Academic BDS and the Calculus of Hypocrisy

The people who support academic boycott, divestment and sanctions are demanding academic freedom for themselves and their fellow boycotters but denying it to their students, argues Tammi Rossman-Benjamin.

March 20, 2019
 
 

Pitzer College professor Daniel A. Segal appeared unaware of the irony when he penned an op-ed in January for Inside Higher Ed in support of the Pitzer faculty’s right “to lend support to the Palestinian struggle for equality.” In his op-ed, Segal, a proponent of academic boycott, divestment and sanctions, suggested Pitzer president Melvin Oliver was attempting to stifle academic freedom when Oliver rebuked the Pitzer faculty for their November vote to end the college’s exchange program with the University of Haifa.

However, Segal neglected to mention a key message in Oliver’s statement: “To deny Pitzer students who want to study at the University of Haifa the opportunity to study abroad and to enter into dialogue and promote intercultural understanding at the altar of political considerations is anathema to Pitzer’s core values.”

Last week, members of the College Council at Pitzer voted to suspend the exchange program, but Oliver rightfully refused to implement the recommendation. In his message to the university, he stated that an academic boycott “sets us on a path away from the free exchange of ideas, a direction which ultimately destroys the academy’s ability to fulfill our educational mission.”

Demanding academic freedom for themselves and their fellow boycotters but denying it to their students is a common refrain among those who support academic BDS. Yet they also seem unaware of the abounding irony of their actions.

Consider the case of the University of Michigan professor John Cheney-Lippold, who was censured and disciplined for following the guidelines of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel by refusing to write a letter of recommendation for a student wanting to study in Israel. Soon after the Cheney-Lippold affair became public, academic boycott leaders from a number of other American universities issued a statement applauding Cheney-Lippold for his “courage” in the face of the current U.S. administration’s willingness to “ignore principles of academic freedom … in order to repress all criticism of Israeli state policies.”

Yet these same academic boycotters saw no irony in revealing their own willingness to ignore their students’ academic freedom when they affirmed that, like the “courageous” Cheney-Lippold, they also “do not write letters of recommendations in support of student participation in Israel study abroad programs.” The irony was also lost on the 1,000 academic boycotters who signed a petition defending Cheney-Lippold’s academic right to boycott Israel, stating, “We, too, are supporters of the BDS movement, and would not provide a letter of support for a student seeking to study in an Israeli university.”

So, too, was the irony lost on the faculty in four New York University academic departments that hosted an event last fall entitled Assault on the Right to Boycott. Event speakers decried the suppression of the right of faculty members to implement an academic boycott of Israel, but entirely ignored the fact that the boycott’s implementation tramples on the academic rights of U.S. students. For instance, the boycott’s guidelines call on faculty members to prevent American students from participating in their institutions’ study abroad programs in Israel, to shut down educational events and activities about Israel on their own campuses, and to scuttle research collaborations between U.S. faculty and students and Israeli scholars.

A similar irony-laden event supporting the right of faculty to implement academic BDS but ignoring the right of students to learn about Israel was held a week later at Cheney-Lippold’s own University of Michigan. This one was sponsored by 10 academic departments.

For the academic boycotters, speech against Israel must be protected, while speech supportive of Israel must be censored, shut down and boycotted. Regardless of how one personally feels about Israel and Israeli government policies, this is a textbook case of hypocrisy.

While it may not bother the academic boycotters, this hypocrisy is certain to arouse the concern of tuition payers and taxpayers, who would rather be funding the education of students than the political activism of their professors. But the concern of university stakeholders is likely to turn to outrage when they realize the true nature of the boycotters’ activism.

Rooted in a profound animosity toward the very existence of a sovereign Jewish state, the academic boycott of Israel is a key component of the international BDS movement. Established in 2004, its various campaigns are intended to economically, culturally and academically isolate Israel as a pariah state worthy of elimination.

Academic boycotters are certainly welcome to express their political opinions and to pursue political activism, but doing so at the expense of the academic freedom and educational opportunities of their students is not only hypocritical but also morally and professionally reprehensible. As President Oliver aptly noted in his recent statement, “Social justice is not, and in itself cannot be, the mission of the college, or our mission would become political and not educational.” Academic senates and school administrators who permit faculty behavior based on such a shameful calculus are themselves complicit, and they should be held accountable by tuition payers and taxpayers across the country.

Bio

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the co-founder and director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years.

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