In May 2010, Noam Chomsky, the famed linguist and left-wing activist, showed up at Israel’s Allenby Bridge border crossing, seeking to enter the Israeli-occupied West Bank from Jordan. For hours, Israeli border police questioned Chomsky, who was planning to lecture at Birzeit, a Palestinian university near Ramallah.
Then they turned him away.
Chomsky, a Jew and a harsh critic of Israel, claimed he was denied entry because of his controversial opinions and because he had chosen to lecture only at a Palestinian — not an Israeli — university. The academic, whose early linguistic specialty was Hebrew, compared Israel’s behavior with that of a “Stalinist regime.” But the Israeli government said a border official had simply made a mistake.
Today, Israel’s alleged travel restrictions on foreign academics are once again in the spotlight, following the Modern Language Association’s preliminary approval recently of a resolution condemning Israel for denying scholars entry to the West Bank. Last December, the American Studies Association went further, passing a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions to protest Israel’s alleged restrictions on academic freedom for Palestinians in the West Bank.
The two resolutions generated a storm of reaction, including condemnation of the ASA’s boycott resolution by nearly 200 universities, reported threats sent to the ASA and attacks on and defenses of both resolutions by prominent public figures.
Lost amid the media frenzy has been any clearheaded analysis of the resolutions’ claims. Does Israel, in fact, regularly bar from the West Bank scholars “who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities,” as the MLA resolution claims? Does it in particular bar “academics of Palestinian ethnicity,” and thereby disrupt “instruction, research, and planning at Palestinian universities?”
A review by the Forward of the claims and counterclaims — and of the evidence for each — reveals a paucity of hard data that could make the case for the resolutions’ claims. Still, scholars and experts who monitor the issue report numerous anecdotes and experiences that leave them, almost uniformly, with an impression that the problem is real. Some of them also cite Israel’s cumbersome and sometimes arbitrary visa renewal regime for foreign academics working with Palestinian academic institutions in the West Bank as an equally serious problem.
To be sure, this is not how the Israeli Embassy to the United States sees the issue. “The State of Israel does not place any restrictions on the entry of academics from outside the country or on partnerships between academics and Palestinian institutions,” reads a general statement on Palestinian higher education posted to its website. “Academics from foreign countries can enter freely, except in cases of exceptional security concerns.” The embassy declined to answer further questions about the issue.