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A photo illustration of the Israeli and Palestinian flags, with a rather grimy filter.

Inside Higher Ed

Amid all the shouting (in person and online) about the academic boycott of Israel, a new effort by boycott critics seeks to broaden the discussion. They have launched a petition that opposes both the boycott of Israeli universities and also attempts to interfere in tenure cases based on whether the candidates are seen as pro- or anti-Israel.

The petition is unequivocal in stating its opposition to the boycott of Israeli universities. "We, the undersigned, urge our colleagues in the United States and across the world not to use the politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict to undermine academic freedom. We are dismayed by the international campaign calling for a boycott of Israeli universities, manifested recently in the boycott resolution passed by the American Studies Association," the statement says. "We do not agree that there is a meaningful distinction between boycotting universities and blacklisting individual scholars, nor do we think that universities should be held responsible for government policies."

But it goes on to express concern about tenure cases in which advocates of Israel (or critics) have urged campus officials to consider their opinions.

"Academic boycotts are not the only danger to academic freedom linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the threats come from both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel constituencies," the petition says. "We are opposed to attempts to intervene in tenure cases on political grounds, whether with public fanfare, such as campaigns by pro-Israel groups to block the tenure of pro-Palestinian academics at Barnard College in New York and DePaul University of Chicago, or by the sometimes quieter, but no less pernicious, practices of discrimination in some departments by pro-Palestinian academics against scholars who support Israel."

The references to the tenure cases are to those of Nadia Abu El-Haj, who won tenure in anthropology at Barnard in 2007 despite opposition from some supporters of Israel, and Norman G. Finkelstein, who was denied tenure at DePaul that same year amid substantial criticism from supporters of Israel. In both cases, officials of the colleges said that they focused on tenure criteria and not the outside critiques of the candidates, but supporters of Finkelstein have disputed that.

All attempts to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to intrude on academic decisions should be resisted, the petition says. "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. We call on our colleagues to resist this tendency, whatever their views of the conflict itself. Boycotts, blacklists, politically motivated interventions in tenure, and attempts to stifle speech do not belong in the university," it says. "They set an ominous precedent that can be used by intolerant and repressive movements of all sorts in the future. Everyone who values freedom should stand up against them."

The petition comes at a time that some supporters of the Israel boycott have accused critics of not taking seriously the pressures that are faced by academics whose views offend supporters of Israel.

Among those who organized the petition are Cary Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, former national president of the American Association of University Professors and a leading critic of the boycott; Todd Gitlin, a professor and chair of the Ph.D. program at the Columbia University School of Journalism; Samuel Fleischacker, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and Jeff Weintraub, who has taught political and social theory at Bryn Mawr College, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Haifa.

Via e-mail, Nelson said that the petition was an attempt to stake out "a position sympathetic to Israel  and at the same time resistant to what some pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli interests on and off campus do to subvert academic freedom." He said that "of course the petition also gives people a vehicle by which to take a pubic stand against boycotts, and it puts that stand in play in the public sphere," just as most petitions aim to do.

What's different, Nelson added, was the context of this petition. "This one arrives in a time of intellectual, personal, and professional need for those who often disagree with Israeli policy but support the country’s survival to find one another and establish a certain virtual community. It’s thus an expression at once of political and personal solidarity.... At a time when any sympathy for Israel is under attack on the left, a coalition of progressive voices who are beginning to craft an alternative politics is essential. The petition is a testimony to that effort and a step in moving it forward."

Via email, Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, condemned the new petition, calling it "another desperate attempt to derail the fast growing academic boycott of Israel, adding that "the racism implied in this petition is astounding: no mention of Palestinian academics in the [occupied territories] and how Israel's occupation has denied them academic freedom in a very concrete way for decades."


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