On December 27, William Kelly, the interim chancellor of the City University of New York, the vast university system in which I teach, published a statement condemning the resolution of American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities. In his statement, Chancellor Kelly wrote, “The need for global cooperation has never been more urgent, and we repudiate any effort to foreclose productive dialogue.” Who, one might wonder, is this we the chancellor is invoking, and who exactly is foreclosing dialogue?
Kelly’s statement is part of a growing chorus of denunciations of the ASA resolution by university presidents and other academic leaders. In these public pronouncements, Kelly and his fellow executives almost always speak in the royal we, as if they talk for the entire university community. In many cases, such arrogation of the right to speak for the whole community is explicit. Amherst College President Biddy Martin, for example, writes in her rejection of the ASA resolution, “On behalf of the college, I express opposition to this academic boycott for several related reasons.”
Yet when university leaders like Kelly and Martin speak not based on their own personal opinions but in the name of the institution, they abrogate the academic freedom of their faculty members. None of the statements issued thus far have benefited from consultation with faculty senates or other representative bodies of faculty opinion. Think of the chilling impact of such presidential declarations on nontenured faculty members who may have participated in the ASA vote, who may be considering attending meetings of the ASA, or who may even hold dissenting critical viewpoints about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. These presidential denunciations threaten to create a witch hunt-like atmosphere on campuses.
The courageous response of a group of faculty members at Trinity College in Connecticut to President James F. Jones Jr.’s attack on the ASA resolution highlights the ways in which these denunciations infringe on academic freedom. The Trinity faculty members point out explicitly to Jones that, “you did not speak in our name – also members of the Trinity College community – when you wrote this ill-advised letter to the ASA president.”
The Trinity faculty had good cause to complain. Without consulting them, President Jones stated in his letter that if Trinity were still an institutional member of the ASA, “it would not be any longer after the misguided and unprincipled announcement of the boycott of the only democracy in the Middle East.” The Trinity faculty might also have objected to the fact that President Jones appears so concerned to protect the academic freedom of Israeli institutions while ignoring that of members of his own university community. What could explain this apparent contradiction between the presidential devotion to abstract notions of academic freedom and pronouncements that ride roughshod over academic freedom at the leaders’ own institutions?
The answer perhaps lies in President Jones’s characterization of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, a statement that the Trinity faculty remind him is not simply erroneous but also racially stereotyping. Following this gaffe, Jones goes on to ask rhetorically why the ASA is not boycotting “Syria, the Sudan, North Korea, China, Iran, Iraq, or Russia.”
An identical assertion concerning the regional uniqueness of Israeli democracy and a nearly equivalent list of human rights-violating nations occurs in a recent statement on the website of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. In this statement, the conference calls on university presidents not simply to “publicly reject this academic boycott and the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel” but to deny “any funds, direct or indirect, to the ASA or any other body that adopts similar measures.” As part of their campaign against the ASA, the conference is deploying alumni and donors to put pressure on college presidents, distributing highly distorted talking points such as the ones that appeared in President Jones’s and many other presidents’ statements, and ignoring the discussions that circulated before the ASA resolution was put up for a vote, including the collection of essays that I curated at the AAUP’s Journal for Academic Freedom. Also involved in this campaign are Zionist organizations like Stand With Us, whose website includes a “how to” list for campaigners against BDS.
The university presidents’ denunciations are likely to have a chilling impact on fair and open discussion of the BDS campaign on American university campuses. If they follow through on the call to deny all funding to the ASA without adequate consultation with their faculty members, academic leaders will be infringing even more directly on academic freedom.
This building crisis underlines that there is no such thing as academic freedom shorn of the institutional and material conditions that enable such freedom. This point, which, as Judith Butler has explained in her endorsement of BDS, highlights the fundamental lack of freedoms of Palestinian scholars, was key to the ASA’s endorsement of the boycott. It seems that scholars who have endorsed the ASA resolution, or who continue to participate in the ASA, may now be penalized with a withdrawal of institutional resources as well as subtle and not-so-subtle infringements of their academic freedom. It is worth remembering that the academic boycott endorsed by the ASA targets only institutions and not individuals, but the presidents in their defense of Israeli institutions are directly infringing on the rights of association and expression of individual faculty members.
Instead of attempting to silence debate in this manner, academic leaders who are truly interested in nurturing academic freedom at their institutions and elsewhere should establish forums in which the ASA resolution can be discussed and debated in a fair and evenhanded manner. After all, the ASA boycott controversy is not a flash in the pan. As David Theo Goldberg and Saree Makdisi argue, “A rising level of concern about the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory (now in its fifth decade), as well as the precarious position of Israel's beleaguered Palestinian minority, have been countered by increasingly strident, even furious, attempts to silence or stifle criticism of Israeli policy on American college campuses.” Goldberg and Makdisi’s article details the campaigns of “insinuation, accusation, and defamation” through which organizations such as the Israel on Campus Coalition seek to silence debate about Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. As part of this campaign, groups like Stand With Us distribute propaganda tools such as the Hasbara Handbook, which details strategies of “point scoring” while avoiding genuine debate. Against such attempts to silence discussion, Goldberg and Makdisi’s article sets out some clear ground rules for forums designed to promote civil, respectful, but critical engagements across political divides.
Surely the quashing of dissenting viewpoints should be anathema to university presidents who are truly committed to academic freedom. Courageous and enlightened academic leaders should be fostering critical debate rather than contributing to an atmosphere of intimidation on campus while repeating abstract, and ultimately hollow, endorsements of academic freedom.
Ashley Dawson is professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and editor of the American Association of University Professors' Journal of Academic Freedom.
In December the American Studies Association joined the Association for Asian American Studies in calling for a boycott of academic and intellectual exchanges with Israeli colleges, universities, and individual faculty in protest of that country’s treatment of the Palestinians. Since the ASA’s resolution, scores of college and university presidents and the American Association of University Professors have proclaimed that this action is a violation of academic freedom.
The ASA resolution is a serious misstep toward achieving both peace and prosperity in the Middle East and reinforces greater barriers to knowledge and understanding across cultures. Awareness and appreciation of cultures in the Middle East (including traditions, languages, arts, religions, ethnicities, philosophies, economics, and politics) are precisely what we need.
In 1958 President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act. He did so in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, the previous October. At that time, the United States was woefully short of mathematicians and other scientists, and computer technology was beginning its meteoric rise. The NDEA provided funding to support and educate a new generation of engineers.
However, President Eisenhower’s action also recognized an enduring truth. When peoples of differing cultures live, work, and study together, they begin to understand that “difference” does not necessarily mean “wrong” or “bad.” Rather, they begin to recognize the human similarities across and among cultures. Under Title VI of the NDEA, international studies centers, foreign language and area studies fellowships, graduate and undergraduate international and intercultural studies programs, and citizen education for cultural understandings were funded. These programs focused largely on countries within the Soviet Bloc and have been credited as playing a significant role in promoting positive solutions and intercultural advancement in Eastern Europe. We need a similar initiative for the Middle East.
A dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the horrific war in Syria, and the ongoing issues between Israel and neighboring regions have shaped our perceptions of the area's peoples and politics, whether accurate or not. I suspect many, if not most, are not accurate. Sadly, public perceptions foster the foreign policy that guides our relations with Middle Eastern countries.
Just as we need to know the peoples of the Middle East better, they need to know us better as well. International educational exchange between faculty and students is a proven strategy for accomplishing that goal. We should build ties, not cut them off, with Israeli universities, with Palestinian universities and with institutions throughout the region. That is why the ASA’s boycott is exactly the wrong action at the wrong time.
Devorah Lieberman is president of the University of La Verne.
In recent weeks a number of Modern Language Association members have talked with me about MLA Resolution 2014-1 to be voted on in Chicago on Saturday by the organization’s Delegate Assembly at the MLA’s annual meeting. The resolution "urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Several people expressed doubt that any counter-evidence could be presented to question the conclusions advanced by the background paper distributed by the resolution’s proponents. They then typically advanced to the next stage of the discussion, wondering what arguments could possibly be raised to defeat the resolution. The background paper sounds reasonable, even factual, if you aren’t well informed or up-to-date about conditions in Israel and the occupied territories. The people I talked with concluded it was an open-and-shut case.
Until now, MLA members have been in the same situation as the American Studies Association members who voted on a boycott resolution in December: They have only been presented with one side of the case. But a group of MLA members have now put together a detailed document exposing factual errors, contested claims, and misleading conclusions in the background paper available to MLA members on the association’s website. Like the resolution’s proponents, they have drawn on material gathered by non-government organizations with an interest in the subject. Rather than an objective report, the pro-resolution background paper is now revealed to be essentially the prosecution’s case. The document prepared by the resolution’s opponents amounts to the case for the defense.
The case for the defense rebuts both arguments and examples put forward by proponents of the resolution. It shows that many international scholars work and teach in the West Bank. It demonstrates why visa denials may not be “arbitrary.” It shows how the documents supporting the resolution are flawed and unreliable, including some that are now out of date. And it shows how Israeli visa policies are comparable to visa policies elsewhere. There are fundamental disagreements of fact between the two sides.
The members of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly have thus become triers of the facts, acting to evaluate what are fundamentally a set of evidence-based issues: what are the conditions at Palestinian universities? Are faculty members from other countries who wish to do so able to teach there? Are Palestinian faculty members able to engage in professional travel? What Israeli security concerns that affect access are or are not valid? What travel rules should an existentially threatened country in a state of perpetual war feel justified in enforcing? Does Israel have the right to exclude foreign faculty who advocate violence?
It is fair to say that MLA members are not necessarily well-informed about the first questions and are not professionally equipped to answer the last three. They would ideally have to listen to weeks of expert testimony and questioning before voting on the resolution. Instead they will hear an afternoon’s debate by English and foreign language professors. If the resolution passes, it will then be subjected to a vote by the association’s 30,000 members.
The MLA is to be applauded for requiring a democratic vote by its members before a resolution is formally adopted by the organization as a whole. Unfortunately, neither the Delegate Assembly nor the MLA’s 30,000 members have been equipped to be triers of the facts. Indeed MLA’s members are not required to read the documents supporting or contesting the resolution. Nor will they even be able to sit in judgment and hear arguments. They would be free to vote on the basis of their prior convictions, much as many of the ASA’s members surely did. Many ASA members no doubt voted approval simply because they were angry at Israel. They took the only organizational opportunity they had to express their disapproval of Israeli policy. The efficacy or advisability of academic boycotts aside, they registered their general convictions. Indeed there is no guarantee that members of the Delegate Assembly will read the two sets of background documents before voting.
Unfortunately, the context and basis for voting on the MLA resolution are worse still. Whether or not you support academic boycotts is fundamentally a matter of principle. Principle alone can guide a vote. But the MLA resolution is fundamentally fact-based. The process the MLA uses is not adequate to the task of establishing the facts. It is fatally flawed, or at least it will be if the Delegate Assembly approves the resolution.
Before the American Association of University Professors censures a college or university administration, it reviews documents submitted by both faculty members and administrators, tasks staff to prepare a review of relevant issues and key questions needing answers, and selects a team of faculty knowledgeable about academic freedom and shared governance to visit the campus in question to interview interested parties. The AAUP then drafts a full report reaching consensus on the facts. The AAUP also shares the draft report with administrators and faculty members on the campus and requests comments. The revised report is published for comment. The organization’s 39-member National Council reviews the report and votes on whether to recommend a vote for censure to the annual meeting. This is the kind of process required to decide a fact-based case in a responsible and professional manner.
But the MLA is not merely contemplating censuring a university. It is basically censuring a country for its policies. When did MLA conduct site visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank? When did the MLA give Israelis an opportunity to respond, a procedure the MLA’s rules would seem to require? Where is the consensus report evaluating arguments pro and con and giving MLA members a disinterested basis on which to vote? If the Delegate Assembly votes to approve the resolution after this flawed process proceeds, it will have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one. It does not augur well for the group’s future as a widely endorsed advocacy vehicle for the humanities.
On the other hand, the Delegate Assembly has an opportunity to reject the resolution. Set beside one another, the two sets of documents make it clear that a good deal more objective evidence would be needed to prove the prosecution case. To follow through on the jury trial analogy: when the documents for and against the resolution are compared, the DA at the very least must conclude there is “reasonable doubt” the resolution is justified.
That is not to say that Israel should not take the risk of loosening the security restrictions under which Palestinian universities operate. That would be one component of a plan for jettisoning control of the West Bank, something Israel may have to do unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. But it is to say that MLA’s ill-informed resolution and inadequate procedures have no role to play in the process. In an era of continuing adjunct abuse and politicians declaring the humanities of no economic use, the MLA should concentrate instead on saving a profession endangered in its own country.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
What the social-democratic left has always objected to is not the liberal aspiration to universal rights and freedoms, but rather the way that classical liberalism generally ignored the unequal economic and social conditions of access to those freedoms. The liberal’s abstract universalism affirmed everyone’s equal rights without giving everyone the real means of realizing these formally universal rights. The rich and the poor may have an equal formal right to be elected to political office, for instance, but the poor were effectively excluded from office when it did not pay a full-time salary.
For this reason generations of social democrats have insisted that all citizens must be guaranteed access to the institutional resources they need to make effective use of their civil and political rights. The British sociologist T. H. Marshall referred to those guarantees as the social component of citizenship, and he argued that only when this social component began to be incorporated into citizenship did equal citizenship start to impose modifications on the substantive inequalities of the capitalist class system. Today, when neoliberalism is ascendant and the welfare state is in tatters, it is more important than ever to remember the social-democratic critique of formal equality and abstract universalism.
Like other freedoms, academic freedom cannot be practiced effectively without the means of realizing it. At one time, those means were largely in the hands of academics themselves. As the German sociologist Max Weber put it, “The old-time lecturer and university professor worked with the books and the technical resources which they procured or made for themselves.” Like the artisan, the peasant smallholder, or the member of a liberal profession, the scholar was not separated from his means of production. But that time is long past. As Weber understood well, this “pre-capitalist” mode of scholarship had already disappeared a century ago, when he wrote those words.
The modern academic, he pointed out, did not own the means to conduct scientific or humanistic research or to communicate his or her findings any more than the modern proletarian owns the means of production, the modern soldier owns the means of warfare, or the modern civil servant owns the means of administration. Like those other figures in a capitalistic and bureaucratized society, the individual academic depends on means that are not his or her own. Specifically, she relies on academic institutions and the resources they provide — access to books, journals, laboratories, equipment, materials, research and travel funds, etc. — to participate in the intellectual and communicative exchanges that are the lifeblood of her profession. Unless she is independently wealthy, she depends on an academic institution for her very livelihood.
What, then, is an academic boycott of Israel in relation to these facts? The boycott recently endorsed by the American Studies Association, its supporters emphasize, is aimed only at Israeli academic institutions and not at individual scholars. Consequently, Judith Butler explained in the pages of The Nation in December 2013, “any Israeli, Jewish or not, is free to come to a conference, to submit his or her work to a journal and to enter into any form of scholarly exchange. The only request that is being made is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used for the purposes of those activities.”
Butler argues that such a request does not infringe upon the Israeli scholar’s academic freedom because that scholar can pay from her “own personal funds” or ask others to pay for her. Personal funds presumably come from the salary paid to the Israeli scholar by her institution, but for Butler money apparently ceases to be institutional once it changes hands. One wonders why this same reasoning doesn’t apply to conference or travel funds furnished by an Israeli university.
One also wonders how many ASA members are willing to raise their own dues or earmark a portion of their current dues to pay for the participation of Israeli colleagues in the activities of their organization. Furthermore, one wonders why Butler, who has raised concerns about new forms of effective censorship exercised by private donors, does not have similar concerns about the donors who might pay for Israeli colleagues. But the most serious problem with Butler’s proposal is that it imposes special costs and burdens on Israeli scholars, creating substantive inequalities that undermine the formally equal and universal freedoms that she is eager to affirm for everyone in the abstract.
While scholars of other nationalities may use the resources of their institutions, Israeli scholars must make do with their own private means or rely upon charity; they enjoy equal academic freedom in the same way that the rich and the poor are equally free to hold an unpaid office. For the generously paid academic aristocracy at elite institutions, using one’s own personal funds may only be an “inconvenience” (Butler’s word) rather than a hardship. However, not all academics have personal resources in such abundance, and those with fewer personal resources are more dependent on institutional funding.
Because “academic freedom can only be exercised when the material conditions for exercising those rights are secured,” Butler has argued, the academic freedom of Palestinians is vitiated by the conditions of Israeli military occupation. She is indeed right, but the remedy for military occupation is a negotiated peace, not an effort to deprive Israelis of the material conditions for their academic freedom. Butler seems not to understand how her point militates against her own demand that Israeli scholars become luftmenschen. The distinction between an institutional and an individual boycott only makes sense in a world of abstract universalism, where Israeli scholars are entitled to academic freedom in a formal sense without equal access to the institutional means and resources they need to realize it in practice. The great irony of the campaign to boycott Israeli academics is that its proponents consider it a litmus test of left-wing politics when in fact they fail to apply consistently one of the left’s most important insights.
Chad Alan Goldberg is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors and the Jewish Labor Committee.
I want to begin with a quotation from Tzvetan Todorov's Facing the Extreme Moral Life in the Concentration Camps, because, of all the many things that might be said in opposition to the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education, the one I want to focus on is the association's lack of moral courage, which, in this case, includes its failure to have learned the lessons of the association's extraordinary and ethical achievements in previous generations.
This is Todorov: "to denounce slavery constitutes a moral act only at those times when such denunciation is not simply a matter of course and thus involves some personal risk. There is nothing moral in speaking out against slavery today; all it proves is that I'm in step with my society's ideology or else don't want to find myself on the wrong side of the barricades. Something very similar can be said about condemnations of racism, although that would not have been the case in 1936 in Germany."
I would ask the question of the ASA: Who, in their audience of addressees, do they imagine is NOT opposed to the idea of occupation? And who, again in their target audience, is NOT concerned with the rights of Palestinians? Not even the politically right-wing academics in Israel are pro-occupation or against Palestinians as a matter of moral belief or commitment, as were, say, slaveholders in the American South or anti-Semites in fascist Europe. The issue for them, for all of us here, is one that the boycott does not even recognize, let alone address: how do these two entities, Israel and Palestine, find a way to exist side by side?
To be sure Israeli Jews like myself are likely to be more sensitive to the potential extermination of the Jewish population in Israel than individuals outside of Israel. I confess that bias. But the possibilities of the destruction of the State of Israel and the deaths of its citizens are no fantasies of a deluded imagination. Read the Arab press, unless, of course, the boycotters would prefer to remain ignorant of the issues. What is required in Israel is a political solution that produces a Palestinian state and secures the existence of Israel. If any one of the boycotters has a solution that does that, we in Israel would love to hear it.
The generation of Americanists who opposed the 1940s and '50s idea of American exceptionalism and who opened the field of American studies to new voices (many of which are now prominent in the field), took bold stands, not only in terms of attacking the American hegemony of the time and transforming the American literary and historical narrative, but also in terms of the political actions they took: not just opposing segregation and racism, the Vietnam War, sexism, and many other less-than-enviable aspects of the American polity in their writings. Teaching at historically black colleges, producing programs of African American and minority studies, introducing feminism into the curriculum, and supporting the women who would teach those courses. Critics such as Paul Lauter, Leslie Fiedler, Stanley Elkins, Emory Eliot, Sacvan Bercovitch spoke out. They took risks. Many of them were first-generation college-educated; many were Jews. .
One of the boycott advocates, Cynthia Franklin, as quoted in Inside Higher Ed, speaks of the "culture of fear" in speaking out in relation to Israel and Palestine, specifically the fear of "reprisals," such as "not getting tenure or ... jobs." Since neither Israeli institutions of higher learning nor the State of Israel could possibly be the source of such reprisals, I can only imagine that Franklin fears other Americans. Wouldn't it make more sense to address these fellow Americans? If Franklin is right about the threat of reprisals, it would certainly take more moral courage, which apparently the boycotters lack. The president of the association, Curtis Marez also seems to know very little about what the field of American studies has stood for in the United States. As quoted in New York Magazine, he doesn't "dispute that many nations, including many of Israel's neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel's [but ] 'one has to start somewhere' " – start somewhere to do what, exactly?
America, he may have forgotten, is no longer, actually it never was, the City on the Hill. It took decades and many academic arguments to break the American fantasy of itself as a land of equal opportunity for all and to acknowledge racism and sexism and genderism in American culture. These are still not eradicated, whatever the contemporary hegemony of Americanists believes. And there are still other American ills to deal with. To invoke Emerson's words in "Self-Reliance," voiced "to the angry bigot [who] assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his latest news from Barbardoes": "Go love thy infant, love thy woodchopper, be good-natured and modest: have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home."
One defense of the boycott has been that, given this allegedly tremendous repression of the conversation in the United States by forces unnamed, and because of the necessity for exceptionalist Americanists to broadcast their hegemonic, moral message to the world, the boycott at least opens up the topic of Israel and Palestine for conversation. Five thousand academics belong to the ASA and not one of them could think of a single other way to open up this conversation? Centerpiecing a work of Arab-American fiction (say, for example, Muhja Kahf's Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Suzan Muaddi Darraj's Inheritance of Exile or Leila Halabi's West of the Jordan) at the yearly conference might have been a start, in keeping with the association's disciplinary definition as well, though that might have complicated matters for the activists, since, lo and behold, not only is Israel not the only oppressor in these texts but the United States is not exactly a bastion of easy integration. Convening a panel of Israeli and Palestinian Americanists (some of them my former students) might also have been an option – if, of course, what the association wanted was change rather than domination and power.
American Americanists do not need to bring to the attention of Israeli academics the difficulty of getting an education under conditions of occupation or discrimination. I don't even dare bring up ancient history like European (not to mention American) quotas against Jews at the university, since this is not, we are told, a Jewish issue at all (though, who, in truth, are those Americans that the Americanists so fear?). I am talking about life in Palestine, pre-Israel, when Jews were Palestinians. I don't know if a Mandate, as in the British rule over the region from the end of World War I until the birth of Israel, is the same as an occupation, but under the pre-Israel Mandate travel throughout Palestine and for Jews coming into Palestine was severely restricted. Nor were uprisings against Jews (there were no Israelis then) uncommon. Yet 25 years before the declaration of the State of Israel, the Hebrew University was founded, and it flourished. And when, in violation of the truce in 1949, Israelis were forcibly denied access to that university, on Mount Scopus, they studied in a building in Rehavia, until they built a new campus in Givat Ram. After the 1967 war, they returned – note my word: returned – to Mount Scopus once again.
In his memoir, Little Did I Know, Stanley Cavell asks the question that all of us – Israelis, Palestinians, Americans – must ask in the global world we inhabit. He is discussing the return of his good friend, philosopher Kurt Fischer, to the Austria that had made of him a refugee, first in Shanghai, then in the United States. Fischer knows full well that he will now dwell among those very people who had ejected him, and that he is going to have to accept the human situation they now share. This is Cavell: "It takes an extreme case of oppression, which tore him from his home in his adolescence, to be posing the question every decently situated human being, after adolescence, either asks himself in an unjust world, or coarsens himself to avoid asking: Where is one now; how is one living with, hence counting upon, injustice?"
I suggest that the pro-boycotters of the American Studies Association ask themselves how they are now living with and hence counting upon injustice in order to preserve their own hegemonic authority and power and their utterly absurd sense of themselves as exceptional. As Jonathan Chait points out in his New York piece if, as Curtis Marez admits, Israel isn't the worst offender in the neighborhood, then wouldn't it make sense to start with those who are the worst offenders? In the absence of doing that, the boycotters cannot, in good conscience, claim that their boycott is anything more than power politics at its worst. Painfully for an Americanist like myself, it defeats everything that the ASA has stood for over the many years of its existence.
Emily Budick is the Ann and Joseph Edelman Chair of American Studies and chair of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“What seemed impossible only a year ago seems quite possible now,” an academic involved in the American Studies Association endorsement of an academic boycott of Israel wrote to me after the news of the ASA membership vote on the boycott resolution came in. In response to a membership referendum organized by the ASA National Council, 66 percent of the voters endorsed the resolution..
Independently but simultaneously, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association announced its elected council’s unanimous support for the academic boycott of Israel.
These and a number of other developments this year in the global struggle for Palestinian rights lead to the conclusion that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement may be reaching a tipping point, particularly in the academic and cultural sphere.
Even before this sweeping victory for the ASA boycott resolution, many had hailed the ASA National Council’s unanimous endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel as an exemplary expression of effective international solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom, justice and equality. “Warmly saluting” the ASA boycott, the largest federation of Palestinian academic unions said Palestinian academics were “deeply moved and inspired” by what it considered to be “a concrete contribution to ending [Israel’s] regime of occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is an integral part of the BDS movement, which since its establishment in 2005 has been endorsed nearly by a consensus in Palestinian society. BDS seeks to realize basic Palestinian rights under international law through applying effective, global, morally consistent pressure on Israel and all the institutions that collude in its violations of international law, as was done against apartheid South Africa.As Judith Butler describes it, “The BDS movement has become the most important contemporary alliance calling for an end to forms of citizenship based on racial stratification, insisting on rights of political self-determination for those for whom such basic freedoms are denied or indefinitely suspended, insisting as well on substantial ways of redressing the rights of those forcibly and/or illegally dispossessed of property and land.”
If boycott, at the most fundamental level, constitutes “withdrawing ... cooperation from an evil system,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us in another context, BDS fundamentally calls on all people of conscience and their institutions to fulfill their profound moral obligation to desist from complicity in Israel’s system of oppression against the Palestinian people.
To understand why the ASA boycott has attracted considerably more than its fair share of attacks from the Israeli establishment, Israel lobby groups in the U.S. and its apologists, one must examine the wider context, the trend of BDS growth worldwide.
The BDS movement set an impressive number of precedents in 2013. Weeks ago, in a letter of support to the ASA, the University of Hawaii Ethnic Studies department became the first academic department in the west to support the academic boycott of Israel. In April, the Association for Asian-American Studies endorsed the academic boycott — the first professional academic association in the United States to do so. Around the same time, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland unanimously called on its members to “cease all cultural and academic collaboration” with the “apartheid state of Israel,” and the Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students (FEF), representing 100,000 members, adopted “a freeze of all academic partnerships with Israeli academic institutions.”
These and many other BDS developments have led to an explosion of interest in scrutinizing and criticizing Israel’s regime of oppression of the Palestinian people, or at least aspects of it. This has caused a heightened sense of alarm in the Israeli establishment as well as unprecedented debate there, to the degree that Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly said that Israeli leaders are terrified of the fast-growing BDS movement as much as they are scared of Iran’s rising influence in the region.
Indeed, the behavior of Israeli universities and their deep, decades-old complicity in Israel’s occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights have been a key driving force behind the proliferation of academic boycott initiatives and union resolutions all over the world. ASA National Council member Sunaina Maira, a key organizer in the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, makes a compelling point that has largely been missing in the coverage of the ASA boycott. Most academics were moved into supporting the academic boycott of Israel by learning “what Palestinian scholars and students go through on a daily basis just to get to school, as they navigate these checkpoints ... the many conditions that obstruct their access to education” and searching for a “civil society response.”
The complicity of Israeli universities in human rights violations takes many forms, from systematically providing the military-intelligence establishment with indispensable research — on demography, geography, hydrology, and psychology, among other disciplines — to tolerating and often rewarding racist speech, theories and “scientific” research. It also includes institutionalizing discrimination against Palestinian Arab citizens, among them scholars and students; suppressing Israeli academic research on Zionism and the Nakba (the forced dispossession and eviction of Palestinian Arabs during the creation of the State of Israel); and the construction of campus facilities and dormitories in the occupied Palestinian territory, as Hebrew University has done in East Jerusalem, for instance.
In the first few weeks of the first Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), Israel shut down all Palestinian universities, some, like Birzeit, for several consecutive years, and then it closed all 1,194 Palestinian schools in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. Next came the kindergartens, until every educational institution in the occupied Palestinian territories was forcibly closed. This prompted Palestinians to build an “illegal network” of underground schools.
Palestinian scholars and students are methodically denied their basic rights, including academic freedom, and are often subjected to imprisonment, denial of freedom of movement, even violent attacks on themselves or their institutions. If exercising the right to academic freedom is conditioned upon respecting other human rights and securing what Butler calls the “material conditions for exercising those rights,” then clearly it is the academic freedom of Palestinian academics and students that is severely hindered, due to the occupation and policies of racial discrimination, and that must be defended.
So when the ASA “unequivocally” defends academic freedom and argues that the boycott actually “helps to extend it,” it means that it is not only contributing to restoring academic freedom for those most deprived of it, but that it is also promoting unhindered, rational debate in the U.S. and beyond about Israel’s occupation that stands behind this denial of rights.
Some academics and lobbyists have vociferously attacked the ASA, and indeed the entire academic boycott of Israel, as undermining academic freedom, usually without specifying whose academic freedom they are taking about. None of them, clearly, had Palestinian academics in mind. Regardless, their critiques have failed to explain how the institutional boycott that the PACBI and its global partners uphold would in fact infringe upon academic freedom. In a desperate attempt to prove this supposed infringement despite ample evidence to the contrary, some have resorted to intellectual dishonesty by making the false claim that the Palestinian boycott targets and aims to isolate Israeli academics, completely distorting the fact that it explicitly and consistently targets Israeli institutions.
If the Palestinian-led academic boycott of Israel succeeds in isolating Israeli institutions, Israeli academics are likely to lose their privileges and perks, but certainly not their academic freedom. To understand the difference, one must reference internationally accepted definitions of the latter.
The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNESCR) defines academic freedom as including “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.” Nothing in the PACBI boycott conflicts with any of this.
Regardless, according to the UN, academic freedom itself, like any other right, is not an absolute right. The “enjoyment of academic freedom,” according to the UNESCR, comes with the basic “obligations” to ensure that contrary views are discussed fairly and "to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds.” This rights-obligations equation is a general underlying principle of international law in the realm of human rights. When scholars neglect or altogether abandon such obligations, they can no longer claim what they perceive as their inherent entitlement to this freedom.
Those who are still reluctant, on principle, to support a boycott that expressly targets Israel's academic institutions while having in the past endorsed, or even struggled to implement, a much more sweeping academic boycott against apartheid South Africa’s academics and universities are hard pressed to explain this peculiar inconsistency. Unlike the South African “blanket” boycott of academics and institutions, the PACBI call explicitly targets Israeli academic institutions because of their complicity, to varying degrees, in planning, implementing, justifying or whitewashing aspects of Israel’s occupation, racial discrimination and denial of refugee rights.
What I call the “Stephen Hawking effect” – the entrenchment of BDS in the international academic mainstream – may well be a prelude to crossing a qualitative threshold. International scholars, and a fair number of conscientious Israeli scholars as well, are increasingly conscious that they carry a moral obligation to stand up for justice and equal rights everywhere and to refrain from lending their names to be used by an oppressive regime to cover up injustice and human rights violations. The ASA boycott of Israel will be remembered for many years to come as a crucial catalyst in this emancipatory process of reclaiming rights for all who are denied them.
Omar Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), and author of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (Haymarket: 2011).
When the Trinity College (Connecticut) president released a statement denouncing the American Studies Association's endorsement of an academic boycott of Israel, faculty pushed back. UPDATE: Other faculty members issue letter attacking the boycott.