The American Studies Association (ASA), a group promoting the university study of American culture, voted on December 4 to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli universities. You can see their statement here, which cites the Israeli “oppression” of Palestine (supported, as the resolution says, by the U.S.), as a reason for academics to boycott Israeli universities:
Whereas there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students . . .
It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.
This is absurd. Many Israeli academics, as do I, oppose some of policies of their government that are inimical to a Middle East solution, like constructing settlements on the West Bank. But objections to such acts are not a valid reason for cutting off all academic contact with Israeli universities. In my view, academics, like sports, should be free from political pressures, for academia, like sports, is a worldwide collaborative—and competitive— endeavor.
I wouldn’t call for or participate in an boycott of the Olympics, or of Palestinian, Chinese, or Saudi universities, even though I have strong objections to the policies of those governments. Further, since the ASA cites America as complicit in the oppression of Palestine, why didn’t it call for a boycott of American universities as well?
In the end, this singling out of Israel as opposed to other countries reflects not just anti-Zionism, but anti-Semitism. (I recognize that others will disagree, but anti-Semitism is alive and well, particularly in Arab countries). It is holding Israel to a standard that doesn’t apply to Palestine or countries far worse than Israel (see below). It is apparently all right for Palestinians to deliberately target Israeli civilians, but those standards don’t apply to Israel. One could even consider this racist: Arabs don’t have to abide by the standards of Israelis. In fact—and people deliberately overlook this—the Hamas charter not only calls for the extirpation of Israel, but cites that old anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a bogus plan for Jewish domination of the world. Isn’t that enough to boycott Palestinian universities, too?
Fortunately, American universities aren’t signing on to the ASA madness. As Legal Insurrection notes, on December 20, the Association of American Universities issued a statement opposing the boycott, signed by the AAU’s executive committee:
The Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities strongly opposes a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Three U.S. scholarly organizations have now expressed support for such a boycott. Any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general.
Academic freedom is the freedom of university faculty responsibly to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching, and service, without undue constraint. It is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations. American colleges and universities, as well as like institutions elsewhere, must stand as the first line of defense against attacks on academic freedom.
Efforts to address political issues, or to address restrictions on academic freedom, should not themselves infringe upon academic freedom. Restrictions imposed on the ability of scholars of any particular country to work with their fellow academics in other countries, participate in meetings and organizations, or otherwise carry out their scholarly activities violate academic freedom. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions therefore clearly violates the academic freedom not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it. We urge American scholars and scholars around the world who believe in academic freedom to oppose this and other such academic boycotts.
William C. Powers, President, The University of Texas at Austin – Chair
Amy Gutmann, President, University of Pennsylvania – Vice Chair
Scott S. Cowen, President, Tulane University – Past Chair
Richard H. Brodhead, President, Duke University
Michael V. Drake, Chancellor, University of California, Irvine
Bernadette Gray-Little, The University of Kansas
Mark A. Nordenberg, Chancellor, University of Pittsburgh
Morton O. Schapiro, President, Northwestern University
Lou Anna K. Simon, President, Michigan State University
David Skorton, President, Cornell University
Hunter R. Rawlings III, President, Association of American Universities – ex-officio
Other statements of rejection have come from Boston University, the University of California at San Diego, Willamette University, the President of Wesleyan University (in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times), the Association of American University Professors, and other universities, including (thank Ceiling Cat) mine:
George Washington University
New York University
University of California-Irvine
University of Chicago
University of Kansas
University of Maryland
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pittsburgh
University of Texas-Austin
Washington University in St. Louis
Michael Roth, the President of Wesleyan University, was particularly outspoken in his op-ed (my emphasis):
. . . the boycott is a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.
The ASA has not gone on record against universities in any other country: not against those that enforce laws against homosexuality, not against those that have rejected freedom of speech, not against those that systematically restrict access to higher education by race, religion or gender. No, the ASA listens to civil society only when it speaks against Israel. As its scholarly president declared, “One has to start somewhere.” Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel. Really?
And, Harvard has just joined the mass rejection. This is from the Office of the President of Harvard University—Drew Gilpin Faust:
Finally, over at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier (with whom I’ve had my differences about scientism) has written a good piece on the issue, “The academic boycott of Israel is a travesty.” A few excerpts (the quote from the odious Judith Butler is priceless):
A few hours away from Palestine six million people are refugees in their own country, where they are being bombed by their government, and starving in the snow, and fighting polio; but never mind them, they are not Israel’s victims, and it is the turpitude of the Jewish state, not the actually existing misery in the region and the world, that offends the ASA. Compared with Aleppo, Ramallah is San Diego. But one has to start somewhere.
It is true that one cannot care equally about everything, that an ethical action is always concrete and therefore selective. But the ethical quality of one’s action must be measured by one’s standard for selection; and if that standard is not first and foremost determined by an impartial assessment of suffering and need, so that one selects as the beneficiaries of one’s ethical energies not those who are most wretched but those whose wretchedness confirms one’s prior ideological and political preferences, then the halo is a fake.
. . . Lauding the ASA boycott for targeting institutions and not individuals, the saintly Jewish philosopher Judith Butler pointed out in The Nation that “the only request that is being made is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used” for the travel expenses of Israeli scholars. O patria, quanto mi costi! Just how important do these professors think they and their conferences are? But finally there is nothing funny about this. There are first principles at stake in this stunt. Butler instructed that an academic boycott “militates against the spirit of censorship and the practice of calumny that would cut off debate and engage in debased caricatures.” I suggest she put down her Levinas and pick up her Orwell. It is precisely the spirit of censorship, and of conformity of opinion, that animates a boycott of academic institutions. In a sterling letter to the ASA, a group of distinguished American scholars noted this, and protested that “scholars would be punished not because of what they believe—which would be bad enough—but simply because of who they are based on their nationality. … This is discrimination pure and simple.”