Inside Higher Ed: Israel boycott row intensifies

By Elizabeth Redden, for Inside Higher Ed

January 6, 2014

The backlash against the American Studies Association’s resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli universities continued unabated through the holiday vacation, with scores of American college presidents condemning the action and the president of the American Council on Education joining the chorus of critics.

At the same time that presidents are denouncing the boycott for reasons related to academic freedom, some faculty and students who back the ASA action have pushed back against the presidential reproofs, in one case arguing in an op-ed that “the greatest threat to academic freedom related to the boycott resolution has come from US university presidents” themselves.

The ASA resolution, which is framed as a response to concerns about the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and a lack of academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars, has prompted an unprecedented storm of comments from university presidents. Four institutions – Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College and Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg – have announced plans to withdraw as institutional members of the association.

On one end of the spectrum of presidential statements, Brandeis president Fred Lawrence urged other universities “to follow our lead and disassociate from the ASA”, while Johns Hopkins University’s president and provost are on record as rejecting both the boycott and calls to sever ties with the ASA.

“This boycott is a contradiction, one that threatens what it purports to protect: the freedom of thought and expression that is the heartbeat of our academic community,” Johns Hopkins president Ronald J. Daniels and provost Robert C. Lieberman wrote. “We therefore reject the ASA’s efforts to impose a boycott on institutions of higher education in Israel, or any other nation. For the same reasons, although Johns Hopkins is not an institutional member of the American Studies Association, we also reject calls to boycott the boycotters, or to dissociate from the association or other organizations of scholars as an expression of protest against their votes.”

As a rule, the presidential statements reject academic boycotts as violations of principles of open exchange and academic freedom (in this way essentially echoing the American Association of University Professors’ longstanding position); some, like Michael S. Roth of Wesleyan University, further object to the singling out of Israel, of all the nations in the world, for special criticism and isolation.

Politicians have also got involved in the row. Eliot L. Engel, a Democrat in the House of Representatives, wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to the ASA president in which he noted the association’s silence regarding human rights abuses in China, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe and said he and his staff would be of service should the ASA “desire any assistance in further identifying other countries with human rights records of concern”. Two New York state lawmakers have also announced plans to introduce legislation cutting off state aid to public and private universities that participate in organisations that discriminate against Israel.

Some presidents are undoubtedly under pressure from alumni and donors to take a stand: Israel advocacy organisations such as StandWithUs have launched campaigns urging supporters to contact the presidents of their alma maters or colleges they’re otherwise affiliated with to urge them to withdraw as institutional members of the ASA and publicly denounce the organisation. But whether presidents are under outside pressure or not, the issues raised by an academic boycott strike at the heart of the American academy.

“I think they [presidents] are speaking out for two reasons,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the president emeritus of George Washington University. “One, they are concerned about the appearance of the academy in the United States - everyone from their own benefactors to the parents of their students to alumni to political figures. From their perspective we don’t need yet another controversy. Secondly, there are general commitments to academic freedom that are violated by initiatives of this sort.”

In addition to the ASA, two smaller scholarly associations, the Association for Asian American Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, have also come out in favor of the boycott in the past year.

“Presidents end up being the spokespeople for their institutions,” said John Burness, a visiting professor in the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy and formerly the longtime senior vice-president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University.

“In the main, they will recognise the rights of individual faculty members or collective groups of faculty members to take different positions about different kinds of things, but when they start getting into issues associated with fundamental academic freedom issues and free exchange of ideas, it’s not in my experience uncommon to see presidents speaking out - without condemning individual faculty members,” he said.

“This is an issue that gets to the core of who we are and what we are about, and it’s worth taking a stand on principle,” said Professor Burness.

However, when presidents issue high-minded statements about a contentious topic, it can raise tensions on campus. If a president is going to speak on a subject, just how far into the fray should he or she wade? And can - should - the president presume to speak for the institution, knowing full well that’s how any statement on his or her part will be perceived?

Both these tensions were in evidence when the president of Trinity College, in Connecticut, found a letter he wrote opposing the boycott under a microscope: a group of 21 faculty members, including several in the American Studies program, wrote a missive criticising Trinity president James F. Jones’s letter as “singularly uniformed” in that it described Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East (what about Lebanon and Turkey, the faculty wrote) and “intellectually lazy” in, among other things, failing to engage with pro-boycott arguments about the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians.

“That your letter does not seriously engage any of the issues - even academic freedom still less the actual occupation - is a sign of the lack of seriousness on your part,” the faculty wrote, adding that, “as it is, you did not speak in our name - also members of the Trinity College community.”  However, yet another group of faculty at Trinity - 37 of them - subsequently penned a letter of their own expressing gratitude and support for the president and the dean of the faculty, as the two senior academic officers of the institution, for “taking this clear-throated position against the ASA’s condemnable boycott proposal”. 

In addition to the push-back from faculty at Trinity, 18 students at Northwestern University have issued a letter criticising the president and provost’s statement opposing the boycott  as “a narrow and unfitting generalization of the values and opinions of the diverse faculty, staff and students of Northwestern University.”

“As advocates for human rights and solidarity with all people facing systemic racism, we respectfully disagree with your statement,” wrote the students, including several members of Students for Justice in Palestine.

Yet Ronald Kiener, the chair of the religion department at Trinity College who organised the letter supporting the president’s statement there, believes that the principle of academic freedom is paramount and that presidents are right to reaffirm it. A boycott, he said, would eviscerate his field of Jewish studies. “If you bring to an end all of these ties and associations [with Israeli universities] you are making it incredibly difficult to study Jewish culture and society,” he said.

“Once you begin to impinge upon the study of Jewish culture and society in American higher education, for whatever political cause you want, you are moving down a path that hasn’t been moved upon in the modern West since Nazi Germany. That is, for me, the bottom line.”

In addition to the four universities that have publicly announced plans to resign from the ASA, a fifth institution has done so without making a public statement, according to John Stephens, the executive director of the association (he declined to name that university, saying it is up to institutions to make their decision to join or withdraw public).

He said that three universities have joined as institutional members since the boycott resolution was approved on 17 December. In terms of individual memberships, only four people have submitted letters of resignation, while 63 new members have joined the ASA.

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