Does the ASA Boycott Violate Academic Freedom? A Roundtable

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.

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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.

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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.


  1. Michael Allan Slaughter December 23, 2013 at 11:17 pm | #

    There is no such “University of Indiana.” The university in this benighted Klandom is “Indiana University.”

    • Corey Robin December 23, 2013 at 11:18 pm | #

      I know, I fixed it!

  2. BillR December 24, 2013 at 1:54 am | #

    As Palestinian scholars are hardly ever heard from in mainstream media, here is a recent talk by a Palestinian on the history of Zionist public discourse:

    As someone who almost lost his position at Columbia due to a 3 year long campaign of villification, it’s interesting how little he credits efforts of pro-Israel groups to keep academic debate under lids on US campuses:

  3. Escott December 24, 2013 at 11:14 am | #

    If ASA boycott is a protest against Israel’s academic communities’s suppression of Palestinian academic’s voice, it’s a weak alternative to convincing debate, which is the essence of academics.
    Instead, ASA should up their game, rather than retreating into the cloistered walls of their own community. A good fighter knows his weakness and adjusts.

    • Malcolm Schosha December 24, 2013 at 12:20 pm | #

      Corey, you wrote: “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…”

      This may not be incorrect. There are US economic, and arms, embargoes against Cuba, Iran, and North Korea, but as far as I know there is no academic boycott against any country. Both under Bush and Obama there have been instances of visas denied to Cuban scholars, and that caused considerable protest from Latin American Studies Association (LASA). According the NGO, Washington Office on Latin America:
      “…these visa denials undermine the administration’s policy of promoting academic exchange with Cuba, which has been one of the most positive and successful changes in U.S. policy towards Cuba in recent years. These exchanges have helped promote the free flow of ideas, information, and dialogue and have helped feed the desire for greater openness in Cuba. The visa denials are damaging to U.S.-Cuban relations, they are harmful to the interests of the United States, and they hurt Cubans who are supporting increased engagement with the United States. WOLA condemns the denial of visas to Cuban academics in the strongest terms.”

      Based on the wording used, it seems likely that WOLA would not be pleased with the ASA action against Israel. But who knows, one should never underestimate the ability of people to preform intellectual contortions to justify doing something they want to do, if there is a reason that makes sense or not.

  4. BillR December 24, 2013 at 11:57 pm | #

    Nelson Mandela at City College of New York refusing to be drawn into controvery over a close ally of white supremacist South Africa that 20 years after Apartheid ended is still threatened by it’s location in “a predominantly hostile world inhabited by dark peoples.”

  5. Elisabeth December 25, 2013 at 11:17 am | #

    I appreciate the open and honest discourse around this. Personally I feel that the ASA is doing a great disservice, as is the UN, in only condemning Israel and refusing to tackle the openly prejudice actions that Arab countries and universities continue to practice. Do Arab universities even admit Jews? Wait….. the Arab countries killed or expelled them all.

    • BillR December 25, 2013 at 5:44 pm | #

      Elisabeth, “intellectual self-defense” is difficult given that voices like the following are never given an airing in mainstream media, but listening to them is a start to educating oneself and others:

      Interview of Iraqi born Israeli author Naeim Giladi.

      Account of events that led to Iraqi Jews abandoning their homeland of more than 2,000 years.

      Reflections on “Arab Jewish” identity by CUNY Professor Ella Shohat.

  6. Malcolm Schosha December 26, 2013 at 7:57 am | #

    @ BillR. It is a characteristic of BDS supporters, such as you, to support their negative beliefs about Zionism and Israel by citing other BDS supporters, such as Naeim Giladi and Tony Greenstein. Of course, the arguments presented are short on rationality, and long on accusations unsupported by facts.

  7. BillR December 26, 2013 at 2:49 pm | #

    Just came across an interesting “exchange” at the Nation about Eric Alterman’s “hatchet job” on Max Blumenthal’s exposé of Israeli hasbara (propaganda). No respite from what Blumenthal calls the ‘”hasbara troll,” an often faceless, shrill and relentless nuisance deployed on Twitter and Facebook to harass public figures who express skepticism about official Israeli policy or sympathy for the Palestinians’ at this blog either.

    • BillR December 26, 2013 at 2:51 pm | #
    • Malcolm Schosha December 26, 2013 at 4:10 pm | #

      @ BillR. “Hasbara” is the Hebrew word that means ‘explaining’ and is used also as is the term for ‘public relations Of course it can be called “propaganda” (which is the Italian word used for all advertising) too. By whatever name, it is what nations, and other groups, do to explain their point of view….including of course the Palestinians and their apologists.

      As for harassment, I have seen plenty of that on both sides of the I/P conflict. The usual point of view of the involved individuals is: ‘If you harass me it is bad, but if I harass you it is good’.


      “…man, proud man,
      Drest in a little brief authority,
      Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
      His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
      Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
      As make the angels weep…”
      Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, act 2, sc. 2

  8. Erstwhile Anthropologist December 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm | #
    • BillR December 28, 2013 at 11:37 am | #

      Yes, as the great feminist Eve Ensler put it:

      Israelis have the power, and the suffering of the powerful is different than the suffering of the weak.

      • Malcolm Schosha December 29, 2013 at 1:42 pm | #

        “…the suffering of the powerful is different than the suffering of the weak.”

        BS. She is rich and famous, and she part of the arts power structure. She was born rich, and is still rich. But I very much doubt that she suffers differently than “the weak”. Actually, Tolstoy thought the wealthy and powerful were in some ways more disadvantage than the poor and weak, particularly the wealthy women of his time. He gave his own wealth away.

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