Statement Raises Concerns on Intimidation of Israel's Critics

Noted scholars Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi jointly wrote a statement, signed by about 150 other academics and artists, condemning the intimidation and censorship of individuals who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

In the wake of the American Studies Association’s December vote to boycott Israeli institutions, lawmakers have introduced legislation in three states (Illinois, Maryland, and New York) and the U.S. Congress that would restrict funding for universities or associations that support the boycott. 

“Whether one is for or against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as a means to change the current situation in Palestine-Israel, it is important to recognize that boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression,” the Butler-Khalidi statement reads. “As non-violent instruments to effect political change, boycotts cannot be outlawed without trampling on a constitutionally protected right to political speech. Those who support boycotts ought not to become subject to retaliation, surveillance, or censorship when they choose to express their political viewpoint, no matter how offensive that may be to those who disagree.”

The statement continues: “We are now witnessing accelerating efforts to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and to carry out retaliatory action against individuals on the basis of their political views or associations, notably support for BDS. We ask cultural and educational institutions to have the courage and the principle to stand for, and safeguard, the very principles of free expression and the free exchange of ideas that make those institutions possible. This means refusing to accede to bullying, intimidation, and threats aimed at silencing speakers because of their actual or perceived political views. It also means refusing to impose a political litmus test on speakers and artists when they are invited to speak or show their work. We ask that educational and cultural institutions recommit themselves to upholding principles of open debate, and to remain venues for staging expressions of an array of views, including controversial ones. Only by refusing to become vehicles for censorship and slander, and rejecting blacklisting, intimidation, and discrimination against certain viewpoints, can these institutions live up to their purpose as centers of learning and culture.”

In February, Butler, who is the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Visiting Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, withdrew from a planned talk at the Jewish Museum in New York City amid criticism of her pro-BDS views (the talk was to have been on the subject of Franz Kafka).

Earlier this year, critics of the academic boycott against Israel, including the former president of the American Association of University Professors, Cary Nelson, issued a petition expressing concerns about the various ways in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being used to undermine academic freedom: "Partisans on all sides of this conflict seem increasingly willing to sacrifice the principles of academic freedom and, more generally, of the free expression and exchange of ideas,” that petition states. 

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Judith Butler Withdraws From Talk at Jewish Museum

Judith Butler, a noted literary theorist who is the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Visiting Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, has called off a talk she was supposed to give at the Jewish Museum in New York City, amid criticism of her support for the boycott of Israel. Butler's talk was not to have been about her views on the Middle East, but on Franz Kafka, who died well before the State of Israel was created. A statement from the museum said: "She was chosen on the basis of her expertise on the subject matter to be discussed. While her political views were not a factor in her participation, the debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended."

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Butler said: "I did decide to withdraw when it became clear to me that the uproar over my political views (actually, a serious distortion of my political views) would overtake the days ahead and the event itself. As I understand it, the Jewish Museum also felt that it could not handle the political storm, and we were in complete agreement that the event should be canceled as a result."

She continued: "What is most important now, in my view, is for both educational and cultural institutions such as these to recommit themselves to open debate, not to become vehicles for censorship and slander, and not to become party to forms of blacklisting. It certainly should not be the case that any of us are forced to give up speaking in public on scholarly topics that have no bearing on the political issues that are so controversial. It constitutes discrimination against a person on the basis of political viewpoint, implying that the speaker ought not to be allowed to speak on any topic given the political viewpoint in question. It is one thing to disagree, say, with my political viewpoint and to give reasons why one disagrees, even to call for an open debate on that disagreement, and to ask the Jewish Museum to exercise its authority and commit its resources to such an open debate. It is quite another to say that anyone with my political viewpoint (itself badly distorted in this case) should not be able to speak at a Jewish cultural organization.... Whether one is for or against [the boycott movement], it seems important to recognize that boycotts are constitutionally recognized forms of political expression, affirmed by international law as well. That means that one cannot exactly outlaw a boycott, even if one opposes it with great vehemence, without trampling on a constitutionally protected right. We are seeing several efforts now to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and so cultural institutions like the Jewish Museum will now have to decide whether they will allow their choices of speakers and artworks to be coerced, whether they will have the courage and the principle to stand for freedom of expression, refusing to impose a political litmus speakers on speakers and artists who have every reason to be part of the broader community they serve and have ideas on many other topics to share."

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The Vassar Jewish Union has become the second Hillel affiliate, after the chapter at Swarthmore College, to declare itself an "Open Hillel" and resolve that it will not abide by a ban on anti-Israel speakers imposed by its parent organization. Hillel International guidelines prohibit campus chapters from partnering with or hosting groups or speakers that seek to delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel, or that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, but in a statement the Vassar Jewish Union said the policy “censors and delegitimizes the diverse range of personal and political opinions held by Jewish students."

“We believe that Hillel International’s goal to ‘inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel’ does not represent the diverse opinions of young American Jews,” the statement says, in part. “We believe that fostering a pluralistic community and supporting all Jewish life on campus cannot be achieved with Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines in place."

The president of Hillel International, Eric Fingerhut, told The Jewish Daily Forward that the organization’s expectation is that Hillel affiliates will continue to uphold the group’s standards for partners and co-sponsors.

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