Two Boycotts Don't Make a Right

AAUP opposes efforts in some states to get academics to disavow movement regarding Israel. Group also opposes recent government action against American pro-BDS scholar.

August 8, 2018

The American Association of University Professors opposes the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israeli institutions because it opposes all academic boycotts as antiacademic. Today it’s releasing two documents stating its opposition to what it sees as counterboycotts, on the same anti-academic freedom grounds.

The association’s formal Statement on Anti-BDS Legislation and Universities cites data from the National Coalition Against Censorship showing that 17 states have passed legislation imposing, in AAUP’s words, “punitive measures against supporters of BDS with regard to Israel.” Some ask businesses contracting with public institutions to denounce the BDS movement.

As a result, the statement says, “some public universities in those states have begun to require that external speakers invited to campus and others who contract with these universities, such as external reviewers of tenure and promotion materials, sign a statement pledging that they do not now, nor will they in the future, endorse BDS.”

AAUP’s final statement doesn’t cite any particular cases or institutions alleged to have enforced this kind of pledge, but a few have made headlines in the past year. Texas, for example, passed a law in 2017 prohibiting public institutions from contracting with businesses that support the Israeli boycott. And in June, according to the Houston Chronicle, an employee of the University of Houston resigned after it was revealed that she'd forged the signature of a workshop presenter and graduate student who'd refused to sign an anti-BDS statement, in order to process the speaker's payment.

Responding to AAUP's statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for Houston said via email that any "external person invited to give a speech or to review tenure or promotion issues is not a company or providing the service for profit" and would therefore be outside the purview of Texas BDS law.

The particulars of that case and any others aside, Hank Reichman, chair of AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said Wednesday that his group would rather speak out against anti-BDS pledges prematurely than too late.

“There have been a number of legislative attempts or responses to BDS that have crossed the boundary into trying to silence people’s political opinions,” he said. “And even if they’ve been ineffective, it’s important to comment on them.” (Reichman has also contributed an opinion piece on this topic to Inside Higher Ed today.)

The AAUP’s statement underscores that the association “does not endorse BDS” and takes “no position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor on calls for divestment or economic sanctions.” But it opposes “all academic boycotts, including an academic boycott of Israel, on the grounds that such boycotts violate the principles of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas for which our organization has stood for over 100 years. We believe that academic freedom ought not to be subordinated to political exigency; there will always be compelling political causes that will challenge the ideal of free and open scholarly exchange.”

That’s why AAUP’s opposition to BDS “is matched as resolutely by our opposition to these pledges, which are nothing short of an attempt to limit freedom of speech and belief,” the statement says, comparing them to “loyalty and disclaimer oaths, mainstays of McCarthyism.”

Boycotts are part of the legacy of American civil protest, the statement says, and at “colleges and universities especially, where reasoned disagreement and debate should be the order of the day, demands that faculty and students forswear support for a peaceful protest are repugnant.”

At a time when there is “widespread interest in making sure that speakers on all points of the political spectrum are able to make themselves heard on American campuses, the contradiction in seeking to ban advocates of this particular position is obvious and unacceptable,” the statement says. “We therefore call on all institutions of higher education in the United States to challenge the required renunciation of BDS and uphold freedom of speech and belief for all members of the academic community.”

AAUP’s other document released today pertains to Katherine Franke, Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Columbia University, who was detained at Tel Aviv’s airport and swiftly deported from Israel this spring for her support of the BDS movement. Franke, who previously served on the advisory board for Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS organization, has said she was not visiting Israel in May to promote BDS, but rather to do academic work. Her agenda included meeting with graduate students whose dissertations she’s supervising and with colleagues at the Israeli nonprofit Adalah to make plans for Columbia’s Palestine and Law program.

In a letter to Israel’s embassy in Washington, Reichman wrote that “aborting” Franke’s visit undermined efforts within the U.S. “to oppose academic boycotts, including the academic boycott of Israel.” The letter urges Israel to lift any outstanding ban on Franke’s entry to Israel.

More generally, Reichman wrote that AAUP opposes Amendment No. 27 to the Entry Into Israel Law, passed in 2017, which bars entry to anyone who “knowingly issued a public call to boycott the state of Israel,” “pledged to participate in said boycott” or acted on behalf of a group or an organization that has done so.

The amendment amounts to efforts at “censorship that contravene the standards of a free society and basic principles of academic freedom, and consequently exclude Israel from the international community of scholars,” Reichman wrote.

His letter notes that even guidelines issued by the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority state that exceptions should be made where the harm resulting from denying entry is greater than the benefits, saying that Franke’s deportation harms the “precious ideal of academic freedom and global scholarly cooperation and exchange.”

Reichman said Tuesday that he believed Franke’s deportation marked the first time a U.S. academic traveling for academic reasons had been blocked from entering Israel, and that it set a bad precedent.

Franke said in an interview that she was glad to have AAUP’s support as she continues to seek information about how long her ban will last and just how Israel came to identify her as a supporter of BDS (Israeli officials have said leaders of Jewish Voice for Peace, among other groups, would be targeted). Her interrogator crumpled her paper visa at the airport in Israel, she said, giving her the impression the ban was indefinite.

Asked if she agreed with AAUP’s statement that boycotts in response to boycotts -- in this case a boycott of her person for her support of BDS -- are hypocritical, Franke made a distinction: she boycotts Israeli institutions that take money from the Israeli government, not Israel outright or Israeli academics, she said, while Israel boycotted her altogether.

Going forward, Franke said, bans on individual scholars from abroad will make it harder even for academics working within Israel to advance their scholarship. Franke said, for example, that one graduate student she is advising in Ramallah, in the West Bank, can’t get permission to leave, so Franke was attempting to get to her. Now it’s unclear when they’ll meet.

Reichman said AAUP's letter was sent privately to the Israeli embassy earlier this month, but he has not received a response.


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