Tag Archives: Israel

But for the boycott there would be academic freedom

6 Feb

When people say that the ASA boycott violates academic freedom they seem to assume that academic freedom in Israel/Palestine exists. But for the boycott, goes the argument, there would be academic freedom. But as this fact sheet by the Institute for Middle East Understanding suggests, that is not the case for Palestinians.

One of our most minimal definitions of any kind of freedom, academic or otherwise, is the absence of external impediments to the physical movement of our bodies. What Palestinian students and scholars routinely face is the presence of external impediments to the physical movement of their bodies.

Here are some highlights:

Due to Israeli restrictions imposed in cooperation with the government of Egypt, it is extremely difficult for any of Gaza’s 1.7 million Palestinians to travel abroad to study, attend academic conferences, or to leave for other purposes. Entry into Gaza by foreign academics has been similarly limited.

Since 2000, Israel has prevented students in Gaza from traveling to study at universities in the West Bank, some of which offer fields of study and degrees not available in Gaza. According to a report from Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, between 2000 and 2012 Israel let just three Gazans travel to study at universities in the West Bank, all of whom had received US government scholarships.

In 2010, amidst great fanfare during a visit to the region, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a program to provide scholarships for students from Gaza to study in the West Bank. In 2012, after Israel refused to issue travel permits to the students, the Obama administration quietly canceled the program.

While Israel does not specifically prohibit the importation of books into Gaza as part of its blockade and siege, doing so is extremely difficult, leading to a shortage of books on all subjects. At one point, Israel barred the importation of writing paper, notebooks, and pencils (leading to a shortage of the latter two) into Gaza.

It’s useful to compare these forcible restrictions on the physical movement of Palestinian bodies to the entirely voluntary ASA boycott. Is there any comparison?

Peter Beinart Speaks Truth About BDS

5 Feb

Peter Beinart is a liberal Zionist, a firm believer in the State of Israel, and a staunch critic of BDS.

And this is what he has to say in Haaretz:

But the tactical brilliance of BDS becomes clearer with every passing month.

At a time when their leaders are bitterly divided and their people are geographically fragmented, BDS has united Palestinians like nothing else in recent memory. For the many young Palestinians fed up with both Fatah and Hamas, it offers a form of political action untainted by corruption, theocracy, collaboration and internal repression….And by relying on international activists—not Palestinian politicians—it universalizes the Palestinian struggle…

But there’s one more factor that makes BDS so tactically shrewd: It exploits the mendacity of the “pro-Israel” establishment. Let me explain.

Many BDS activists oppose the existence of a Jewish state within any borders. Some might reluctantly swallow one if a viable Palestinian state were born alongside it. But what unites virtually everyone in the movement is their disgust with an American-led “peace process” in which they believe Palestinians lack the power to achieve their minimal demands. The best way to equalize the scales, they argue, is through economic and cultural pressure.

Were the mainstream Jewish organizations that reject BDS in the name of a negotiated two-state solution actually promoting a negotiated two-state solution, their strategy might have merit. But they’re not.

In truth, establishment American Jewish groups don’t really support the two-state solution. Or, at least, they don’t support it enough to risk a confrontation with the Israeli government. Which is why they are more an obstacle than an asset to the American-led ‘peace process.’ And why they can’t stop BDS.

What unites BDS activists, despite their divisions, is their fervent belief that someone must challenge Israel’s denial of basic Palestinian rights. Were establishment Jewish organizations to pose that challenge—even just rhetorically—their opposition to BDS might carry some weight. But they’re not, and BDS activists know it.

Remember Abba Eban’s famous quip that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” These days, that’s what Palestinian activists say about us.

Columbia University to NYS Legislature: Back Off!

3 Feb

About 75 Nearly 100 members of the Columbia University faculty have issued a forceful response to the New York State Legislature bill that would make it illegal for universities and colleges to use public money to fund faculty involvement in organizations like the ASA.

Signatories include such noted scholars as Lila Abu-Lughod, Eric Foner, Akeel Bilgrami, Jean Cohen, Victoria de Grazia, Alice Kessler-Harris, Mae Ngai, Todd Gitlin, Judith Butler, and Patricia Williams. Signatories also include prominent opponents of the ASA boycott, who nevertheless understand the threat this bill poses.

Here are some excerpts from their letter:

These bills aim to punish political speech and association of academics generally, and specifically target the viewpoint expressed by that speech and association. Both of these aims violate well-settled law protecting First Amendment rights.

These proposed laws have been cynically misdescribed as protecting academic freedom, when in fact they do just the opposite – if the Anti-Boycott bills become law they will threaten constitutionally protected academic speech and debate by punishing political speech and action by academics on matters of public concern.

A key component of academic life is membership in professional organizations, such as the ASA. Indeed it is the exceptional faculty member who is not a member of one or more professional organization. Membership in professional academic organizations, attendance at annual meetings, and participation in committee work provide important opportunities for professional development, intellectual exchange, and the evolution of knowledge in the field. Columbia University, in keeping with our peers, supports faculty research and professional development by reimbursing faculty for the costs of membership in relevant professional organizations, and covers the reasonable costs of travel to official meetings of those organizations.

Frequently the governing bodies and/or the membership of professional academic organizations take positions on matters of public concern, such as climate change, the military dictatorship in Honduras, apartheid in South Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to deny a visa to Professors Adam Habib and Tariq Ramadan to visit the U.S., the detention of scholars in Iran, President George W. Bush’s administration’s treatment of foreign prisoners – calling such treatment torture – and the Pentagon’s previous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

Finally, the proposed anti-boycott bills specifically target a particular form of First Amendment expression, the boycott. About this the Supreme Court has also been clear: boycotts “to bring about political, social and economic change” are unquestionably protected speech under the First Amendment. This form of political action has been used in countless contexts through time and across circumstance, but it has a particularly important history in the United States as a tactic to challenge Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South, including the famous Montgomery bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 1982 Supreme Court case N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co. recounts the civil rights movement’s use of boycotts to challenge racial segregation in Mississippi and cements this political tactic as one clearly protected by the First Amendment.

Some of the signatories to this letter endorse the principles underlying the ASA’s resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, others do not. Regardless of whether one supports the cause to which this particular boycott is responding, we all firmly believe that academics have a right to express their political views through a wide range of protected speech, including boycotts. A law targeting the boycott of academic institutions in countries such as Israel, Hungary, Lebanon, and the Czech Republic cannot be differentiated from the laws that punished boycotts in the U.S. civil rights movement or those that compelled academics to sign loyalty oaths as a condition of employment. Simply because a cause or political viewpoint may be unpopular with elected officials does not, and cannot, justify a law censoring speech by academics in connection with that cause or viewpoint. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has clearly stated that the purpose of these bills is to cut state aid to academic institutions that fund membership in professional organizations such as the ASA. These bills thus embody exactly the kind of retaliatory action undertaken by public officials who dislike the content or viewpoint of certain speech activities that courts have consistently found unconstitutional.

An Unoriginal Thought About the Israel/Palestine Conflict

2 Feb

We seem to be entering a new phase of the Israel/Palestine conflict, in the US and perhaps elsewhere. As Israel loses increasing control over the debate, its organized and institutional defenders have to resort to ever more desperate and coercive measures to control the debate. As they resort to ever more desperate and coercive measures to control the debate, they lose the hip, politically tolerant, embodiment-of-social-justice aura—the Middle East’s only democracy, the country is one big kibbutz, etc.—that traditionally helped them control the debate. Historically speaking, that’s not a good position for self-described liberal democratic regimes to be in.

Jewfros in Palestine

31 Jan

Tablet has a moving piece by Samantha Shokin, a Brooklyn-based writer, on how a semester in Israel helped change the way she felt about herself, particularly her bodily self-image as a Jewish woman.

Shokin writes:

I spent a lifetime hating my Jewish hair—straightening it, covering it, or otherwise finding ways to diminish its presence. A trip to Israel is what it took for me to realize my hair was wonderful all its own, and much more than just an accessory.

Shokin does a wonderful job describing how her hair was caught up with her feelings of awkwardness, shame, and exclusion, how difficult it was as an adolescent to contend with images of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera from the vantage of “frizzy brown hair and glasses.” This was no simple matter of teenage angst, Shokin makes clear; it cut to the heart of her Jewish identity, not to mention a long history of anti-Semitism. For centuries, Jewish looks, including hair, have been a dividing line between the drowned and the saved. As that simple line from Paul Celan reminds us: “your golden hair Margarete/ your ashen hair Shulamit.” So it’s quite clear in Shokin’s piece that she’s not simply describing her personal insecurities. She’s tapping into a wider conversation, familiar to members of other ethnic minorities, about how particular conceptions of beauty become markers of status and inclusion—and, concomitantly, inferiority and exclusion. It’s no wonder that when Shokin goes to Israel and sees so many dos like her own, she feels at home.

But there’s something to be said about stepping into a hair salon and not feeling like a piece of work, just as there is about stepping into crowd of people and not feeling like a stranger.

That said, the piece suffers from an obliviousness I can’t help flinching at. Nowhere in Shokin’s discussion does she even give a hint that she’s aware that her feeling at home comes at a cost to someone else. How might a teenage Palestinian girl in the West Bank—undergoing not only the adolescent angst that Shokin once endured but also the facts of the Occupation—read this piece? Might she not respond, “I have to suffer all of this, just so you can feel at home with your hair?”

I’m being tendentious. But it’s a tendentious situation. And articles like this don’t help. They speak instead to a larger cluelessness among Jewish Americans about what they’re doing when they go to Israel and find themselves at home.

I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had over the years with Jewish defenders of the State of Israel whose position is entirely fair and eminently reasonable—so long as you forget that there are actual Palestinians living there. People I love and respect mount air-tight arguments and make genuinely moving cases to me about the Jewish need for a refuge from persecution; about the desire to live somewhere—anywhere, say some—where they are not a minority; about the stirring feeling of hearing Hebrew spoken in the street; about the longing to feel at home. About wanting to be a teenager who loves her hair.

All of this I hear, and think, yes, of course, how could anyone not understand and empathize with that? But all of these heartfelt and legitimate claims rest upon a simple omission: the Palestinians. For these claims to obtain their intended force, we have to pretend that the Palestinians aren’t there—or that they don’t exist.

Shokin’s piece is a microcosm: its adolescent sense that my problems are the only problems that matter in this world sound all too much like Zionist arguments for a Jewish homeland. Not Zionist arguments at their weakest, but Zionist arguments at their strongest.

The N Word in Israel

16 Jan

Jodi Rudoren has a fascinating piece in the Times on proposed legislation in Israel that seems to be gaining ground.

Israel is on the brink of banning the N-word. N as in Nazi, that is.

Parliament gave preliminary approval on Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to call someone a Nazi — or any other slur associated with the Third Reich — or to use Holocaust-related symbols in a noneducational way. The penalty would be a fine of as much as $29,000 and up to six months in jail.

Backers of the law say it is a response to what they see as a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world as well as an increasing, casual invocation of such terms and totems in Israeli politics and even teenage trash talk.

Many Jewish Israelis make high-school pilgrimages to Auschwitz and other death camps. Yet younger people have also been heard using the Hebrew word shoah — which literally means catastrophe but is generally reserved for the Holocaust — to describe an everyday disaster like a botched relationship or a messy kitchen.

At least half a dozen European nations, along with Brazil, already prohibit the use of Nazi symbols and flags, along with those of other extremist groups, and a longer list consider Holocaust denial a crime (as Israel has since 1986). And Rwanda bans “genocide ideology,” which it defines as any form of speech or action deemed to support or promote genocide. But other countries do not ban the utterance of the word Nazi, as the proposed Israeli law would, along with “everything that has to do with it and everything that connects to Nazism and the regime of the Third Reich and those who were the head of it.”

I should confess at the outset that I find the throwing around of the word Nazi to describe individual Israelis or the actions of the Israeli state really distasteful. While specific actions or deeds of the state do make me think of the Nazis—I simply can’t look at the Separation Wall without thinking of the Warsaw Ghetto—I still flinch, and am repelled by, the hurling of that epithet. So I get, at a visceral level, where people might be coming from on this.

That said…there are so many other things to say.

First, the idea that you can’t, in the State of the Jews of all places, say the word Nazi or anything, as the article puts it, “that has to do with it and everything that connects to Nazism and the regime of the Third Reich and those who were the head of it.” What if there really are Nazis in Israel? Or neo-Nazis? You can’t call them what they are?

Also, isn’t it part of the arsenal of a lot of defenders of Israel to claim that countries like Iran or opponents of the state are the inheritors of an anti-Semitic tradition that culminated in Nazism? Seems like you’d be depriving these people of one of their critical weapons. So I’m fascinated about that. The article touches on it, obliquely.

Second, prohibitions on words have a special valence in Judaism, as in most religions and cultures. They acquire an aura of holiness and the sacred. Could it be that the two words you can’t say or write in Israel are going to be God (for religious reasons, which not all Jews honor) and Nazi (for political reasons, which would apply to everyone)? Are God and Nazi really to be the two holiest words of the Jewish people in Israel?

Third, it seems like the intimate relationship between the Holocaust and Jewishness is coming full circle here. So much of postwar Jewish-American and Israeli identity—not to mention the legitimacy of the State of Israel—is caught up in the Holocaust, in remembrance of it. But because of the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment, the State of Israel now wants to put that connection back in its box. References to Nazism once served as a legitimating device for Israel; now they’re a delegitimating device.

And last, one could say that what has cheapened the Holocaust and the remembrance of Nazism more than anything is not the casual or even hateful invocation of the Nazi epithet, but the use, as Hannah Arendt recognized in those memorable opening passages of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the Holocaust by the Israeli state and its international supporters. There’s no business like Shoah business, as the old joke has it.

I’d say there’s far less kitsch in a teenager describing her failed relationship as a shoah—indeed, I see that as a brilliant appropriation of the word, signaling the vitality and power of Jewish irony and satire, the triumph of not merely humanism but our humanity over barbarism—than there is in state leaders mobilizing the memory of six million to justify the exertions of a regional superpower. As Hillary Clinton did when she visited Yad Vashem in 2009:

Yad Vashem is a testament to the power of truth in the face of denial, the resilience of the human spirit in the face of despair, the triumph of the Jewish people over murder and destruction and a reminder to all people that the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten. God bless Israel and its future.

When it comes to the cheapening of the Holocaust, that horse has long been out of the barn.

The New McCarthyites: BDS, Its Critics, and Academic Freedom

8 Jan

As the attacks on the BDS movement and the ASA boycott escalate, the arguments grow wilder.

It’s no longer enough, it seems, to make unfounded claims that the academic boycott violates academic freedom. The new line of march is that mere advocacy of the boycott is itself a violation of academic freedom.

What’s more, it’s not crazies who are peddling this claim; as Haaretz reports, it’s coming from the heart of the academic establishment.

“The mere calling for a boycott will impede the free flow of ideas,” Russell Berman, a comparative literature professor at Stanford University and a past Modern Language Association president, said on the conference call. “The calling of a boycott will have a chilling effect on academic life.”

If it’s true that merely calling for a boycott shuts down the free exchange of ideas, it seems logical that such calls should be prohibited. Not only prohibited, but punished.

One prominent critic of the BDS movement, Edward Beck, makes just that argument in a recent piece in The Jerusalem Post.

Beck begins from the premise that the successful vote for the ASA boycott demonstrates that defenders of Israel can no longer wait for its opponents to act; Israel’s defenders must go on the offensive, preventing the virus from spreading further.

To be reactive may well be to be too late; being vigilant and proactive is the only way to ward off these attacks on academic freedom.

What does that mean in practice?

It means that every academic who opposes academic boycotts for any reason, whether it be purely academic terms or political or other reasons, must work within his or her own institution, discipline and professional society to develop the codified organizational and institutional policies that state in language that is clear and bold that the group will not entertain any proposals for academic boycotts based on national origin or institutional affiliation because such resolutions are discriminatory, may violate legal and tax statutes and are based on the notion of collective punishment, and such, are disruptive to the flow of academic discourse and research and anathema to the basic concept of academic freedom.

The policy also has to state sanctions for individual members engaging in such behavior, as this would be a violation of institutional or organization policy and regarded as academically unethical.

Read that language carefully. No academic institution is to entertain or consider a proposal for a boycott. Presumably this is to be codified in a set of bylaws or a faculty code of conduct, though Beck does not say. What he does say is that it is not the boycott itself that violates academic freedom; it is the “resolution” for a boycott. The vote for a boycott, in other words, interferes with the basic campus activities of research and discussion.

That policy must be enforced with sanctions—Beck doesn’t specify the sanctions but presumably these could include anything from a reprimand in one’s file to being fired—on any individual faculty member “engaging in such behavior.”

But what exactly is “such behavior” that would warrant the sanction? At first, I thought Beck meant an individual faculty member engaging in a boycott. So my personal refusal to attend a conference in Israel, because it is in Israel, would qualify.

But the antecedent for “engaging in such behavior” is not the boycott itself but “such resolutions.” Beck, remember, wants the defenders of Israel to move beyond reacting to boycotts that are happening; in fact, he wants to move beyond successful votes for boycotts.  He wants to head those votes off at the pass, to prevent them from becoming votes at all.

The only way to make sense of what Beck is saying is that he thinks individuals who advocate for boycotts ought to be sanctioned by their universities and professional associations.

Thus, if I push my college or professional association to adopt a BDS resolution, or publicly proclaim my intention to vote for one (with the clear purpose of persuading others to do the same), I am “engaging in such behavior.” If I merely call for a boycott, to use Professor Berman’s language, I am “engaging in such behavior.”

Berman says he’s not willing to go as far as sanctions: “But I don’t think I would want to elevate the principle that political statements should be grounds for academic sanctions.” It’s not clear why he thinks this: given what Berman said about mere advocacy impinging on academic freedom, it would seem entirely appropriate to punish such advocacy. After all, if I walk into the classroom of my colleague next door, shouting and screaming nonsense, being needlessly disruptive and preventing her from teaching her students, I would be subject to disciplinary action. For the very reason that my activity prevents the free flow of ideas and communication that is the essence of campus life. So if the mere call for a boycott does essentially the same thing, why shouldn’t it be punished?

Who knows? But the mere fact that we’re even having this discussion at all should tell us how far down the road of repression the opponents of the ASA boycott are willing to go—all in the name of academic freedom.

These bizarreries of freedom being squelched in the name of freedom remind me of nothing so much as arguments that were common during the McCarthy era.

Deploying similar chains of extended causality, anticommunists—including a great many liberals—argued that the problem with the Communist Party in the United States was not that it had attempted a violent overthrow of the US government; clearly it had not. It was not that it had organized an attempt to violently overthrow the government; clearly it had not. It was not that it had organized a movement that would attempt to violently overthrow the government; it hadn’t even done that.

No, the real crime of the Communist Party, as the Supreme Court put it so beautifully in Dennis v. United States, was that it had organized a movement that advocated, and sought to teach its members, the notion that when the time was right, at some completely undefined point in the future, it would be entirely justified and appropriate, indeed necessary and obligatory, to attempt a violent overthrow of the government.

In making this argument, the Supreme Court drew from a particular definition of political speech crimes, which were found in the Smith Act,  the 1940 statute upon which the leadership of the Communist Party was tried and convicted in 1949. The relevant sections of the statute do not criminalize the violent overthrow of the government or even advocacy of the violent overthrow of the government. Instead, they criminalize the following:

Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence….

Notice just how many steps removed from actual violence these speech crimes are, how many discrete actions must be engaged in before we even get anywhere near something like a violent overthrow of the government: “attempt”….”to organize”….”a group”….”that advocates”…”the violent overthrow of the government”…at some undefined moment in the future. Talk about six degrees of separation!

Here’s how the Supreme Court interpreted that language in the Dennis case, which upheld the conviction of eleven leaders of the Communist Party.

Obviously, the words cannot mean that, before the Government may act, it must wait until the putsch is about to be executed, the plans have been laid and the signal is awaited. If Government is aware that a group aiming at its overthrow is attempting to indoctrinate its members and to commit them to a course whereby they will strike when the leaders feel the circumstances permit, action by the Government is required….In the instant case, the trial judge charged the jury that they could not convict unless they found that petitioners intended to overthrow the Government “as speedily as circumstances would permit.” This does not mean, and could not properly mean, that they would not strike until there was certainty of success. What was meant was that the revolutionists would strike when they thought the time was ripe.

….

The mere fact that, from the period 1945 to 1948, petitioners’ activities did not result in an attempt to overthrow the Government by force and violence is, of course, no answer to the fact that there was a group that was ready to make the attempt. The formation by petitioners of such a highly organized conspiracy, with rigidly disciplined members subject to call when the leaders, these petitioners, felt that the time had come for action, coupled with the inflammable nature of world conditions, similar uprisings in other countries, and the touch-and-go nature of our relations with countries with whom petitioners were in the very least ideologically attuned, convince us that their convictions were justified on this score. And this analysis disposes of the contention that a conspiracy to advocate, as distinguished from the advocacy itself, cannot be constitutionally restrained, because it comprises only the preparation. It is the existence of the conspiracy which creates the danger.

It’s that kind of repressive language and logic of containment, of nipping the threat in the bud, of suppressing speech before it becomes action, of holding that the speech itself is a crime, that we see in opponents of BDS and the academic boycott.

Like their predecessors—I’m thinking now of Sidney Hook, who argued that members of the Communist Party should not be allowed to teach in schools, also on the grounds of academic freedom—our latter-day McCarthyites throw around the word of freedom as they slowly and steadily destroy it.

A Very Elite Backlash

2 Jan

The speed and scale of the backlash against the ASA boycott have been formidable.

But the backlash has a curious feature: it is a very elite backlash, as this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education makes clear. It is spearheaded almost entirely by university presidents (not exactly my go-to sources of moral instruction on academic freedom), government officials, and institutional actors like the American Council on Education and the Association of American Universities.

If you want to understand the sources of that elite backlash, particularly among university presidents, Bard College President Leon Botstein—by no means a progressive on this issue—breaks it down in that Chronicle piece.

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and a boycott opponent, said calls from alumni to take a stand against the boycott had also played a role. “As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education,” he said. “For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.”

Or as George W. Bush put it: “Some people call you the elite, I call you my base.”

Critics of the boycott ought to be a little concerned about the elite provenance of this campaign against the ASA. As Peter Beinart—no friend of the boycott—makes clear in this article in Haaretz, the cause of Israel has increasingly become an institutional cause of politicians and big organizations, while the case against Israel has shifted to the grassroots. In the long run, that does not bode well.

{US Secretary of State John] Kerry himself has said that if “we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.” He’s right. If he fails, the United States won’t take another shot until it inaugurates a new president in 2017, and maybe not then. In the meantime, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle will move outside Washington as Palestinians take their case to international organizations, college campuses, religious and labor groups and European consumers. And for the organized American Jewish community, that’s a disaster because universities, international organizations and liberal religious groups are exactly the places the American Jewish establishment is weak.

It’s sadly ironic. The organized American Jewish community has spent decades building influence in Washington. But it’s succeeded too well. By making it too politically painful for Obama to push Netanyahu toward a two-state deal, the American Jewish establishment (along with its Christian right allies) is making Washington irrelevant. For two decades, the core premise of the American-dominated peace process has been that since only America enjoys leverage over Israel, the rest of the world should leave the Israel-Palestinian conflict in America’s hands.

But across the world, fewer and fewer people believe Washington will effectively use its leverage, and if the Kerry mission fails, Washington will no longer even try. The Palestinians are ready with a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that shifts the struggle to arenas where the American Jewish establishment lacks influence. In the Russell Senate Office Building, Howard Kohr and Malcolm Hoenlein’s opinions carry weight. In German supermarkets and the Modern Language Association, not so much.

In Congress…that hard-line agenda remains popular. But in the country at large, it risks alienating the Americans who will dominate politics in the decades to come.

It’s no secret that young Americans are less unwaveringly “pro-Israel” than their elders. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, while a majority of Americans over 65 say they sympathize primarily with Israel, among Americans under 30 it drops to just over one-in-three, with a plurality of respondents saying they sympathize with both sides.

These are long-term trends. The American Jewish establishment won’t become irrelevant anytime soon. But 2014 may be the year when the downward trajectory of its power becomes clear. Wiser American Jewish leaders, aware of the BDS movement’s efforts to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside of Washington, might have pushed Netanyahu to embrace the core tenets of a two-state agreement, and thus given skeptics more reason to believe Washington can still deliver….

…For the leaders of Jewish America, 2014 may be the year it becomes too late.

It’s a favored trope, in discussions about the Israel/Palestine peace process, to warn that time is running out. This time it may be true, though not in the way those who like to make these warnings think.

Are Israeli Universities Critics of or Collaborators with the Israeli Government?

1 Jan

Critics of the ASA academic boycott often claim that the boycott is illegitimate because it targets Israeli universities, which are the site of some of the greatest criticism of the Israeli government and support for the Palestinian cause. As prominent scholar and former ASA president Shelley Fisher Fishkin said:

Israeli universities are often at the forefront of fostering dialogue between Arabs and Jews, of educating the future leaders of Arab universities, and of providing the next generation with the tools of critical thinking that can allow them to construct a society more equitable and just than that of their parents.

It’s a little more complicated.

Here are just some of the facts about the Israeli academy that Fishkin failed to note but which eight professors in Indiana emphasized in their letter to the presidents of Purdue and Indiana University.

  1. Israeli universities, like Hebrew University, have illegally built parts of their campuses in the occupied territories.
  2. 20% of the Israeli population is Palestinian, yet only 11% of university students are Palestinian. (In the US, by contrast, which is no picnic for African Americans, the black population is 13.1%, while the black student population in universities is 14%.) Palestinian applicants to Israeli universities are three times more likely to be rejected than Jewish applicants. 32% of Jewish applicants meeting minimal requirements are accepted into Israeli universities, while only 19% of Palestinian students meeting those requirements are accepted.
  3. 20% of the Israeli population is Palestinian, yet only 1% of the university staff is Palestinian.
  4. In 2008, a petition for academic freedom in the occupied territories was sent to about 9,000 Israeli academics. It was signed by 407 professors, about 4.5% of the total.

In the United States, professors have a reputation for being far more radical than they are. Seems like the same may be true in Israel.

Does the ASA Boycott Violate Academic Freedom? A Roundtable

23 Dec

Does the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott of Israeli academic institutions violate academic freedom?

According to the presidents of Harvard, Yale, Indiana University (see my comment on that university at the end of this post), and numerous other universities across the United States, the answer is yes. The question is: Why?

I asked my Facebook friends that question. A bunch of people—some in favor of the ASA boycott, others opposed, others undecided—answered. I thought the discussion was worth reprinting here.

Fair warning: it is a fairly narrow discussion. We were not considering the pros and cons of the boycott or where justice lies in the current Israel-Palestine conflict. We were simply trying to figure out whether and how the boycott violates academic freedom, which has become one of the standard arguments against it.

To get oriented, you might want to read this helpful Q and A from the ASA, which clarifies what the boycott does and does not entail.

 •  •  •  •  •  •

Chris Bertram What is the argument that this boycott violates academic freedom, Corey? I just can’t see how a refusal of some academics in one country to associate with institutions in another country violates anyone’s academic freedom. Are there any clarifications on this from the opponents?

Siva Vaidhyanathan The boycott has no effect on “academic freedom.” And I say that as a fervent opponent of the boycott. The fact that academics default to that phrase only shows the poverty of the level of thought about the issue. There are a dozen good reasons to oppose the boycott. But “academic freedom” is not one of them.

Corey Robin I suppose the argument would go something like this. In the same way freedom of speech refers both to the individual right of individuals to speak their minds without fear of coercion, and to the actual state of unimpeded discourse and exchange between individuals (the latter is on some accounts Justice Brandeis’s view of freedom of speech), so does academic freedom refer to the right of individual academics to pursue their teaching and research (and perhaps voice their political ideas as well) without fear of coercion, and to the actual state of unimpeded discourse and exchange between professors. If roadblocks are set up that block that exchange, that exchange is diminished. And so is academic freedom. At least I think that’s the argument.

Siva Given that the ASA resolution is not binding on ASA members there are no roadblocks.

Corey But were universities to drop joint programs of exchange and research—as Brandeis University recently did with Al Quds—that would take away a road that had facilitated that exchange and research. Perhaps not the creation of a roadblock so much as the elimination of a road? Or if an Israeli academic and her institution had been part of a joint research program with a group of American academics and their institutions, and that program were ended, that would also make exchange harder. I’m trying to think out loud here. I suppose the argument is that academic freedom is not merely about an individual’s right to pursue a program of research or teaching but also about material conditions and infrastructure that facilitate research and teaching. Again, I’m not sure; just trying to figure out the other side’s argument.

Siva Yes, you are fleshing out that position with an argument that my side has not really made. I can imagine boycott terms that would materially affect one’s ability to conduct and express work. But I tend to think of academic freedom as a matter of content discrimination. If a boycott targeted, say, certain types of research, certain positions on political matters, or particular areas of research that might have applications that could further the strength of the Israeli military, then it would clearly violate academic freedom. I think we are hearing a reflexive call to defend “academic freedom” because it has bumper-sticker currency within the academy.

Aaron Bady I’ve been thinking about this too; after all, if non-association is a violation of academic freedom, then association with Israel is compulsory, no?

Ben Alpers Trying to ban association with an entire nation’s universities is the problem. The fact that an organization like the ASA lacks an enforcement mechanism for its attempted ban just means it’s an ineffectual affront to academic freedom.

Corey Ben, it’s a statement of voluntary non-association. Not by default but by design: see the actual statement from the ASA respecting individual members’ freedom of conscience on this matter (“The Council’s endorsement of the resolution recognizes that individual members will act according to their conscience and convictions on these complex issues.”) The only way to spin that particular aspect into an affront to academic freedom—however effectual or not it may be—is by embracing the position that Aaron describes above: namely, that association with Israel is compulsory.

Aaron Ben, don’t think a “ban” without compulsion or enforcement can be called a ban. If BDS were trying to ban association with Israel, the violence of doing so would be in the compulsion, or force used, to make it something that someone who didn’t want to, would have to do. That’s simply not what’s happening here. Not to mention that, by this logic, every boycott is a ban; if a group of people resolve to boycott Wal-Mart, because of their bad labor practices or something, are those people “banning” Wal-Mart? Not unless they go beyond urging others to join them, I would think.

Aaron Because I’ve been watching The Good Wife—and have courtroom dramas on the brain—I am picturing a prosecutor trying to accuse someone of intended murder, and explaining that even though the accused didn’t have a murder weapon, that just shows that it wasn’t a very effectual murder attempt.

Ben Here’s the AAUP’s 2005 statement opposing academic boycotts in general.

Aaron In what way does the ASA’s boycott “curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues”? Unless there’s an enforcement mechanism, it simply doesn’t.

Corey But if you look at the ASA resolution, Ben, it looks remarkably like what the AAUP says in that statement is “censure,” which it accepts as a legitimate tactic: “The Association is careful to distinguish censure—which brings public attention to an administration that has violated the organization’s principles and standards—from a boycott, by leaving it to individuals to decide how to act on the information they have been given. The AAUP engages in no formal effort to discourage faculty from working at these institutions or to ostracize the institution and its members from academic exchanges, as is the case in AUT ‘greylisting’; but moral suasion could have such results if faculty members were to decide to have no contact with an institution on the censure list.”

Corey Aaron, if said academic colleagues refuse to engage in work with said teachers and researchers, the freedom of said teachers and researchers to engage in work with said academic colleagues is curtailed.

Ben FWIW, the AAUP sees the ASA resolution as an example of the sort of academic boycott it opposes.

Aaron Taking a position on an issue is different from having a coherent rationale for doing so; like Corey, I simply don’t understand the logic.

Corey I know the AAUP does see it that way, Ben, but in this case, it seems to be misapplying its own principles, which it almost implicitly recognizes in its statement on the ASA resolution, when it says, “It will be up to those members of ASA who support the principles of academic freedom to decide for themselves how to respond to this decision.” If that’s the case, by the AAUP’s own criteria, the ASA boycott looks remarkably like a censure.

Ben Surely the ASA could have cleared this up by issuing a censure instead of calling for a boycott (part of the defense of which appears to be that it isn’t a boycott).

Aaron I think the AAUP’s distinction is specious, frankly. I think it is a boycott! But a call to boycott Wal-Mart, say, is not an infringement on their ability to sell products. By the same token, a call to boycott Israeli institutions also does not infringe on their freedom to do what they do: if the only people who participate in the boycott are people who voluntarily choose to do so, then I don’t understand how anyone’s freedom is being curtailed in any way.

Corey No, it’s just not a boycott as the AAUP defines the term, which is rather peculiar, if you ask me. It is however a boycott within any standard definition of the term: namely, it is only as enforceable as the voluntary will of its members. It is a voluntary act of non-association.

Corey Oops, Aaron beat me to it.

Aaron December is apparently the month where Corey and I coordinate our thinking; last year it was Lincoln, this year it’s BDS.

Corey The irony in this whole discussion is that there is one entity in the US that routinely violates the putative academic freedom strictures of all those individuals and institutions who have come out against the ASA boycott: the American state. Its boycotts and sanctions—against Iran, North Korea, and Cuba (I guess now to a lesser degree)—are in fact mandatory for US citizens, but I’ve yet to see a coordinated response from those noted defenders of academic freedom like the presidents of Yale, Harvard, Chicago, and so on, doing anything about that. I mean, it’s a bit rich to hear someone like Larry Summers fulminate on this topic when he was part of the actual government apparatus—in the Department of Treasury, no less—that implemented these boycotts and sanctions.

Aaron That’s a good point, Corey; but, of course, all the ways in which universities in the Axis of Evil are effectively blockaded is an invisible given. Like arguing that censoring bad books is fine, because they’re bad books. But you can’t, then, demand that it’s bad to censor good books except by appealing to that judgment call.

Corey All this said, I think there might be a way in which you could argue that the boycott violates academic freedom, as I argued at the beginning. In the freedom of speech paradigm, there are two (actually more) ways of thinking about freedom of speech: there is the right of individuals to speak without fear of coercion (call this FS1) and there is the actual state of unimpeded public discourse and exchange (call this FS2). Brandeis, some have argued, was more concerned about the latter, and those inspired by him (like Cass Sunstein or Owen Fiss) are more interested in regulating things like campaign spending (set aside the issue of whether money = speech) and creating viable public deliberative institutions in order to generate a more robust public discourse. Drawing on the model of FS2, one could say that academic freedom refers also to the actual state of exchange and discourse among academics. And to the extent that a boycott impedes that discourse (however voluntarily), either by individual refusing to associate, or by associations and organizations severing ties with institutions, one could say that it impedes academic freedom. Since academic freedom refers to more than the right of individuals to pursue their teaching and research without fear of coercion but also, on this model, to the maintenance of infrastructure for cooperative teaching and research.

Aaron FS2 takes us to an extremely subjective place, though, right? What constitutes a normative level of academic freedom? Anybody’s guess. And I would add, if the absence of infrastructure for cooperative teaching and research is the violation of academic freedom, then the number of “Academics” who lack it is huge.

Corey I don’t know if it’s that subjective. Complicated, yes, but I’m not sure why subjective. As for your second point, yes, that’s the point. Which is why I can’t imagine that critics of the boycott—many of whom include university presidents who are increasingly relying on adjunct labor, which dispenses not only with the infrastructure for cooperative teaching and research, but also tenure and other traditional protections of academic freedom—would actually embrace that position.

Chris Bertram Yes Corey, but the “maintenance of the infrastructure” condition has to be based on some threshold level of adequacy. I can’t claim that my academic freedom has been violated because there isn’t a world lecture tour organized for me! It is very hard to see how tenured Israeli academics, with access to the internet, a range of publishers, journals to publish in, etc., are being denied an adequate infrastructure.

Corey Good point, Chris. So we would say not having a world lecture tour for you is not a violation of academic freedom—though it sucks for the rest of us who can’t hear you!—but would we say that conference attendance is a critical part of academic discourse and life? I’m not sure, just throwing this out there. I mean why is access to the internet, but not access to academics the world over in the form of cooperative research opportunities and conference attendance, not a prerequisite of academic freedom? I would imagine in some fields the latter kind of thing is critical to research, no? What is the necessary infrastructure of academic freedom such that we could say once a threshold is met, academic freedom is secure or maintained?

Chris I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Already I know of several academics who won’t fly to conferences because of the carbon emissions. I don’t think they have rendered themselves “academically unfree” as a result. Kant never made it out of Konigsberg, of course.

Corey What if a university decided to act on the boycott and ended an ongoing joint research program—in some scientific area that relies upon intensive infrastructure support between more than one university—between itself and a university in Israel? I’m just playing this out; don’t really believe it, in part because the only way to make sense of it is to say that academic freedom requires an affirmative duty on the part of individuals and institutions to participate in ongoing exchange, even if they don’t want to.

Sarah Chinn As far as I can tell, here’s one version of how academic freedom might be violated: Israeli universities have partnerships all over the world in various fields (not least of which is the new Technion/Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island). Boycotting Israeli universities means abandoning those partnerships, and depriving those scholars of the opportunity to work on research projects, denying students study abroad possibilities, and shutting down new transnational projects. These relationships are not just one-on-one, scholar to scholar, but require institutional support. It also means that scholars can’t accept invitations to talk or teach at Israeli universities, which violates their freedom to disseminate their research and interact with students and scholars at other institutions.

Timothy Burke On the academic freedom side of things, there seems to me is a huge difference between institutional-level action and individual action. If you’re talking about individuals, then I think your belief that this doesn’t violate academic freedom is right. As a strong supporter of academic freedom, I’m not required to go to all possible events, and if I strongly object to a speaker and do not go to the talk or the event, that’s my individual decision. But if I ask my institution to enforce a boycott? To forbid my colleagues from inviting speakers? If I refuse to release departmental funds to support speakers that someone has asked me to support because I have a political disagreement with that speaker? That’s where for me it crosses into a trespass against academic freedom.

Josh Mason I’m glad the ASA resolution passed and I don’t disagree with anything Corey, Chris Bertram and Aaron Bady have said here. But I do wonder if the emphasis on the voluntary nature of the boycott is quite right. After all, the entire point of the boycott, like all outside pressure against the occupation, is to impose costs on Israelis. If American academics face exactly the same choices with respect to collaboration with Israeli institutions that they faced before the resolution, passing it was a waste of effort. And if the choices by American institutions and individual scholars have no effect on the ability of Israeli scholars to carry out their work, then the boycott is ineffectual and pointless.

Corey Josh, I think what Sarah said above answers your question. The ASA is saying it will not engage in those sorts of partnerships. Now of course it doesn’t really do that now. The hope is that other organizations would do the same, organizations that in fact do do that now. And that ultimately universities might do the same. For instance, Brandeis recently severed its program with Al Quds; the idea is that other universities would eventually sever similar type programs with Israeli universities. In addition, individuals would now, if they agree, no longer participate with Israeli academic institutions (accepting offers to speak or teach at those institutions). Before, individuals might not have done that b/c it would have been an entirely personal or individual affair; now, knowing that others will be doing that, they might be more inclined. The only quibble I have with what Sarah said is that scholars would only refuse to accept such invitations voluntarily; I don’t think a voluntary refusal of association constitutes a violation of one’s freedom to disseminate one’s research and interact with students and scholars at other institutions.

Chris Josh, merely making a choice less eligible by raising its cost doesn’t impugn the freedom of someone to make it. (Leaving aside cases where cost of the action so threatens a person’s vital interest that only the heroic or unimaginative would persist in making it.) So if American academics are less willing to collaborate with Israeli institutions because they would face social disapproval, they are nevertheless free do so, but Israelis will predictably find themselves with fewer opportunities to work with Americans.

Josh I agree with Sarah Chinn. I think that if the boycott is meaningful, there will be some sense in which it limits academic freedom for Israeli scholars. Boycott supporters need to be prepared to affirmatively defend that.

Chris writes, “Merely making a choice less eligible by raising its cost doesn’t impugn the freedom of someone to make it.” I don’t agree.

Corey Josh, while I’m sympathetic to the argument that academic freedom requires a certain infrastructure to be maintained—see my comments above—the problem with your argument is that it implies that if a university doesn’t now have partnerships with Israeli institutions, that university is violating the academic freedom of Israeli scholars. (And by extension the academic freedom of scholars at any institution with which it does not have a partnership.) That can’t be true. Or, it requires you to say that any time a university shuts down a partnership with another institution—for whatever reason—it is violating the academic freedom of those who are engaged in the partnership. Again, that can’t be true. The point Chris was saying earlier is that even if we accept the infrastructure of academic freedom argument, we have to establish a threshold by which that freedom can be met. I don’t think we believe that maintaining partnerships is part of that threshold. Or do we? I’m uncertain on all this.

Chris Josh: “I don’t agree.” Well of course you don’t, you’re an economist, and this is one of the conceptual deformations that economists are prone to.

Josh Corey, how about this? Academic freedom requires that when making decisions about academic partnerships, one considers only scholarly criteria. One should not reject an otherwise preferred partner simply because of it its nationality. But this is just what the boycott requires.

Josh Chris, think it is a violation of freedom of speech if the government fines you for stating a political view. That judgment doesn’t depend on whether it’s a big fine or just a little one.

Corey I don’t see how that violates academic freedom, though. I don’t know how administrators make decisions about academic partnerships right now—I would imagine such things as reimbursement rates from governments and other economic considerations play a huge role—but I’m fairly certain that “only scholarly criteria” isn’t entirely accurate. Other factors inevitably come into play. Why is Yale setting up a partnership or whatever it is in Singapore as opposed to Iran? I’m sure it’s not only—or even to a large degree—because of scholarly criteria. But while we can object to those partnerships for all sorts of reasons, I don’t think violations of academic freedom would be among them. Except to point out that those societies may not be exactly hospitable to notions of academic freedom.

Chris That’s true Josh, but it is the law under which you are fined that restricts your freedom (the sovereign is commanding you not to state that view). The fine isn’t the price of violation. Hobbes is quite good on this IIRC.

Chris “Academic freedom requires that when making decisions about academic partnerships, one considers only scholarly criteria.” That’s nonsense! Academic freedom does not require me always to choose a better scholarly collaboration over one that would bring greater financial benefits to me or my institution.

Josh Corey, Chris: I was just putting out an idea. I’m not committed to it.

But again, I feel the specific issue of academic partnerships is kind of a red herring. If this movement is successful, it won’t stop there.

  •  •  •  •  •  •

That was basically the end of the discussion.

Let me make three final comments on issues that didn’t come up in our discussion.

First, most of the major universities in the United States are currently pursuing partnerships with academic institutions in Abu Dhabi, China, and other countries that are not exactly known as bastions of civil liberties. It’s hardly a surprise then that the presidents of these universities would come out against the ASA boycott.

Whatever their personal beliefs about the Israel-Palestine conflict—like other members of the American power elite, I suspect university presidents mouth the party line in public, while acknowledging the reality in private—they have a vested interest in no one raising human rights concerns when it comes to the American academy’s dealings with other countries.

Their ultimate concern has much less to do with Israel/Palestine than with the opportunities for expansion in China and other parts of East Asia. That doesn’t prove their arguments wrong, by any stretch, but it’s important to keep in mind as critics of BDS start racking up statements from them.

Second, the president of Indiana University has just announced that the university is withdrawing its institutional membership in the ASA because of the boycott. In the name of academic freedom. The statement makes no mention of whether the American Studies faculty were consulted on this decision, much less voted on it.

But the bottom line is this: Indiana University is so opposed to boycotts of academic institutions in Israel that it is going to boycott an academic institution in the United States.

I eagerly await the statements from the presidents of Yale, Harvard, and elsewhere, denouncing this decision. In the meantime, let’s look on the plus side: even the critics of the ASA decision have accepted that it is perfectly legitimate for academics and universities to engage in an academic boycott of institutions they find politically objectionable.

Finally, you’ll notice that nowhere in this discussion does the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars come up. That’s not a fault of the participants; it’s a function of how I raised the issue. Even so, it’s a mirror of how the larger discussion in this country has gone down.

Here we are, twisting ourselves into pretzels in order to figure out how exactly the academic freedom of an Israeli scholar is being violated, when it wouldn’t require a high school sophomore more than a moment’s reflection to see how it is routinely violated in Palestine. Have American academics ever put this much effort into worrying about the academic freedom of Palestinians?

If you’ve ever wondered at the bitterness of the Palestinian people, perhaps you could put yourselves into the shoes of a fellow academic or intellectual in the West Bank or Gaza, as they read these pronunciamentos from the Ivy League.

So much concern for the Israeli scholar, who—even with the boycott—will have tenure; a comfortable, well-paying job; an easy way to get there; access to all the academic journals; an office, a classroom, students, and the internet; the ear of the world.

And for the Palestinian scholar? Not a word.

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