The American Studies Association boycott resolution, academic freedom and the myth of the institutional boycott – David Hirsh


David Hirsh

David Hirsh

The shorter version published in Inside Higher Ed is available here.

The fuller version is available here on a PDF


1.     The ‘institutional boycott’ is likely to function as a political test in a hidden form.  It would offer exemption from the boycott to those Israelis who are willing or able to disavow their own institutions or funding bodies.

2.      An ‘institutional boycott’, even if it did not in fact impact against individuals, would still be a violation of the principles of academic freedom.

3.      In practice, the boycott campaign has been, and is likely to continue to be, a campaign for the exclusion of individual scholars who work in Israel, from the global academic community.  There is no general principle proposed for boycotting universities in states which have poor human rights records or which receive US aid or on the basis of any other stated criteria; there is only a boycott campaign against Israeli academia.

4.      There are also foreseeable likely impacts within the boycotting institutions, or within institutions in which the boycott campaign is strong, which would be distinct from the impact against Israeli academia.  The violations of academic freedom which constitute academic boycott are likely to impact in the boycotting as well as the boycotted institutions:

a.       Academics in boycotting institutions, in subjects which specifically relate to Jewish or Israeli topics, would be cut off from the mainstream of their disciplines, for example Jewish Studies, Israel Studies, some theology, some archaeology, some history; and there is a more generic danger that scholars would be cut off from important colleagues in any discipline.

b.      People who resist the characterisation of Israel as apartheid or as Nazi or as essentially racist are likely to be characterised by the boycott campaign as apologists for apartheid, Nazism, or racism and treated as such.  People who ‘break the boycott’ are likely to be treated as blacklegs or scabs.  Social sanctions against opponents of the boycott or ‘strikebreakers’ are likely to impact disproportionately against Jews.  It is likely that some Jews will feel themselves to be under particular pressure to state their position on the boycott; it is likely that Jews will be suspected of opposing the boycott if they do not explicitly support it.

What the ASA resolution says[1]

The ASA resolution re-affirms in a general and abstract way, its support for the principle of academic freedom.  It then says that it will ‘honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions’.  It goes on to offer guarantees that it will support the academic freedom of scholars who speak about Israel and who support the boycott; the implication here is that this refers to scholars who are opponents of Israel or of Israeli policy.  The resolution does not specifically mention the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars or students; nor does it mention protection for people to speak out against the boycott; nor does it say anything about the academic freedom of people to collaborate with Israeli colleagues.

What the ASA names ‘the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott’ is the PACBI ‘Call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’.[2]  The PACBI call explicitly says that the ‘vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics’, that is to say individuals, have contributed to, or have been ‘complicit in through their silence’, the Israeli human rights abuses which are the reasons given for boycott.  There would be no sense in making this claim if no sanctions against individuals were envisaged.  The PACBI guidelines state that ‘virtually all’ Israeli academic institutions are guilty in the same way.

These claims, about the collective guilt of Israeli intellectuals, academics and institutions are strongly contested empirically.  Opponents of the boycott argue that Israeli academia is pluralistic and diverse and contains many individuals and institutions which explicitly oppose anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and the military and the civilian occupations of the West Bank.  Israeli universities, they argue, are anti-racist spaces, where words are used rather than violence and where there is as much effort to eradicate discrimination against minorities as there is in other universities in democratic states.

These claims about the guilt of Israeli academia are also contested by those who hold that the principle of collective guilt is a violation of the norms of the global academic community and of natural justice.  Opponents of the boycott argue that academics and institutions should be judged by the content of their work and by the nature of their academic norms and practices, not by the state in which they are employed.

The PACBI guidelines go on to specify what is meant by the ‘institutional’ boycott.     ‘…[T]hese institutions, all their activities, and all the events they sponsor or support must be boycotted.’  ‘Events and projects involving individuals explicitly representing these complicit institutions should be boycotted’.  The guidelines then offer an exemption for some other classes of individual as follows: ‘Mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is therefore not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott.’

Summary of the ASA position[3]

  • ASA is for academic freedom in general and for the academic freedom of critics of Israel and for boycott advocates in particular
  • ASA holds (via its endorsement of PACBI) that the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics are guilty
  • ASA says (via its endorsement of PACBI) that virtually all Israeli academic institutions are guilty
  • ASA says (via its endorsement of PACBI) that individuals who are explicitly representing Israeli institutions should be boycotted
  • ASA says (via its endorsement of PACBI) that mere institutional affiliation at an Israeli university is not a sufficient condition for boycotting an individual
  • ASA does not mention any violations of academic freedom within Palestinian academic institutions other than those for which the Israeli state are responsible

The ‘institutional boycott’ functions as a political test by another name

Refusing to collaborate with academics on the basis of their nationality is, prima facie, a violation of the norms of academic freedom and of the principle of the universality of science.[4]  It seems to punish scholars not for something related to their work, nor for something that they have done wrong, but because of who they are.

In 2002 Mona Baker, an academic in the UK, fired two Israelis from the editorial boards of academic journals which she owned and edited.  Gideon Toury and Miriam Shlesinger are both well respected internationally as scholars and also as public opponents of Israeli human rights abuses, but nevertheless they were ‘boycotted.’[5]  In 2002 the boycott campaign in the UK supported Baker against those who were critical of her act of boycott, as implemented against individuals on the basis of their nationality.

The boycott campaign sought a more sophisticated formulation which did not appear to target individuals just for being Israeli.

In 2003, the formulation of the ‘institutional boycott’ was put into action with a resolution to the Association of University Teachers (AUT), an academic trade union in the UK, that members should ‘sever any academic links they may have with official Israeli institutions, including universities.’  Yet in the same year, Andrew Wilkie, an Oxford academic, rejected an Israeli who applied to do a PhD with him, giving as a reason that he had served in the Israeli armed forces.  The boycott campaign in the UK supported Andrew Wilkie against criticism which focused on his boycott of an individual who had no affiliation of any kind to an Israeli academic institution.  If the principle was accepted that anybody who had been in the Israeli armed forces was to be boycotted, then virtually every Israeli Jew would be thus targeted.

In 2005 the boycott campaign aimed short of a full boycott of Israel, calling instead for the AUT to boycott particular Israeli universities:  Haifa because it alleged the mistreatment of a professor, Ilan Pappe; Bar Ilan because of its links with Ariel College in the West Bank; and Hebrew University Jerusalem because it made the (contested) claim that HUJ was building a dorm block on occupied land.  This was an attempt to try to relate the boycott to particular violations rather than just aim it at Israel as a whole.

In 2006 the boycott campaign took a new tack, offering an exemption from the boycott to Israelis who could demonstrate their political cleanliness.   The other British academic union, NATFHE, called for a boycott of Israeli scholars who failed to ‘publicly dissociate themselves’ from ‘Israel’s apartheid policies.’  The political test opened the campaign up to a charge of McCarthyism: the implementation of a boycott on this basis would require some kind of machinery to be set up to judge who was allowed an exemption and who was not.[6] The assertion that Israel is ‘apartheid’ or implements ‘apartheid policies’ is emotionally charged and strongly contested.  While it is possible for such analogies to be employed carefully and legitimately, it is also possible for such analogies to function as statements of loyalty to the Palestinians.  They sometimes function as short cuts to the boycott conclusion, and as ways of demonizing Israel, Israelis, and those who are accused of speaking on their behalf.  In practice, the boycott campaign attempts to construct supporters of the boycott as friends of Palestine and opponents of the boycott as enemies of Palestine.

The political test was implemented at the South African Sociological Association conference on 28 August 2012.  An Israeli sociologist was required to disavow ‘Israeli apartheid’.  When he declined, the other participants in the panel left the room to give their papers elsewhere while his freedom of speech, it was claimed, was respected because he was allowed to give his paper to an empty room.  Boycott can be as much refusal to listen as it is a prohibition to speak.

But long before 2012, the official boycott campaign had moved on from the political test, changing  tactic again, calling  for an ‘institutional boycott’.

It is reasonable to assume that under the influence of the campaign for an ‘institutional boycott’, much boycotting of individuals goes on silently and privately.  It is also reasonable to assume that Israeli scholars may come to fear submitting papers to journals or conferences if they think they may be boycotted, explicitly or not; this would lead to a ‘self-boycott’ effect.  I offer an anecdotal example of the kinds of things which are likely to happen under the surface even of an ‘institutional boycott’.  An Israeli colleague contacted a UK academic in 2008, saying that he was in town and would like to meet for a coffee to discuss common research interests.  The Israeli was told that the British colleague would be happy to meet, but he would first have to disavow Israeli apartheid.

The PACBI call, endorsed by ASA, says that Israeli institutions are guilty, Israeli intellectuals are guilty, Israeli academics who explicitly represent their institutions should be boycotted, but an affiliation in itself, is not grounds for boycott.  The danger is that Israelis will be asked not to disavow Israel politically, but to disavow their university ‘institutionally’, as a pre-condition for recognition as legitimate members of the academic community.  Israelis may be told that they are welcome to submit an article to a journal or to attend a seminar or a conference as an individual: EG David Hirsh is acceptable, David Hirsh, Tel Aviv University is not.  Some Israelis will, as a matter of principle, refuse to appear only as an individual; others may be required by the institution which pays their salary, or by the institution which funds their research, not to disavow. 

An ‘institutional boycott’ is still a violation of the principles of academic freedom

Academic institutions themselves, in Israel as anywhere else, are fundamentally communities of scholars; they protect scholars, they make it possible for scholars to research and to teach, and they defend the academic freedom of scholars.  The premise of the ‘institutional boycott’ is that in Israel, universities are bad but scholars are (possibly, exceptionally) good.  Universities are organs of the state while individual scholars are employees who may (possibly, exceptionally) be not guilty of supporting Israeli ‘apartheid’ or some similar formulation. 

There are two fundamental elements which are contested by opponents of the boycott in the ‘institutional boycott’ rhetoric.  First, it is argued, academic institutions are a necessary part of the structure of academic freedom.  If there were no universities, scholars would band together and invent them, in order to create a framework within which they could function as professional researchers and teachers, and within which they could collectively defend their academic freedom.

Second, opponents of the boycott argue that Israeli academic institutions are not materially different from academic institutions in other free countries: they are not segregated by race, religion or gender, they have relative autonomy from the state, they defend academic freedom and freedom of criticism, not least against government and political pressure.  There are of course threats to academic freedom in Israel, as there are in the US and elsewhere, but the record of Israeli institutions is a good one in defending their scholars from political interference.  Neve Gordon, for example still has tenure at Ben Gurion University, in spite of calling for a boycott of his own institution; Ilan Pappe left Haifa voluntarily after having been protected by his institution even after travelling the world denouncing his institution and Israel in general as genocidal, Nazi and worthy of boycott.

Jon Pike argued that the very business of academia does not open itself up to a clear distinction between individuals and institutions.  For example the boycott campaign has proposed that while Israelis may submit papers as individuals, they would be boycotted if they submitted it from their institutions.  He points out that

…papers that ‘issue from Israeli institutions’ (BRICUP)[7] or are ‘submitted from Israeli institutions’ (SPSC)[8] are worried over, written by, formatted by, referenced by, checked by, posted off by individual Israeli academics. Scientists, theorists, and researchers do their thinking, write it up and send it off to journals. It seems to me that Israeli academics can’t plausibly be so different from the rest of us that they have discovered some wonderful way of writing papers without the intervention of a human, individual, writer.[9]

Boycotting academic institutions means refusing to collaborate with Israeli academics, at least under some circumstances if not others; and then we are likely to see the re-introduction of some form of ‘disavowal’ test.

In reality, the boycott campaign is an exclusion of individual Jewish scholars who work in Israel from the global academic community

In 2011 the University of Johannesburg decided, under pressure from the boycott campaign, to cut the institutional links it had with Ben Gurion University for the study of irrigation techniques in arid agriculture.  Logically the cutting of links should have meant the end of the research with the Israeli scholars being boycotted as explicit representatives of their university.  What in fact happened was that the boycotters had their public political victory and then the two universities quietly re-negotiated their links under the radar, with the knowledge of the boycott campaign, and the research into agriculture continued.  The boycott campaign portrayed this as an institutional boycott which didn’t harm scientific co-operation or Israeli individuals.  The risks are that such pragmatism (and hypocrisy) will not always be the outcome and that the official position of ‘cutting links’ will actually be implemented; in any case, the University of Johannesburg solution encourages a rhetoric of stigmatisation against Israeli academics, even if it quietly neglects to act on it.

Another risk is that the targeting of Israelis by the ‘institutional boycott’, or the targeting of the ones who are likely to refuse to disavow their institutional affiliations, is likely to impact disproportionately against Jews.  The risk here is that the institutional boycott has the potential to become, in its actual implementation, an exclusion of Jewish Israelis, although there will of course be exemption for some ‘good Jews’: anti-Zionist Jewish Israelis or Israeli Jewish supporters of the boycott campaign.  The result would be a policy which harms Israeli Jews more than anybody else.  Further, among scholars who insist on ‘breaking the institutional boycott’ or on arguing against it in America, Jews are likely to be disproportionately represented.  If there are consequences which follow these activities, which some boycotters will regard as blacklegging or scabbing, the consequences will impact most heavily on American Jewish academics.  Under any accepted practice of equal opportunities impact assessment, the policy of ‘institutional boycott’ would cross the red lines which would normally constitute warnings of institutional racism. 

There was a case in the UK courts in 2007 in which Birmingham University decided to close down its department of Social Work in order to save money.  It turned out that an unusually high number of the academics in this department were black.  There was a challenge to the closure on the basis that it would have a disproportionate impact on black acdemics.  The challenge was upheld by the UK employment tribunal.  The tribunal found that the university ought to have carried out an equal opportunities impact assessment prior to its proposed closure.  Nobody said that there was any racist intent or consciousness at Birmingham, only that there was a forseeable institutionally racist outcome.  Perhaps an institution which plans a boycott of Israel would have a similar responsibility to assess, in advance, whether there would be a disproportional impact against Jews, and whether there was any politically or morally valid justification for such a disproportionate impact.

The reality of the ‘institutional boycott’ is that somebody will be in charge of judging who should be boycotted and who should be exempt.  Even the official positions of ASA, Bricup and PACBI are confusing and contradictory; they say there will be no boycott of individuals but they nevertheless make claims which offer justification for a boycott of individuals.  But there is the added danger that some people implementing the boycott locally are likely not to have even the political sophistication of the official boycott campaign.  There is a risk that there will still be boycotts of individuals (Mona Baker), political tests (South African Sociological Association, NATFHE), breaking of scientific links (University of Johannesburg), and silent individual boycotts.

Even if nobody intends this, it is foreseeable that in practice the effects of a boycott may include exclusions, opprobrium, and stigma against Jewish Israeli academics who do not pass, or who refuse to submit to, one version or another of a test of their ideological purity; similar treatment may be visited upon those non-Israeli academics who insist on working with Israeli colleagues.  There is a clear risk that an ‘institutional boycott’, if actually implemented, would function as such a test. 

While the boycott campaign offers the precedent of the boycott against apartheid South Africa as justification, there is a long history of boycotts against Jews, including exclusions of Jews from universities.[10] The boycott campaign is likely to resonate in Jewish collective memory in relation to these specifically Jewish experiences.

PACBI is the ‘Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’.  What it hopes to achieve is stated in its name.  It hopes to institute an ‘academic boycott of Israel’.  The small print concerning the distinction between institutions and individuals is contradictory, unclear and small.   It is likely that some people will continue to understand the term ‘academic boycott of Israel’, in a common sense way, to mean a boycott of Israeli academics.

David Hirsh

Goldsmiths, University of London

Founding Editor of Engage, a network and website which opposes boycotts of Israel and antisemitism.


Relevant exerpts from the ASA resolution and the PACBI documents to which the resolution refers.

 The ASA resolution states:

Whereas the American Studies Association is dedicated to the right of students and scholars to pursue education and research without undue state interference, repression, and military violence, and in keeping with the spirit of its previous statements supports the right of students and scholars to intellectual freedom and to political dissent as citizens and scholars;

It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.  It is also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.[11]

The PACBI ‘Call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’ states the following (which the ASA resolves to endorse and honour):

Since Israeli academic institutions (mostly state controlled) and the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to maintaining, defending or otherwise justifying the above forms of oppression, or have been complicit in them through their silence…[12]

PACBI guidelines offer the following clarification (which the ASA implicitly resolves to endorse and honour):

…as a general overriding rule, it is important to stress that virtually all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights, whether through their silence, actual involvement in justifying, whitewashing or otherwise deliberately diverting attention from Israel’s violations of international law and human rights, or indeed through their direct collaboration with state agencies in the design and commission of these violations.  Accordingly, these institutions, all their activities, and all the events they sponsor or support must be boycotted.  Events and projects involving individuals explicitly representing these complicit institutions should be boycotted, by the same token.  Mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is therefore not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott.[13]

[1] From the ASA resolution and from the PACBI ‘call’ and ‘guidelines’ which it resolves to endorse and to honor.   See appendix for relevant exerpts from the ASA resolution and the PACBI documents to which the resolution refers.

[2] Civil Society is specified because there is no ‘call’ from the official institutions of the Palestinian Authority or from the Presidency or from the PLO.  President Mahmoud Abbas told South African journalists in December 2013: ‘No, we do not support the boycott of Israel’.

[3] From the ASA resolution and from the PACBI ‘call’ and ‘guidelines’ which it resolves to endorse and to honor.   See appendix for relevant exerpts from the ASA resolution and the PACBI documents to which the resolution refers.

[6] Steve Cohen argued that to require Jews to disavow, was itself reminiscent of previous campaigns to exclude Jews.

 [7] British Campaign for the Universities of Palestine

[8] Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign

[10] Picket lines were set up against Jews outside universities in Nazi Germany; Jewish Quotas were still in place in some elite American universities into the 1960s.

The shorter version published in Inside Higher Ed is available here.

The fuller version is available here on a PDF

11 Responses to “The American Studies Association boycott resolution, academic freedom and the myth of the institutional boycott – David Hirsh”

  1. josephinebacon Says:

    Thank you for mentioning Mona Baker and her St. Jerome publishing company. I am sorry to say that her publications are routinely used as teaching materials in university translation courses since they are among the few materials available to students of translation. Miriam Schlesinger has passed away. Mona and her husband Ken continue to flourish (like the green bay tree).

  2. Elliott A Green Says:

    There are several problems with the bds program besides issues of academic freedom.
    1– one pretext for the boycott demand is “Israel is an apartheid state.” This is a gross lie. It is most often made as a smear rather than a detailed substantiated argument. Since it is relevant, I say that Arabs live on my street in Jerusalem, attend the Hebrew University here, ride the buses and the tram line with Jews, eat in restaurants with Jews, go to health clinics with Jews, etc etc. This was hardly the apartheid of South Africa whence the term takes its name. Applying this term to Israel insults not only Israel but the victims of apartheid in South Africa.

    2– the proposal for a boycott of Israel generally was first made in a large public forum at the Durban I conclave in 2001. Subsequent research by historian Edwin Black has shown that many of the so-called civil society groups represented at Durban were financed by the Ford Foundation, which has a long record of Judeophobic policies. This does not necessarily have anything to do with Henry Ford himself who most definitely was a vicious Judeophobe or antisemite, if you like. But Ford’s Judeophobic actions should be known and discussed.

    3– the ASA cited an appeal for a boycott from “Palestinian civil society” as a justification for their own boycott call. Just what composes this “civil society” and who are the leading personages? Are they connected with the PLO/PA or Abbas or Erikat or Hanan Ashrawi? What is/are the source/s/ of funding for “Palestinian civil society”? Does this “civil society” conduct itself in a democratic way and does it share democratic and liberal values, such as respect for the human rights of Jews?

  3. soupyone Says:

    Please can I suggest “freezing” those pages, ie.

    Lest they are removed or “tidied” up. It is preferable to avoid linking directly to racist’s sites or giving them any traffic.

    Also the Wayback machine is handy.

  4. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    With the indulgence of the moderator, I would like to cross-post (from Simply Jews) the following. Hopefully, it is self-explanatory:

    Yet again, I am reduced to stunned silence and amazement by the astounding command of intellectual niceties by the BDS brainiacs. In The Algemeiner of 3 January, there is an article ( noting the election of NYU Social and Cultural Analysis Prof Lisa Duggan as head of the American Studies Association. She informed the NY Daily Post that she supports the boycott of Israel.

    Now here’s a thing: according to the article, New York State Senate Co-leader Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx) and Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) introduced legislation this week to withdraw state funding from any New York college that boycotts Israel, according to theNew York Daily News. This means that, should the bill become State law, then her College (it might go down to the Departmental level) risks losing funding, possibly quite a chunk of funding. Further ““Our state is under no obligation to support institutionalized discrimination — against Israel or anyone else,” Klein told the Daily News.”

    The real intellectual mastery of meaning comes here, when “NYU spokesman John Beckman, questioned its approach as an assault on freedoms. Beckman told the Daily News that while the university opposes the boycott, it views the Klein-Hikind bill as a potential attack on academic freedom, the newspaper reported.”

    Umm…now let me get this right: it’s an attack on my academic freedom when you stop me attacking someone else’s academic freedom. Not, note (before someone raises this point) stopping me attacking their ideas or arguments or conclusions, but stopping me stopping them from having any academic freedom in the first place is an attack on my academic freedom. [Well, I have argued before that an attack on academic freedom anywhere is an attack on it everywhere. As this demonstrates.]

    Surely, the only possible response is either huh?! or the Monty Pythonesque “my brain hurts”. This threat to withdraw funding is exactly what I have been saying faces the UK’s UCU should it get its heart’s desire and get an active boycott of Israeli universities.

  5. Bill Says:

    There remains the point that no administrator can effectively make someone collaborate with Israelis or anyone else. They can offer and even “facilitate” but they can’t make us put down what we’re doing and pick up their hobby horses except in the most extreme circumstances those scenarios won’t be in the spectrum of having to collaborate with Israelis (we’re talking about crisis management scenarios here). That’s part of academic freedom and no one can deny that. The University CAN enforce EEOC law banning religious and national-origin discrimination, and the ASA has no authority to override these protocols. That’s no more covered by academic freedom anymore than is asking coeds for “favors.”

    If a member of the Discovery Institute wants to collaborate with me to prove that the world is 6000 years old or if I am asked to answer positively to those emails I get that insist that the earth is stationary in the universe (no really!), I can say no in a number of ways that won’t place me in the discrimination spectrum. (Saying they’re flat out wrong is just the tip if my riposte.) Same goes for a faculty member opposing the occupation. Heck, you can even say “Sorry, I must politely decline to collaborate with you as I am in disagreement with your government policies.” You don’t even have to add a disclaimer that it’s not about being an Israeli qua Israeli or Jewish qua Jewish since that can’t come into it (unless the faculty member is indeed an anti-Semite). And of course we can both be brutally honest and say that any fruit of the collaboration won’t be of good quality because we’re “just not that into it.”

    HOWEVER, if a fundamentalist christian student or faculty applicant applies to my program, I cannot “screen” them out because I’m a humanist and we “just won’t get along.” I cannot even *ask* them about those things. The law on that is clear and merciless. Nor can a faculty member opposed to Israeli policy do the same, and neither of us can “retaliate” procedurally or functionally (via obstruction, grievance procedures, evaluations, tenure and promotion) against someone who works with one.

    At best this is childish self-validating protest theatre with ASA members saying they won’t do what they didn’t want to do in the first place and what no one can make them do it anyway. At worst they are playing chicken with a brick wall and that brick wall isn’t even in the Presidents or Provosts office, it’s in one belonging to that mean lady from Human Resources who won’t even budge with your flex benefits.

    • harry hellenbrand Says:

      What role, if any, should universities play in political disputes? When the American Studies Association passed a resolution urging American universities to boycott Israeli universities, the question arose again.
      I say “again,” because just months before, Brooklyn College scheduled a panel on the purpose and justification for such a boycott. A furor erupted. And a year before that, faculty and community members asked the administration at Cal State Northridge to remove a professor’s web page that advocated for the boycott. That controversy unfolded shortly after some faculty and administrators in the Cal State system petitioned the Chancellor not to restart the study abroad program in Israel until a similar program was opened in the Arab/Islamic World. The controversies were intense.
      How do we parse what is advisable from what is permissible? And what are the grounds for doing so? There are a few bright lines, but even they dim in the fog of verbal war. Professors must not electioneer for a specific candidate or measure while they teach. But advocacy for a cause is permissible, if the topic is appropriate to the course. From an administrative point of view, none of this is advisable. The public regularly confounds what a professor says with what a university upholds.
      Of course, the line between electioneering and advocacy is not always clear. Occasionally, it is hard to see where the classroom ends, and the public forum begins. When in doubt, we should extend the protection of academic freedom to the speech act.
      Violations of privacy and state security are not permissible. In some states professors still must sign loyalty oaths before hiring. But such violations can be advisable. One can imagine situations when perceptions of a greater good will drive a person to wrestle with disclosure under “free inquiry” and pursuit of truth implicit in academic freedom. Advisability under this standard does not immunize a person from sanctions under legal standards. There is nothing new in this tragic collision between obligations to the state and higher goods.
      Hate speech that threatens or demeans the “other” because of race, ethnicity, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, etc., is not permissible on many campuses and certainly not advisable as means to promote ideas and increase understanding. Campuses want to encourage civility; indeed, our national discourse could use a dose of that.
      But as quite a few universities have learned, a specific standard often is not legally enforceable when the harm is not tangible. A speech code tries to regulate speech. Academic freedom, though, implies that speech, as a dialogic activity, is self-regulating and self-correcting. Political invective, which can border on hate speech, is permissible. It has an appropriate role in forums that are declamatory. It is not an advisable tactic in settings, such as most classrooms and academic lectures, where deliberation—tempered argument—is the norm.
      Academic freedom undergirds these standards. In turn, it is protected by them. It shields individuals in the university and the university itself from censorship of and reprisals for critical speech, from either inside or outside its walls. There is no requirement that academic speech should give equal time to all sides in a controversy or that it be temperate. There is, instead, the expectation of accuracy. Of course, accuracy is contingent on perspective, selectiveness, sources, instruments, etc.
      Academic freedom for the university as an institution differs from academic freedom for the individual in the university. In large part, society can assume—but not assure—that the investigator is truthful because the university is, in theory, agnostic. It does not have a point of view. It does not mandate the faculty and students’ opinions and findings. Instead, it enables the points of view of others. So, if an investigator’s statement is challengeable, others can respond, without institutional prejudice.
      Now, some people are in the habit of speaking in the stead of the university. Legal and fiduciary powers are invested in certain positions. In the exchange of ideas, though, universities do not speak. Unless specifically authorized by vote or enshrined document, a campus president can speak for himself/ herself and administration, but neither the faculty nor students.
      I think of the role of the university thusly. The university can fund the labs, if the faculty so decides; it does not choose the experiments and equipment. It resources the libraries; it does not shape the collection. It supports the faculty; it does not dictate their research, determine the content of their courses, and direct their associations.
      That is not to say, of course, that faculty committees, accrediting bodies, and statutes do not have a say. They in particular, but not the university in general, dictate that certain subjects be taught. But even they cannot abrogate a professor’s academic freedom to dissent from conventional wisdom, while discharging responsibility.
      Obviously, a deconstructionist can have a field day with the claim to agnosticism. Universities all are entwined with the state and power, even as the faculty and students are critical of both. But we must suspend belief in complete disbelief to be functional.
      In general, contentious speech should generate more speech, under the protection of academic freedom. It is inevitable that partisans, each believing to have exclusive possession of the truth, will discredit each other’s methods and conclusions. It is unfortunate when such discrediting escalates to delegitimizing one’s another’s speech, usually by claiming that a bright line has been crossed. And it can be disastrous when delegitimizing explodes into eradicating the speech exchange itself. The dialogue is indicted as subversive of beliefs that trump academic freedom.
      These guidelines can illumine behaviors about the boycott and related issues. The petition to continue the suspension of the Israel study abroad program until a new condition—a program in the Islamic world—was met, was a political request to the Chancellor. I signed it. But he was right institutionally both in denying the request and reasoning why. Once safety on the ground was assured, what mattered was the integrity of the academic experience at the host institution, as provided by the faculty and staff. Balance by programs elsewhere was not necessary for academic integrity.
      The posting of pro-boycott material on a faculty/student/staff web page is permissible advocacy. In a university community, whatever one’s assigned role, one can exchange ideas freely in discussions and forums, actual and virtual. The faculty page is distinguishable from a page on which the university, as an administrative entity, posts information. Faculty pages implicitly address a generalized audience, not just particular ones for classes. And the faculty page does not preclude contrary postings, although they are not required for balance. However, it is not advisable to include such material in a classroom, the subject of which is completely unrelated to the topic.
      While academic decorum calls for tempered speech (including postings), it is not mandated. Expression can have rhetorical and emotional dimensions. Nonetheless, “the special position” of faculty imposes “special responsibilities” that they should follow, even if they are not required to (AAUP Statement). They should disambiguate their views from the university. They should speak with restraint and respect. After all, they will be viewed as representatives of both the university and the professoriate.
      It is difficult to imagine topics that should be exempted from critical commentary. Certainly, nation-states that are sectarian and/or ethnocentric by constitution are not immune, simply because, in the American context, religion and ethnicity are protected categories. In the American context, these categories are not attributes of nationhood, a political designation. Rather, the test is whether the critical language stays political.
      Therefore, the claim that any critical discussion of Israel must be prevented because it is inherently anti-Semitic is not supportable in a university. Neither is the claim that the immediate community or society at large objects to such a discussion. Such claims, taken by opponents of the panel on boycott at Brooklyn College, infringe on academic freedom. They short-circuit serial speech acts. Serial speech acts are the most reliable means of gaining greater accuracy. These claims embargo information that can clarify what really is in dispute.
      Let me explain. I have read the American Studies Association resolution and FAQs, as well as the statements by the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement and by the Palestinians for the Academic Boycott of Israel. They cite compelling cases that world bodies have made. Israel has violated international norms and law—setting aside context and motive. A boycott assumes that a threshold has been passed. Consequently, the path must be reversed. Only then will the boycott end. Behind the assumption of threshold is another assumption, with which few people would disagree. Racism is intolerable; it should be grievable. A boycott is a non-violent tool for settling specific grievances. Forums can explain how these assumptions play out.
      For instance, supporters of the boycott make clear that the “Occupation” crossed a bright line; it must be reversed. But which occupation is intended? The settlements? The lands seized in the ’67 war? The territory consolidated and expanded after the War for Independence? The “Zionist” transplantation itself? International agencies, tribunals, and law settle on the ’67 seizures as the “Occupation”. But the resolutions and supporting documents are, pardon the expression, all over the map. This state of affairs makes it difficult to determine what to support or oppose. Indeed, the ASA admits that it “hard to know” what an Israeli institution or Israel itself would have to do or say to comply.
      The American Studies Association channels the sentiments of many Americans when it affirms its abhorrence of “all forms of racism” and its solidarity with “aggrieved peoples’’ everywhere. This platform justifies the Association’s unconditional support for the boycott. However, at what point in history did the Jewish state graduate from the unenviable status of being hated racially and religiously and, thus, being aggrieved? If it has not so graduated or if it indeed has graduated but part of its current predicament is attributable to past hate for it, then how can the boycott be supported unconditionally? Panels and forums can deliberate topics like these.
      The boycott is viscerally satisfying. One wants desperately to do something. But this something is logically at odds with academic freedom. It assumes that the interdiction of dialogue will advance dialogue—and hence accuracy and equity. It is, ironically, a fitting intervention in a Semitic dispute. It counsels an eye for an eye. Israel deprives Palestinian students and scholars of academic freedom, the boycott argues. It is just, therefore, to deprive Israeli institutions of academic freedom.
      With good intentions, the boycott tries to get around this dilemma of denying academic freedom to individuals. The effort fails, I believe. The boycott jimmies a distinction between Israeli scholars and their institutions, and between Israelis as ambassadors or representatives of their institutions and Israelis as individuals. The argument, the boycott claims, is with the institutions. They are entwined with the state security apparatus and the military industrial complex. According to the boycott, they also have never protested, as institutions, on behalf of the Palestinian people.
      But the boycott also circles back to claim justification because of the objectionable political ideas of “the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics.” Action on these grounds poses a formidable threat to academic freedom.
      As I have said, universities do not have opinions; people do. It is hard to see how a “ban on any form of academic or cultural cooperation” with Israeli institutions would not devolve into a test of the views and associations of individual scholars. In fact, the ASA acknowledges that there is ambiguity in these distinctions between the personae of individuals and the supposed persona of the university.
      Members will view these distinctions between roles as “guidelines.” They will call on their “individual convictions” for interpretations that justify actions. A guideline need not be a formal test. It suggests, at the least, the variable application of a broad standard to varying instances of behavior.
      The boycott’s warrant is too broad. The boycott calls for the end of the Occupation without specifics about which borders. It calls for guidelines to fence off institutions, but concedes that the guidelines will vary with individual convictions. The framers probably needed the ambiguity to assemble a coalition. Ambiguity will work the other way, too. It will alienate into alignment particular points of view that suspect that the boycott targets them.
      All this has troubling implications for the cohesion of the professoriate and the general welfare:
      • Inadvertently, they imperil humanitarian and medical research partnerships.
      • They interfere with the extra-mural associations and activities of faculty. The AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom expressly discourages such action.
      • Faculty, it seems to me, can be required to make clear how they are not agents of their universities. Unless, of course, the whole deal is a charade. I do not think that it is.
      • Such avowals inevitably will put them at odds with other member of their universities.
      • The broad ban on funding joint projects with (members of) Israeli universities erodes the support and security that makes much research possible.
      • It can impose a prohibitive tax on Israeli academics who want to cooperate internationally but who do not want to denounce colleagues or renounce associations. They can be part of the international profession and exchange of ideas, if they can afford to pay their own way.
      • It can impose an undue burden on junior faculty with similar loyalties. They often lack the resources to assume, for example, travel expenses. And justifiably, they fear alienating peers who judge their accomplishments. They can irritate boycotting colleagues, mainly in the international community, by refusing to renounce Israeli universities. Or, they can aggravate opponents of the boycott, some of whom likely will be senior faculty and administrators in their home universities, by disassociating themselves from these institutions.
      Of course, such setbacks seem trivial against the trauma of the larger conflict. Frustration with the impasse between Israel and Palestine is understandable. Disappointment and even anger with Israeli policies are understandable, too. These reactions call for a response. But an academic boycott that disrupts academic freedom and thereby endangers academic discovery is not a helpful response.
      However, the invitation to consider a boycott can be a useful device. It moves reflection to a precipice of action. We think before deciding to leap or step down. Is a boycott appropriate? Are universities appropriate targets? Does it make sense to attribute a persona to a university? Can we distinguish such a persona from persons? Is there academic rigor, given that we are within academic organizations, to the review of evidence? What relations obtain between academic freedom and human rights?
      Let us grant that many Palestinians have suffered reprisal and deprivation. And let us assume that many people want that wound to heal. The question is then whether infringing academic freedom is an effective way of leveraging political freedom. At an isolated moment in time, the academic freedom of a few seems to weigh less than the political freedom of the many. But put these values in motion over time; the perception changes. Not exchanging will inspire more positive change than exchanging, the boycott assumes. Insecurity will promote accuracy and equity more readily than security.
      However, a guiding principle of the academic profession is that security from reprisal and deprivation is a pre-condition for knowledgeable peers to advance idea that criticize other ideas, on the way to ever greater clarity and accuracy. We are less likely to achieve clarity and justice by suspending academic freedom selectively than by observing it universally.

      • Richard Gold Says:

        “Therefore, the claim that any critical discussion of Israel must be prevented because it is inherently anti-Semitic is not supportable in a university.”

        But nobody serious makes this claim. Nobody claims that any critical discussion of Israel is inherently antisemitic.

        • Brian Goldfarb Says:

          It seems to me that what the Harry Hellenbrand argument boils down (despite the disclaimers in the last section) is that the call for a boycott (and thus the expectation that one will happen, else why bother) on Israeli and only Israeli universities is allowable. Even if this particular one (the ASA’s) is somehow flawed.

          Of course it is allowable. But (and this where, time and again the demands for a boycott break down) academics are supposed to present arguments and evidence for whatever position they adopt. Too often they don’t. It would never occur to them (I hope) to order their students to believe something in their academic area of expertise just because they are the professor (professing the topic) and students must believe. I would never, in nearly 4 decades of teaching at degree level, have dared to present a position without what I believed was compelling evidence, even if others might dispute this.

          What is missing is (always, it seems to me, but I’m willing to enter a dialogue on this) this evidence pointing to Israel as a serial breacher of others (outside the borders, however defined, of Israel) human rights. Assertions there are in plenty, claims of Israel being an apartheid state abound, statements alleging that Gaza is worse than (or at least like) the Warsaw Ghetto, that genocide is taken place on the West Bank. However, whenever I request evidence, my interlocutor goes strangely silent, or merely repeats their earlier claims, possibly more stridently. What they don’t do is produce evidence as understood in the academic sense.

          If they are so convinced of the rightness (in the literal sense of this is the truth) of their position, where is the evidence on which they reach this conclusion?

          Lack of such evidence leads me and those like me to conclude, however unjustly, that there is no such evidence, and thus their position is purely an ideological one.

          Harry Hellenbrand, I am interested in your response to these thoughts, but, please, at lesser length: this is a blog, not an academic journal.

        • harry hellenbrand Says:

          I think the points that have been made are excellent, so I have little to add, except drawing from actual encounters. Of course, I agree that it should be unnecessary to argue with people who contend, for the reasons that I mention, that Israel should not be criticized at all. But here, in the asylum otherwise known as California, I have had to respond to that exactly several times. And it is not a winning posture to say to those people or organizations, “You are idiots.”

          As to the second point, I have already been asked, “Well, if you oppose the boycott, why do you allow people to speak in favor it?” I think that, even if we find a proposition wrong-headed, we should not preempt it being said. Of course, you are right. That leaves the door open. And that, I think, is the whole point.

        • Brian Goldfarb Says:

          Harry, you have my sympathy re California! London hasn’t, yet, become an asylum, although there are those who might just disagree…

          Of course we must keep the dialogue open on a collective level. What we do as individuals (I am old enough to have boycotted South African goods from the time of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 until Mandela was released from prison, but never demanded that anyone else did the same) by no means translates to the mass level. Further, we need to keep the dialogue open in order to keep demanding the evidence for the position they adopt from the boycotters.

          I also agree that it is counter-productive to label the boycotters and those like them as idiots, tempting though it is. I do notice that, on unmoderated sites, that continued requests for the evidence they are not producing does lead, in the end, to silence from these people, especially if we have evidence to counter them. (It might be different on moderated sites, as the moderators might get tired of the same comments being repeated and just not let them through).

          Anyway, welcome to the world that is Engage.

  6. Bill Says:

    And alas, I am very sorry to say that the lawyers are chiming in (link below) and are giving guidance that includes the “nuclear option” of screening critical committee appointments (including “the big one” — tenure/promotion) based on their experience in the non-academic “civilian” sector. While arguably best practices in the civilian sector, in academia this is the equivalent of paring one set of witchsmellers (the BDS advocates sniffing out people who may be working or planning to work with Israelis) with a counter set of witchsmellers (those sniffing out ASA members). And the law is with the latter should the ASA begin acting out in their intentions.

    No one should have to wonder if the person in the office down the hall or in the next building is scrutinizing the politics of their job either as an employee who “might” be collaborating with an Israeli or someone sniffing their vitae for the “wrong” membership even though they may personally oppose the BDS movement.

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