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Essay criticizing the concept of academic boycotts

Against Academic Boycotts
December 12, 2013

Friends and colleagues familiar with my longstanding support of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and my extensive criticisms of the Israeli government's expansionist policies and violations of Palestinian human rights may be puzzled that I have weighed in publicly in opposition to the proposed academic boycott of Israel endorsed by the council of the American Studies Association (ASA) and now the subject of a membership vote in that organization. But the fact is that such a boycott is at best misguided. Not only is it the wrong way to register opposition to the policies and practices it seeks to discredit, it is itself a serious violation of the very academic freedom its supporters purport to defend.

The American Association of University Professors has opposed academic boycotts as a matter of principle since 2005, when we published a major statement "On Academic Boycotts." Last week AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum and I signed an "Open Letter to Members of the American Studies Association" reaffirming this opposition and urging ASA members to reject the proposed boycott.

The ASA Council, however, disagrees. In an extraordinarily one-sided FAQ on the ASA website, advocates of the boycott assert that, like the AAUP, the ASA "unequivocally asserts the importance of academic freedom and the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference as a general good for society," making no mention, of course, that the very organization they cite, the AAUP, has publicly and forcefully opposed as a violation of academic freedom the very boycott they advocate. Then, in language that can only be described as Orwellian, the FAQ contends that "the academic boycott doesn’t violate academic freedom but helps to extend it. Under the current conditions of occupation, the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students is severely hampered, if not effectively denied."

I have little doubt that conditions under which Palestinian scholars and students must function leave much to be desired, including with respect to academic freedom, but I wonder how boycotting Israeli universities does anything to improve that situation and thereby "extend" academic freedom. Does the ASA seek to make a general statement about Israeli policies in the West Bank, or is the organization making a statement about academic freedom in Israeli institutions? If the former, one immediately wonders why they do not advocate an academic boycott of Chinese higher education institutions in response to the occupation of Tibet, where conditions for native Tibetan scholars and students are certainly worse than in, say, the Palestinian Bir Zeit University on the West Bank. If the latter, I wonder how they have determined that Israeli institutions of higher learning are so much more culpable than those elsewhere.

As our "Open Letter" noted, the AAUP doesn't have "the organizational capacity to monitor academic freedom at institutions in other countries, nor are we in a position to pick and choose which countries we, as an organization, might judge." Yet the ASA, which has no special academic interest in the Middle East, feels comfortable boycotting Israeli universities while ignoring seemingly more obvious violations of both academic freedom and broader human rights in Iran, China, North Korea, Singapore, Zimbabwe, the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, and Russia, to mention but a few examples.

According to one Israeli human rights organization, Israeli forces killed 6,722 Palestinians between September of 2000 and October of 2013. In Iraq, however, American troops took the lives of more than half a million civilians. That, by the way, is the same America whose "culture and history" members of the American Studies Association are said to approach "from many directions" (quotations from "What the ASA Does"). In 2006 the ASA adopted a resolution condemning the U.S. invasion of Iraq, noting among other things that the invasion "threaten[ed] academic freedom" (whether in Iraq, the U.S., or both is unclear). Were I an ASA member I would surely have supported that resolution. Yet the ASA did not even consider an academic boycott of American universities in response to the American occupation of Iraq as they do now in response to the less murderous Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Well, some might say, they can't really advocate a boycott of themselves, can they? But in fact that is precisely what supporters of this proposed boycott are doing. Omar Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian advocate of the boycott, is himself a former student and part-time instructor at Tel Aviv University. He is one of many Palestinian and Arab Israeli students and faculty at Israeli colleges and universities. As Emily Budick, an American-born Israeli professor of American studies at Hebrew University, wrote in the AAUP's Journal of Academic Freedom:

Over the years I have taken great pride in the achievements of my Arab and Palestinian students. Last year one of my former graduate students became the first woman mayor of Bethlehem. I was similarly thrilled when several Palestinian students greeted me the first day of classes this year to bring regards from another former student of mine who was their teacher at the Arab university where they'd done their undergraduate degrees and who had encouraged them to do their graduate work at Hebrew University. Last year a full 50 percent of my Introduction to American Literature class was populated by Arab and Palestinian students.... If you want to stop Palestinian progress, then boycott the Israeli academics who contribute (along with Palestinian and Arab teachers) to their education and well-being. If you want to further the rights and liberties of Palestinians, then help us continue to provide Palestinian students with the best education we can.

In fact, if there is anywhere in Israeli society where support for a fair and just peace and for Palestinian human rights can flourish it is the country's universities. Boycott supporters are ironically only strengthening the hand of those right-wing forces in Israeli society who seek to muzzle the kind of questioning and dissent, and who reject the spirit of tolerance, that are often found among Israeli and Palestinian scholars in Israel's institutions of higher learning. The ASA foolishly seeks to punish potential allies largely to the benefit of common opponents.

Indeed, the whole idea of boycotting academic institutions in order to defend academic freedom is utterly wrongheaded. Violations of academic freedom can be found anywhere. In the AAUP we encounter such violations, petty and large, on a daily basis in the U.S. In the very worst of these cases, when all efforts to correct the situation fail, we place administrations on our censure list. But that list is not a boycott list. We do not and will not ask our colleagues to boycott institutions that violate academic freedom or that support policies we abhor. Instead we call on people to organize and struggle to effect change in such institutions, both from inside and out. If we resist the temptation to boycott offending institutions in our own country, where we have full opportunity to determine all the relevant facts, how then can we agree to support such boycotts of foreign institutions?

The AAUP does not have a foreign policy; our members may and do disagree about numerous international conflicts and controversies, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But if the members of the ASA can somehow achieve broad agreement on such a controversial question as this one, we would not gainsay their right to pass resolutions on it as they did during the Iraq War. But a boycott is quite another matter.

Finally, I cannot fail to mention that the leaders of the ASA are not conducting this election in a spirit of frank and free discussion. AAUP's "Open Letter" was preceded by a private communication prior to the ASA council's approval of the boycott resolution. The ASA declined to circulate that communication among members and then rebuffed a request to post the "Open Letter" on its website along with other background material on the boycott proposal. The ASA has also declined to inform members of a letter in opposition to the resolution signed by eight former ASA presidents and other prominent ASA members.

By contrast, this fall the AAUP published an issue of our online Journal of Academic Freedom, much of which was devoted to articles calling on us to abandon our opposition to academic boycotts and advocating such a boycott of Israel. Some supporters of Israel criticized us for this, but we stood by our commitment to the journal as an open forum for debate and discussion. The articles attracted a good number of reader responses representing different points of view, all now published as part of the issue along with replies from the original authors. ASA members would do well to compare this to the ASA leadership's approach to dissent. Those seeking to make up their own minds about the boycott proposal should consider the various arguments pro and con published in our journal instead of relying on the one-sided and disingenuous presentations sadly offered on ASA's website.

Bio

Henry Reichman is professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay; first vice president of the American Association of University Professors; and chair of AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

 

 

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