Opposing the Opposition to the Boycott

Dear Editor,

We have written to express our profound disagreement with the Chancellor’s and Provost’s published opposition to the American Studies Association’s endorsement of the boycotting of Israeli universities as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign for justice in Palestine.

We acknowledge that, in comparison with some of the rhetoric coming from college leaders on this issue, their statement is measured and moderate. It is not, for example, routine to see even a mention of the Palestinians by critics of ASA’s resolution. We also agree that the principle of academic freedom should, as they say, “guarantee free access to students and faculty at all Israeli and Palestinian universities.” And we agree too that violations of academic freedom should be protested wherever and whenever they occur; indeed, faculty at some universities have recently called into question their institutional affiliations with other countries (Wellesley has debated its relation to China; others are under pressure to explain their satellites in the Gulf). But in its occupation of Palestinian lands, Israel not only violates academic freedom in higher education; it also erodes the functioning of the entire educational system in the occupied territories. Unlike other countries that may be cited for similar violations, Israel receives massive subsidy from the U.S. government and private institutions alike.

While Jewish-Israeli students and academics in Israeli institutions enjoy free access to and from most places and full rights deemed normative by democracies, comparable opportunities do not exist for Palestinians in the occupied territories or even for many Palestinian citizens of Israel. Their academic freedom, like their basic legal and economic rights, is often compromised by the Israeli state and its security apparatus. For a compelling account of the indignities and injustices governing the daily lives of the Palestinians, Saree Makdisi (UCLA’s) book Palestine Inside Out may be recommended.

Thus it seems to some of us that, paradoxically, a commitment to academic freedom for all in fact demands support of the boycott, not its condemnation.

Entry to Israel itself is difficult for various categories of people, like the student of non-Jewish Middle-Eastern descent who applied to UCD’s summer abroad program some time ago. Her acceptance required the program director to make a cap-in-hand visit to the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, which surely violates all our principles of non-discrimination in the pursuit of normal academic activities. Movement in and out of the occupied territories (which students on the program were not permitted to enter at all) is even more heavily policed. Stories of refused entry and massively inhibiting border protocols are legion, and have been well documented, including by the U.S. State Department. Recent published statements by Professors Robin Kelley (UCLA) and Judith Butler (UCB) offer eloquent evidence of the current situation leading both foreigners and Israeli supporters of the boycott to speak out. Butler points out that not one Israeli university has expressed opposition to these protocols; those of us who support the boycott hope that we can stimulate worldwide awareness and also support those courageous Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and non-Jews, who are calling for an international response.

The boycott is not aimed at individuals, and does not seek restrictions on anyone’s movement in and out of Israel, although it cannot be denied that some individuals might be impacted. Nor does it hold individuals responsible for their governments; the ASA resolution specifically “supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine.” Instead, the boycott is aimed only at Israeli institutions and at other institutions that engage in collaboration with them. Universities should perhaps in the best of all worlds be regarded differently, but the complex web of military industry and other contracts fully implicates universities in activities from which they often otherwise seek to distance themselves. To pretend otherwise is simply to ignore the facts. Many U.S. opinion makers once vigorously opposed the boycott campaign directed at South African apartheid, but it would now be hard to find anyone who would publicly deny that the new South Africa is a better place than the old one.

It is standard rhetoric to defend academic freedom, much harder to agree about just what that is, and where its limits lie. If universities should not take political positions, as is often argued and as our Chancellor and Provost assert in their press release, then it behooves those who speak for them to be very sure about what does and does not constitute a political position. Academic freedom, some of us believe, is a highly political issue, especially in the context of Palestine-Israel. Their press release, while it does not explicitly claim to speak for the University, does not disavow the implication that it does so. The University subsists in its faculty and students (among others) and not only in its chief administrators. Among these groups are some who approve of the ASA resolution and others who, whether or not they are supporters of the boycott or the resolution, might disagree with (and even find coercive) their public denunciation of it. Such disagreement is, after all, one palpable attribute of academic freedom.

As we write, denunciations are appearing of the recent Modern Language Association’s resolution about the “right to enter” and additionally of the mere holding of a panel discussing the academic boycott. College leaders have been among those reproducing the standard objections to anyone critical (or potentially critical, in this case) of the contemporary Israeli state and its continuing expansion of its illegal settlements in the occupied territories. More will surely climb on the bandwagon. We very much hope that our Chancellor and Provost will not be among them. Spurred by denunciations of the ASA resolution and other initiatives, a wave of threats by self-described “pro-Israel” partisans, including a number of politicians, seeks to pressure faculty to dissociate from ASA, to defund it, and even to instigate legal action. These are indeed dangerous attacks on academic freedom, not to mention basic freedom of speech, and we call on our chief administrators to denounce them.

Yours Sincerely,

David Simpson, Distinguished Professor, English

Noha Radwan, Associate Professor, Comparative Literature

Gregory Dobbins, Associate Professor, English

Beth Freeman, Professor, English

Parama Roy, Professor, English

Baki Tezcan, Associate Professor, History

Joshua Clover, Professor, English

Hsuan Hsu, Associate Professor, English

Nathan Brown, Assistant Professor, English

Donald Donham, Professor, Anthropology

Flagg Miller, Associate Professor, Religious Studies

Omnia El Shakry, Associate Professor, History

Elizabeth Miller, Associate Professor, English

Gina Bloom, Associate Professor, English

Evan Watkins, Professor, English

Julia Simon, Professor, French

Sunaina Maira, Professor, Asian American Studies

Jocelyn Sharlet, Associate Professor, Comparative Literature

Susette Min, Associate Professor, Asian American Studies

Jeff Fort, Associate Professor, French

Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, Associate Professor, Asian American Studies

Richard Kim, Associate Professor, Asian American Studies

Kathleen Frederickson, Assistant Professor, English

Neil Larsen, Professor, Comparative Literature

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