MLA Delegate Assembly narrowly approves controversial measure criticizing Israeli decisions on travel of scholars to the country and the West Bank. Should the meeting have been chaired by someone who backs boycott of Israel?
The University of California, Berkeley, recently briefly suspended a one-credit course already in session as part of the systemwide DeCal program of student-taught courses. The course, Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis, had been promoted on the local Facebook page of Students for Justice in Palestine and gained wide attention both on and off the campus, including assertions that the course promulgated the idea that Israel is an illegitimate state denying Palestinians their basic right to political self-determination.
We think the readings assigned in the syllabus do not present a representative range of views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After a passage was added to the syllabus assuring that a wide variety of views would be entertained, and some additions were made to the opening statement about the purpose of the course, the course was reinstated with the reading assignments unchanged. It may still be valuable for Berkeley to explore whether the oversight process it uses for DeCal courses is adequate and unfolded properly in this case.
It would be fair to argue that the whole matter was overblown, given that this was not a permanent addition to Berkeley’s course catalog. Yet a few issues remain that may merit discussion, given the wide publicity the course received.
The first is whether a course that is politically one-sided or even one that shades from pedagogy into advocacy and activism enjoys the protections of academic freedom. In keeping with ample precedents, we believe that academic freedom gives faculty members the right to advocate for their political views in the classroom and even to design a one-sided syllabus, however much we may disagree with the views expressed. They are not required to produce a politically “balanced” syllabus. To have permanently canceled the course would have been to undermine academic freedom.
At the same time, courses can be professionally criticized for their intellectual and political limitations. We would hold the same view if the course in question had the opposite political slant. In our view, one cannot fully understand the Israeli case without understanding the Palestinian case, and vice versa.
And, as a matter of pedagogical responsibility, no instructor (including a student instructor, as in this case) should disallow contrary points of view in the classroom. In any course, students have the right to present alternative and opposing points of view. They must not be humiliated, embarrassed, condescended to or penalized in grading for doing so. Instead students should be encouraged to agree and disagree when they choose to do so. The instructor of any highly politicized course has a special burden to welcome -- perhaps even to encourage -- opposing opinion, since not all students are ready to differ with instructor views that are passionately held and expressed. It can be difficult for students to argue for a different position, however, when all the readings assigned for the course point in a different direction. They will have no readings in common on which to draw to represent opposing points of view or scholarly traditions.
In addition, the incident raises the question of the merits and pitfalls of student-taught courses. Because undergraduates attend colleges and universities above all to learn, any role they might take on as instructors is an occasion for their own development as students. Accordingly, student-led courses like those in the DeCal program require especially close review at both the departmental and campus level. Perfunctory faculty approval does not moot that oversight responsibility.
Student teachers do not have the same kind or level of academic freedom as faculty members. They must be explicitly educated about the values and responsibilities enumerated above, about what is gained and lost by a one-sided syllabus, and about why the classroom ought to be a place for something more than the propagation of the instructor’s own politics.
The fact that a single one-credit student-taught course has sparked a national debate about politically biased teaching suggests that on the matter of Israel and Palestine, as well as on other highly contentious issues, there are real hazards in letting students, as opposed to professionally credentialed and qualified experts, formally educate their fellow undergraduates. Faculty members at each institution must decide for themselves whether to offer such opportunities.
Without observing the class or the instructor, we cannot definitively judge the merits of the course. But the fact that we would have opposed the permanent cancellation of the course does not mean that we do not have critiques of this course or similar courses in other colleges and universities.
According to the syllabus, Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis aims to explore a Palestine “in which justice is realized for all its peoples and quality is not only espoused, but practiced.” To do justice to that goal, the syllabus might have benefited from treating the historical varieties of Zionism, the views of those advocates of a two-state solution who think both that the occupation must end and that Israel has a right to be a Jewish state within its pre-1967 boundaries, and proposals that enable both peoples to achieve their national political ambitions.
David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Deborah Dash Moore, Sharon Musher, Cary Nelson, Kenneth Stern and Irene Tucker are members of the Alliance for Academic Freedom, which has published this statement.
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.