In Opposition To Academic Boycotts

Our guest author today is Rita Freedman, Acting Executive Director of the Jewish Labor Committee, and a recent retiree from the American Federation of Teachers.

There is a growing, worldwide effort to ostracize Israel and to make it into a pariah state. (This despite the fact that Israel is still the only democratic country in the Middle East.)  A key ingredient of this campaign is the call to boycott, divest from and impose sanctions on Israel (known as BDS for boycott, divest, sanction).  Within the world of higher education, this takes the form of calls to boycott all Israeli academic institutions, sometimes including boycotting all Israeli scholars and researchers. The rationale is that this will somehow pressure Israel into an agreement with the Palestinians, one which will improve their lot and lead to an independent Palestinian state that exists adjacent to the State of Israel (although it is worth noting that some in the BDS movement envision a future without the existence of Israel).  

Certainly, the goals of improving life for the Palestinian people, building their economy and supporting their democratic institutions – not to mention supporting the creation of an independent Palestine that is thriving and getting along peacefully with its Israeli neighbor – are entirely worthy. 

And, certainly, Israeli (and indeed Palestinian) policies that obstruct progress toward these goals are not above criticism (a great deal of which can be found within the free press and lively opposition among the many political parties and independent judiciary within Israel itself).  Individuals and groups in other nations should make their views known as well, and that includes the world of academia.  Open discussion and debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ways to resolve it should be encouraged.   However, those discussions should not be one-sided. They should consider the behavior of all those involved in the dispute.  Otherwise, they are likely to produce the result opposite to the one intended.

An academic boycott of Israel is that kind of counter-productive action, effectively suppressing free and open speech, debate, exploration and constructive problem-solving.  It is the antithesis of academic freedom, a basic principle of higher education, and is inconsistent with the basic democratic value of free expression.  Nevertheless, on December 16, the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed a boycott of Israeli universities, making it the largest group of U.S. scholars to do so.

This resolution assumes that all Israeli academic institutions and the people associated with them – whether professors or researchers – are inherently guilty.  It essentially hinders the free exchange of ideas and scientific research that could benefit all of humankind.  The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), among other major U.S. organizations and leaders, including the American Federation of Teachers, have been outspoken in their opposition to academic boycotts.  In 2006, an AAUP statement opposing academic boycotts expressed “long-standing opposition to the free exchange of ideas….We especially oppose academic boycotts that entail an ideological litmus test.” 

In 2007, nearly 300 American university presidents signed a public statement in opposition to academic boycotts.  The author of the statement, Columbia University’s president Lee Bollinger, said, “If you boycott Israeli academics, you boycott us at Columbia."

In response to this latest action by the ASA, the AAUP declared that it “opposes academic boycotts as violations of academic freedom…” and “We cannot endorse the use of political or religious views as a test of eligibility for participation in the academic community."

It is also noteworthy that eight former presidents of the ASA signed a letter voicing their objections to the boycott resolution as “antithetical to the mission of free and open inquiry for which a scholarly organization stands… [and] setting a dangerous precedent by sponsoring an inequitable and discriminatory policy that would punish one nation’s universities and scholars.” 

The signatories went on to express their deep concern with the process by which the resolution was put up for a vote to the membership, since only links to supporting positions were provided.  “Despite explicit requests, the National Council refused to circulate or post…alternative perspectives.”  And President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has publicly rejected a boycott of Israel. 

Boycotts of this nature – especially when they are directed at only one party to the conflict – are also counterproductive insofar they undermine hopes for a peaceful and just settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Such resolutions also discourage open discussions – in Israel, in Palestine and in organizations such as the ASA – which consider the behavior of all sides and the most productive ways to move forward together peacefully. 

For peace, both sides must agree to work with each other, yet these actions serve to make the parties more inflexible and less open to compromise.  Rather, they hurt moderates on each side and encourage extremists and rejectionists on both sides, with the Israeli government more likely to dig in its heels and with Palestinians more likely to believe they can rely on international pressure on Israel rather than negotiations that would entail compromise.  This is especially true as Israel is singled out for condemnation while countries like China fire, try and jail academics for advocating the rule of law, not to mention the lack of any freedom in places like Iran or North Korea,

A better, more productive path would be to encourage both sides to negotiate in good faith in   the current negotiations now taking place between Israelis and Palestinians.  In addition, organizations should support academic and other efforts such as between trade unions that build bridges between the two sides, including academic collaboration, support programs that grow democratic institutions throughout the Middle East and support moderates on both sides to promote meaningful dialogue and exchanges.

- Rita Freedman