This blog was written by Laila Kadiwal, Mario Novelli, Pauline Rose, Jee Rubin, Yusuf Sayed, Maha Shuayb and Arathi Sriprakash. It was originally published on the BAICE website on 17 December 2023. 

We write this piece as a group of education researchers working in the fields of international education and development, including with respect to conflict studies, forced migration and comparative studies, witnessing the unfolding of genocide in Palestine. At the time of writing, between 7 October and 13 December 2023, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 18,608 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli military action in Gaza, with about 50,594 injured, with many more missing. As the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has said: “Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children.”

This has developed after the killing of 1,200 Israelis on 7th of October following Hamas’s attacks, and against the backdrop of the violent occupation of Palestine with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Based on current information, 12 out of 17 higher education institutions and 342 out of 427 schools have been destroyed or partially destroyed in Gaza, affecting the infrastructure intended for securing educational and cultural futures for Palestinians. Over 203 teachers and 3,477 students have been killed by Israeli forces. In addition, UNRWA has reported that 135 United Nations employees have been killed.

As academics, we see it as our responsibility to educate and advocate for justice. According to Angela Davis, this crisis is a ‘moral litmus test for the world’. This recognises that while the intensity of humanitarian catastrophe and injustice escalated recently, it began 75 years ago with the occupation of Palestine. Yet, many networks and professional associations serving our communities have failed to engage with this history of injustice and the current humanitarian crisis faced by Palestinian people, whether through public statements, organised academic dialogue, and/or engaging in solidarity actions with other groups and actors including teachers and civil society organisaitons. This lack of explicit engagement, despite the clear political urgency of the situation, amounts to an active and deafening silence.

Implications of academic and scholarly silence and inaction

The silence or inaction of professional associations is striking in a context where the heads of 18 UN agencies and non-governmental organisations – often partners for research in our field – have released a joint statement calling for an urgent ceasefire and for all parties to respect their “obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law”, including to protect civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools. Yet, our community – which advocates for social justice, equity and decolonisation– has failed to use this collective expertise to sufficiently engage with and educate each other, as well as with policymakers and institutions, to make a difference to the lived reality of the marginalised and oppressed.

What does this silence and inaction mean for our field and how does it reveal a fundamental disregard for the education and lives of women, children, young people, refugees and displaced populations who are on the frontlines?  These are the very people who are supposed to be at the centre of our professional existence. We reflect on how this silence is often justified through an unproductive notion of ‘hierarchies of injustice’, the false idea that speaking up for one oppressed group implies the dismissal of others’ oppression. We urge the international education community of researchers, educators and practitioners to recognise the interconnectedness of injustice.

In doing so, it is crucial to remember, as Martin Luther King, Jr. astutely wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” This principle of interconnectedness should form the basis of ethical solidarity and committed scholarship.

Recommendations for international academic solidarity

Since our freedom is so intertwined with that of others, we call on our networks to foster new forms of international solidarity with the following recommendations in mind:

First, professional associations must protect academic freedom and freedom of speech as a collective right. We note with concern how legitimate, evidence-informed scholarship which critiques the occupation, the killing of civilians (including scholars and students), and the destruction of educational infrastructure has been met with a barrage of hostility, intimidation, and punitive and unwarranted sanctions. In some cases, it has even resulted in the suspension and dismissal of academics from employment, as highlighted in a joint statement by four UN Special Rapporteurs. In the United Kingdom, the suspension of UKRI’s Equality Diversity and Inclusion advisory group highlights the reality of the threats to those speaking out against the unfolding genocide. Concrete steps for action to redress these developments include:

  • Establishing academic freedom committees within networks to safeguard and protect academic freedom and freedom of speech. These committees should support scholars facing harassment or intimidation due to their critical perspectives.

Second, knowledge and understanding thrive and are nurtured in and through professional associations that can promote and create conducive and safe spaces for engaging in challenging and complex dialogues. We believe that such debate should be at the heart of the upcoming Comparative International Education Society (CIES) conference on the theme of ‘The Power of Protest’, which has been identified in recognition of ‘the fact that education is, by definition, a public act’. However, this is not evident from any statement thus far issued by CIES. More just dialogue within professional associations can be engendered by:

  • Initiating a process of critical self-reflection and unlearning regarding the    role and obligations of networks, especially those networks whose research is concerned with both human rights and the Global South. This reflection process should emphasise networks’ responsibilities toward the communities they collaborate with.   

Thirdly, no ‘hierarchy of injustice’ exists. Where professional associations claim neutrality and impartiality as principles for non-engagement on this issue, it can be construed as abdicating responsibility for justice. The old adage of who will speak out for the academic community and scholarship when all voices are silenced reminds us of Desmond Tutu’s statement: “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. As such, academic associations and institutions should be:

  • Engaging with conflicts in various parts of the world in historicised, politicised and contextually nuanced ways, without erasing the language of critique produced by historically marginalised and violated populations.  
  • Addressing the silencing of academics who might face cancellation or punitive actions, particularly emerging scholars from marginalised and underrepresented groups, scholars of colour and scholars who themselves are directly affected.

Fourth, professional associations whose membership includes scholars, practitioners and funders associated with conflict studies carry an ethical responsibility to speak out against injustice in different ways, and to act in solidarity with communities facing conflict and oppression. Remaining silent whilst benefiting from grants and research is unjustifiable as a form of engagement. This reflects an extractive model of knowledge production, reminiscent of the colonisation these networks are striving to confront. Going forward, these injustices can be remedied in part by:

  • Addressing power imbalances within international organisations, particularly the dominance of entities from the Global North, and ensuring redistribution, reparations, epistemic justice, critical ‘Southern-led’ approaches and learning and unlearning from critical voices of Global South scholars in these networks.
  • Rethinking and redefining research ethics codes to embody the principles of ethical and committed scholarship, extending to protecting and respecting the well-being of marginalised communities.

Fifth and finally, the very least we can all ask for is a permanent ceasefire.

We urge the chairs, trustees and executive committees of our professional communities to circulate these recommendations among their members, formally consider these recommendations, and to take action. Where their professional associations remain silent and fail to take action, we call on members of their committees to consider their positions.

We hope that this blog will encourage further reflection, debate and actions. Through this process, we hope we can stand in ethical solidarity with those who are central to our professional careers in times of genocide(s). By doing so, we echo calls from colleagues at Birzeit University:

“Birzeit University calls upon the international academic community, unions, and students to fulfill their intellectual and academic duty of seeking truth, maintaining a critical distance from state-sponsored propaganda, and to hold the perpetrators of genocide and those complicit with them accountable.”