to self-determination," as Professor Ann L. Stoler writes in her powerful endorsement, "By Colonial Design."

In closing, I again invite President Daniels to attend our teach-in and participate in a dialogue with the community that he is very much a part and for which he claims to speak. I'll even save him a seat.

Mariam Banahi, Baltimore

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the Johns Hopkins University.

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