Israel boycotts: an assault on the university

In order to puff up their own sense of self-importance, anti-Israel academics are undermining their own institutions.

Dennis Hayes

Topics USA

Ninety-two universities have rejected a call by the American Studies Association (ASA) – the ‘largest and oldest association’ in the US ‘devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history’ – for an academic boycott of Israel. Four institutions have gone further and cut their ties with the ASA.

Many of the comments made by university presidents in rejecting the call for an academic boycott are exemplary statements about the nature of the university and of academic freedom. For example, L Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said: ‘The concept of an academic boycott is antithetical to MIT values. It fundamentally violates the principles of academic freedom that are central to the excellence of MIT and American higher education.’ All the condemnations of the academic boycott make the basic point that academic freedom is not divisible. It can’t mean academic freedom for thee, but not for me.

There seems to be some understanding among academic leaders in the US that academic freedom demands that we accept that the university is a unique place where truth is pursued without fear or favour. It is not merely a business producing widgets, but a particular institution entirely defined by its commitment to academic freedom. If a university lessens its commitment to academic freedom, it is in effect abandoning its own role – it will have ceased to be a university.

Of the 1,252 members of the ASA that voted in a poll, the results of which were announced on 16 December 2013, 66.05 per cent endorsed the resolution, which had been unanimously passed by its national executive on 4 December, calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions; 30.5 per cent of ASA voters rejected the motion; 3.43 per cent abstained. Following a vague set of political preambles about the state of Israel and the plight of Palestinian academics, the core of the ASA resolution is this: ‘It is resolved that the American Studies Association (ASA) endorses and will honour the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.’

In a desperate attempt to save face, defenders of the academic boycott and the ASA say that it does not apply to individuals but only to formal institutional links. But this is not what the resolution says. The resolution’s meaning is open to interpretation and the claim that it only applies to institutions is a sleight of hand that merely reveals its supporters’ lack of understanding of what a university is. Breaking formal links or refusing new formal ties with universities will obviously affect individual academics; but such measures will also undermine all universities, for these institutions can only be so defined if they are committed to academic freedom. Like many boycotters in the UK and elsewhere, the ASA’s supporters are blindly or willingly happy to destroy academia to improve their own political self-esteem.

One of the many pro-Israeli critics of the decision has rightly pointed out the therapeutic politics of the left in the academy. These left-leaning academics cannot build any real solidarity movement for Palestinian academics or communicate with ordinary people. As a result, they are forced to create and live in a feelgood fantasy world where their proposals make them believe they are political actors on the international stage. They are successful from time to time with academic-boycott motions because of the tactic of influencing small societies or unions that are detached from their memberships.

What the proponents of academic boycotts fail to see is the logical consequence of any such call. Academic freedom is an absolute. It is not a privilege of individual academic employees; it defines the academy. The essence of any call for an academic boycott is that academic freedom is not absolute. The logical consequence that follows for those who call for any individual or institutional restriction of academic freedom is that they lose the right to defend their own interests and those of any oppressed scholar in the name of ‘academic freedom’. Others can defend academics and their scholarship in the name of academic freedom, but these boycotters cannot. They may not care, as their politics have blinded them to the unique significance of academic freedom. But the immediate result of the ASA’s call for an academic boycott is that the 5,000 members of that organisation and any others who support an academic boycott have thrown away their own academic freedom.

The ASA has chosen, as is its right, to cease to be an academic association, and its members have ceased to be academics. The backlash against them is a sign of hope for academic freedom in 2014. At least we can thank the boycotters for that.

Dennis Hayes is the director of the campaign group Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF).

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Topics USA


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