This 2021 fall term, McMaster University and Tel Aviv University are jointly offering an online course, "The Beginning of Science: Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian Conceptions of Space and Time." As is true of many courses at North American universities in 2021, the syllabus starts with a land acknowledgment. And taken on its own, that land acknowledgment is serious and admirable. It reads:
"We recognize and acknowledge that McMaster University meets and learns on the traditional territories of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee nations, and within the lands protected by the 'Dish With One Spoon' wampum, an agreement amongst all allied Nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes."
What is missing—and once one sees this, one cannot un-see it—is a comparable land acknowledgment for Tel Aviv University. Something like this would be in order: "Tel Aviv University meets and learns on Palestinian land, which has been stolen and ethnically cleansed by the Zionist settler colonial project since the late 1890s, and especially by the Nakba of '48; the university is, moreover, complicit in the everyday apartheid of the Israeli state inside both '48 Palestine and '67 Palestine."
Given the welcome land acknowledgment in one case and the utter silence in the second, one must conclude that the course faculty (Drs. Sarah Symons of McMaster & Eshbal Ratzon of Tel Aviv) aren't actually serious about land acknowledgments. What after all is the force of land acknowledgments if they are not offered with moral constancy—if they are absent when they are politically most inconvenient and controversial?
Put otherwise: acknowledging that McMaster operates on First Nations land, but—oops—saying nothing about Tel Aviv U's relationship to Palestine and Palestinians is a covering up, indeed a passive denial but a denial nonetheless, of the Nakba. And as a proud Jew and a historian, let me say this: Nakba denialism—like Holocaust denialism—is intellectually fraudulent and ethically repulsive. Not a good way to start a course; not a good way to start a new academic year.
Very admirably, however, two social justice student groups at McMaster—Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights-McMaster (SPHR-McMaster) and McMaster Divest—are pushing back. In accord with BDS principles, they are demanding a severing of the institutional relationship between McMaster and apartheid-complicit Tel Aviv U. An important general point here is that virtual or online educational partnerships deserve our boycott as much as those that happen in person, such as study abroad programs at Israeli Universities.
As a faculty member firmly committed to academic freedom, I think it is also important to register that the demand to end this institutional partnership is not an objection to the course per se, nor does it limit the academic freedom of Drs. Symons and Ratzon to communicate and collaborate as individual scholars: the objection is specifically and explicitly to the institutional relationship. And too, we must keep in mind that Israeli universities are not sites of academic freedom, and are, fully to the contrary, deeply complicit in the Israeli state’s severe and pervasive violations of the right to education of Palestinians. Put simply: academic boycotts of Israeli universities are an important strategy in the struggle for academic freedom for Palestinians, as well as the struggle against Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing.
Returning to this particular course on early science: if McMaster were to judge that the course needed a co-teacher, in addition to Dr. Symons, nothing in the opposition to McMaster's institutional partnership with Tel Aviv would prevent the faculty from giving Dr. Ratzon full consideration as a candidate for such an appointment.
That said, were Dr. Ratzon as an individual (rather than in her capacity as a Tel Aviv faculty member) to co-teach the course from Tel Aviv or elsewhere in occupied Palestine, then a proper land acknowledgment—which is to say, a proper acknowledgment of the Nakba—would still be in order. Land acknowledgments shouldn't be a matter of convenience or providing them begrudgingly.
Say it loudly and say it proudly: BDS for Palestinian Freedom! And academic Freedom for a Free Society! And kudos to the students of @McMasterSPHR and @McMasterDivest for embracing both. To support the struggle to end McMaster University's institutional partnership with Tel Aviv University, please consider signing this open letter that the McMaster students have prepared.