Boycotts, Benjamins, and America's University Leaders

A Palestinian student takes a selfie during his graduation ceremony at the end of the academic year on May 20, 2016 at Birzeit University in the West Bank town of Birzeit, near Ramallah. / AFP / ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Boycotts, Benjamins, and America's University Leaders

The current boycott is not a denial of academic freedom, but rather an exercise of it by scholars from around the world who choose not to collaborate with Israeli state institutions complicit in Israel’s apartheid policies.

If there is one thing that unites American university presidents, it is opposition to the academic boycott of Israel. The leaders of more than 250 universities have posted letters or made public statements denouncing the boycott. The provost and president of Johns Hopkins proclaimed in a joint statement, "To curtail the freedom of institutions to participate in the exchange of ideas because of the policies of the government of the country where they reside is to strike at the very mission of our university." Harvard's president wrote, "Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars." The president of California State University Northridge, where I teach, echoed the Chancellor of the 23 campus California State University system when she wrote, "the boycott tarnishes the gold standard of academic review and undermines academic freedom--the very heart of the academic enterprise."

University leaders have placed a higher value on what they describe as academic freedom than the opposition to racism and discrimination that the boycott seeks to rectify. However, by invoking academic freedom, they misrepresent the academic boycott of Israel. As with the boycott of Apartheid South African institutions decades ago, the current boycott is not a denial of academic freedom, but rather an exercise of it by scholars from around the world who choose not to collaborate with Israeli state institutions complicit in Israel's apartheid policies. Examples of boycottable activities include conferences, symposia, workshops, and study abroad programsconvened or co-sponsored by Israeli institutions. The academic boycott of Israel is aimed at institutions and does not target individuals such as research collaborators.

But do university leaders oppose the academic boycott of Israel because they actually believe that it undermines academic freedom, or are there other reasons? If academic freedom were the real reason, wouldn't their reactions to targeted boycotts of other regions besides Israel, U.S. states for example, be the same?

Several U.S. states boycott other states in opposition to discriminatory laws, especially those that marginalize and harm LGBTQ people. Connecticut, for example, restricts state employee travel, including university faculty, to North Carolina. Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington have blocked funding for state personnel from traveling to North Carolina and Mississippi. California bars University of California and California State University faculty, among other state employees, from funded travel to Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas. Why? Because these states have "laws that authorize or require discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression." And these sanctions are more than symbolic. Millions of dollars have been lost from canceled hotel bookings and conventions on account of them. The boycotts are working.

If the academic boycott of Israel violates the hallowed principle of academic freedom, don't the boycotts of states like North Carolina also violate it? Both boycotts curtail attendance at academic conferences, for example, and both boycotts follow the honorable tradition of nonviolent opposition to discrimination against a group of people, Palestinians in one case and LGBTQ people in the other. So then, where are the public proclamations from university leaders against the boycott of U.S. states?

Another way to assess the sincerity of university leaders' proclamations on the primacy of academic freedom is to check their reactions, or lack thereof, when the Israeli government denies it to Palestinians. Israel regularly denies visas to international scholars to visit Palestinian universities, and Palestinian students and professors are denied academic freedom in countless crushing ways. Perhaps the starkest examples are the bombings of half of the schools in Gaza, including eight kindergartens and the University of Gaza, by Israel in 2009.

One of the leading Palestinian universities, Birzeit University, has been closed by Israel at least 15 times, with the longest closure lasting four years. Birzeit University students have been held in Israeli prisons, many without charge. Students have suffered travel restrictions and have been abducted, shot at and tortured. The former president of Birzeit University, Dr. Hanna Nasir, in the course of his duties was handcuffed, blindfolded, and deported for 19 years by Israel, and forced to serve as university president in exile. He was never charged with a crime or given an explanation. Where are the letters of outrage when academic freedoms are denied to Palestinians?

If denial of academic freedom were of any real concern to the many university administrators who have so stridently denounced the academic boycott of Israel, then surely they would find time to post condemnations of the various boycotts of U.S. states, and they would assuredly denounce the unambiguous and sometimes lethal denials of academic freedom to Palestinians. So then, what could account for the nearly uniform hypocrisy of America's leaders of academe when it comes to boycotts? No doubt a handful are staunch advocates of Zionism, the ideology of Jewish supremacy, but most are likely worried about crossing the Israel lobby or offending wealthy donors. Congresswoman Ihan Omar undoubtedly got it right when she wrote, "It's all about the Benjamins baby."

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