“Memories of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women” intended to explore Middle Eastern women’s lives. The book was going to be dedicated to the late Dr. Elizabeth “BJ” Warnock Fernea, who was a professor of literature and Middle Eastern studies at UT. It promised to dispel abounding stereotypes by examining women’s experiences in the region.
Two Israeli writers were to be featured in the book, along with twenty-nine Arab writers.
Acting in accordance with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which is a cultural and academic boycott in favor of a free Palestine, thirteen of the twenty-nine writers withdrew their submissions after learning two Israeli writers’ work would be included in the book. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies consequently cancelled the publication of the book rather than publishing an incomplete volume. There are no plans to resurrect the project or honor Dr. Fernea.
When the conflict of interest first became known there were initial propositions for compromise. Many in favor of the Israeli writers’ inclusion suggested replacing the withdrawn submissions with new submissions from other writers.
The Center chose instead to cancel the publication of the book. By refusing to compromise with either the protesters or the Israeli writers, the University was clear in its position as a partisan-free institution intent on preserving academic integrity and free speech.
Academic boycotts have a controversial history. In 1980, the United Nations passed a resolution urging cultural and academic centers to break ties with South Africa in protest of apartheid. Opposition to that UN boycott was fierce, and many noted that a boycott against the academic institutions of South Africa was counterproductive because South African universities were the origin of much anti-apartheid dialogue. For the most part, universities have historically stood as havens for uncensored political dialogue.
Fast forward to the present day. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies refused to condone the academic boycott against “Memory of a Promise.” By doing so, the university would have compromised its role as a citadel of free speech. “Academic boycotts are not acceptable,” says Dr. Kamran Aghaie, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “When we start playing these political games, we give up academic integrity … We get this [protest] all the time, angry, irate voices, and we just say ‘no.’ These are the academic standards.”
By refusing to remove the Israeli writers from the book or attempting to compromise with the Arab writers, the Center effectively allowed the book to fold. In doing so, the Center for Middle Eastern studies sent a message to the students at UT that our university remains a place for uncensored speech and, according to the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, does not participate in partisan politics.
It is clear to me that the university strives to maintain this standard through discussion-oriented classes, an active student government and student publications. We are free in these and other mediums to express ourselves and our opinions.
Students have a responsibility to embrace this message from the University and to exercise our right to free speech concerning the Palestinian struggle and other world affairs while we remain students here. The issue at hand is not Palestinian freedom but the necessity for uncensored dialogue at our university. Whether you believe in a free Palestine or not, uncensored dialogue in the university setting is essential for successful international relations. The ideas that we form in our university years will stay with us for life, and we are the ones who will be working to solve and understand turmoil in the Middle East in the coming years. If “what starts here changes the world,” then let’s start by engaging in free dialogue.
The failure of the book raises the question: Where is the debate on Middle Eastern affairs that should be taking place here at UT? The Middle East is a region where much of the world’s conflict takes place. Why wouldn’t we seek to understand these conflicts?
Dr. Aghaie is pessimistic that the failure to publish “Memory of a Promise” will enhance student debate activity. “Groups need to find creative ways for dialogue … We want to be talking to each other,” he said.
We forget that it is a right rather than a privilege to express our opinion in this country. But even in this country, our careers can determine the freedom with which we will express our opinion. For now, we are members of an institution that has embraced its role as a place of free dialogue. This is the time to express yourself. Now is when your voices will be heard.
Mathis is an English and musicology major from Denton.