Boycott Debate Underscores Competing Academic Freedom Commitments

We certainly hope that the MLA does not consider a one-sided punitive resolution against Israel like the one adopted by the American Studies Association [ASA]. The “blowback” against the ASA has been significant.

— Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs

It is still too early to assess, but I would nevertheless venture to predict that next year will not be an easy one for Israel’s enemies on campus.

— Judea Pearl, father of Daniel Pearl

Debates about the Israel-Palestine conflict frequently slide into a familiar pattern of assertion and counter-assertion: if one asserts that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories deserves formal condemnation in some forum, it is only a matter of time before someone else counter-asserts that the condemnation employs “a double-standard,” “hypocrisy,” and “loaded language,” representing an attempt to “demonize” and “delegitimize” Israel. Then, the motivations of Israel’s accusers must be analyzed for some hidden animus against the Jewish people. Indeed, words or actions that are sufficiently critical of Israel are framed as an existential threat to the Jewish state, and by extension (if one buys into Zionist logic) the Jewish people. Without fail, a rallying cry goes out to respond to the “existential threat” by defunding the organizations housing Israel’s critics through legislation prohibiting such words and actions at the state level, or by looking into these organizations’ tax-exempt status. And so it has been with the endless stream of commentary about the American Studies Association’s endorsement of the call by Palestinian civil society to boycott Israeli academic institutions, a part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Members of the ASA frame the urgency of their resolution around the dire living conditions Palestinians face under Israeli occupation, which often prevents them from moving between their homes to work and school, and infringing upon their right to pursue an education. These conditions contribute to what the late Baruch Kimmerling labeled “politicide,” Israel’s destruction of Palestinian civil society and its political institutions. As the ASA has made clear, “The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom, and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” In its essentials, the resolution supports the academic boycott against Israeli institutions until Israel brings itself into compliance with international law, specifically UN resolutions 242 (requiring an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-June 1967 borders and the cessation of states of belligerency, i.e., ending the occupation and removing the security wall) and 194 (recognizing the right of return and the justness of compensation for Palestinian refugees) while also calling for an end to all discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens. On the other hand, those incensed by the ASA’s endorsement have been effective in questioning these political goals by also invoking the principle of “academic freedom,” the freedom to pursue the academic profession within the bounds of the profession, something they argue Israeli researchers will be deprived of if the boycott of Israeli academic institutions goes forward.

Those supporting the boycott seemingly argue that worrying about the academic freedom of Israeli researchers, who may be inconvenienced by the boycott, is beside the point given the crisis Israel’s occupation has produced for Palestinian civil society. Supporters of the boycott recognized in their letter to Ashley Dawson, the editor of a controversial issue of the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP’s) Journal of Academic Freedom, that “All parties to the debate on the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (ACBI) believe that they are defending academic freedom, but they hold differing understandings of this guiding principle of our professional activities as scholars and educators.” This brings us to the heart of the issue: One group’s use of academic freedom can lead to deadly consequences for another group. Indeed, curtailing one group’s academic freedom may be the only way to alleviate the suffering of the other group. In brief, one group’s use of academic freedom may restrict another group’s ability to realize its academic freedom.

Israeli universities, like their U.S. counterparts, produce significant research for the country’s military-industrial complex. Academic studies contribute to an understanding of Palestinian demography, the development of high-tech surveillance equipment such as optic scanners, the effects of toxic agents on humans, and the psychology of despair produced under confining conditions, making a distinct contribution to increasing the grip of Israel’s occupation. While academic freedom may protect these Israeli researchers’ knowledge pursuits as they produce what is—from a Zionist perspective—socially-beneficial research, it is of deadly consequence for Palestinians on the receiving end of these instruments of social control. According to the academic boycott’s supporters, if disrupting these types of research endeavors within Israeli institutions—and frustrating collaborations that produce them—violate “academic freedom,” so be it. As David Lloyd and Johar Schueller note in their essay, “The Israeli State of Exception and the Academic Boycott”: “The point of the boycott is structural and is meant to challenge the state of exception through which Israel has escaped reprimand or penalty and has created conditions under which the rights of Palestinian scholars, academics, and students are routinely suppressed.” The leading organization on academic freedom, the AAUP, which has condemned the boycott, insists that the surveillance of human rights violations throughout the world falls outside of its purview.

Judging by the amount of ink and venom that have been spilled since the ASA announced on December 16th to endorse the boycott, it is clear that something extremely significant is developing with respect to the parameters of debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict in the United States. The debate seems to be moving into the mainstream, especially as the failures of the U.S.-brokered “peace process” become self-evident. Veiled threats, such as the ones above, delivered by StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein and Judea Pearl, are making the rounds in the media, warning academic organizations (such as the Modern Language Association)—which may eventually follow in the footsteps of the American Studies Association—that trouble will surely follow if they also endorse the academic boycott of Israel. A number of pro-Israel organizations are marshaling forces, preparing for a major battle if the academic and cultural boycott of Israel continues to gain traction. Newspaper headlines such as “Academic Scandal Headed for Chicago,” “Backlash Against Israel Boycott,” “Boycott Battles,” “A Vote Against Israel and Academic Freedom,” and “Over 100 Universities Reject American Studies Association Boycott” move through cyberspace at the speed of light as the MLA prepares for its annual convention in Chicago this week.

This upping of the rhetorical ante suggests that the BDS movement, which began in 2005, is forcing the issue of Israel’s occupation into larger public consciousness. The various attempts that have been made to mischaracterize the movement as part of an attempt to destroy Israel’s legitimacy within the international community range from the outright misinformed to the libelous. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz describes BDS “as largely a plaything of the hard left,” “an irresponsible gambit being promoted by irresponsible people who are more interested in being politically correct and feeling good than in helping bring about a reasonable solution to a complex problem, the fault for which is widely shared.” The author of The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart, asserts that the real problem with the ASA’s resolution is that “… it’s denying the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state, even alongside a Palestinian one.” In other words, the boycott’s call for the implementation of UN 194, which would lead to the return of Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel’s creation in 1948, would usher in the end of Israel as a state consisting of a Jewish majority. For Zionists, Israel’s existence as a state without a Jewish majority is a veritable catastrophe. Supporters of the ASA endorsement of the boycott such as Steven Salaita, David Lloyd, and Robin D.G. Kelley seem to be arguing that those who denounce BDS in the name of “academic freedom,” (in this case the academic freedom of researchers within Israeli institutions complicit in the occupation, who would supposedly be inconvenienced by a boycott) are oblivious to the day-to-day struggles of Palestinians living in the grip of an increasingly tightening Israeli matrix of control, revealing their reliance upon a neo-colonial logic within liberal Zionism.1

Nearly one hundred college and university presidents in the United States have registered their disagreement with the ASA’s December 15th vote. These presidents insist they are taking this strong stand in defense of academic freedom (the main principle animating academic life as researchers exchange knowledge and viewpoints across national boundaries), recognizing the pernicious effects such boycotts could have on dialogue and discovery. For these presidents, the ASA has acted hypocritically in singling out Israeli institutions for boycott because of Israeli human rights violations, without simultaneously expressing concern about human rights violations in other parts of the world.

As the ASA has gone to great lengths to specify, the boycott does not target individual professors in Israel, who may very well oppose Israel’s occupation policies, but is directed at disrupting formal institutional ties with Israeli institutions. As the ASA’s statement notes, the resolution “is limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.”

outofboundsAs I argue in my recently released book Out of Bounds: Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine, the reason relatively obscure corners of academia are generating so much controversy in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict is because these are relatively independent spaces that special-interest groups cannot compel into silence. However, this independence of a few organizations within the academy is being compromised and contained as the university increasingly takes on a corporate form. For example, I suspect the reason so many college and university presidents have been so quick to distance themselves from the ASA’s endorsement is to stay in the good graces of their donors. How else does one explain the strong denunciations directed against an academic organization’s symbolic vote responding to the call from Palestinian civil society? The lesson is this: academic freedom can be just as easily invoked by those promoting injustice as it can be used by those seeking to resist it.

  1. The Real Problem With the American Studies Association’s Boycott of Israel, Daily Beast; Defending Zionism under the cloak of academic freedom, Mondoweiss; The nightmare hidden within liberal Zionism, Electronic Intifada; Stanley Fish and the violence of neutrality, Mondoweiss; Peter Beinart’s colonial logic: Opponents of Israel boycott make anti-democratic arguments, Salon. []

Matthew Abraham is an Associate Professor of English and the author of the recently released Out of Bounds: Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine (Bloomsbury Academic Publishing). Read other articles by Matthew.