10 November 2014

The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel


bds book
The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel,” released on [3 November 2014], includes essays from more than 25 international scholars who take a cold look at the future of Israel and the impact of the academic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
It tackles tough issues that many have found impossible to confront until now, like the role of antisemitism in calls for the abolition of the Jewish state. According to Amazon, “This book for the first time provides the historical background necessary for informed evaluation of one of the most controversial issues of our day…”
The book was edited by Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm and includes essays from Martha Nussbaum, Russell Berman, Michael Bérubé, Kenneth Stein, Jeffrey Herf and Paul Berman.
AMCHA Initiative cofounder Tammi Rossman-Benjamin’s chapter, “Interrogating the Academic Boycotters of Israel on American Campuses,” takes a critical look at the individual faculty who support and promote the academic boycott, what ideologies motivate the boycotters, how they have used their university positions to promote the boycott and stifle criticism and which university conditions allow for, and often encourage, this behavior.
Rossman-Benjamin’s research found that of the 938 boycotting faculty, 86% are in the humanities or social sciences. Only 7% are affiliated with engineering and natural science and 4% with arts. 

The research found seven primary ways that faculty promote the boycott of Israel on campus: 

  1. Incorporating pro-boycott material into course curricula;
  2. hosting academic conferences about boycotting Israel; 
  3. advocating for the boycott on official university websites; 
  4. using departmental resources to sponsor student BDS events; 
  5. advising pro-Palestinian students to engage in boycott activity; 
  6. infiltrating the academic senate to promote the boycott among academic colleagues and to ensure that boycotting faculty are protected from criticism, and 
  7. creating faculty advocacy groups under the guise of defending academic freedom but whose true mission is to promote the boycott.
Rossman-Benjamin also cited three university conditions that open the door to this behavior: 

  1. The vagueness of academic freedom; 
  2. the unwillingness of administrators to enforce existing university policies and 
  3. the common practice of encouraging political activism by humanities and social sciences departments. These departments often incorporate the pursuit of “social justice” into their mission statements. Instead of being reminded to be objective in their teaching, the boycotter is likely to be applauded by his or her departmental colleagues. 
Rossman-Benjamin calls for public pressure from students, parents, alumni and donors as the most effective method to prevent professors from abusing their access to vulnerable students and university resources to promote personal propaganda.
Some excerpts from the chapter:
Predominantly hailing from the humanities and social sciences, many of the academic boycotters are involved with the study of Race, Gender, Class or Empire, and seem to be motivated by ideologies which divide the world into oppressed and oppressor and are linked to social movements which pursue social justice for the oppressed by combating the perceived oppressor, in this case Israel. One possibility is that all four areas represent ideological paradigms…making it a short ideological leap to seeing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the same binary terms.
Academic boycotters have found multiple points of entry for advancing the boycott of Israel on their campuses, including in the classroom, conference hall, and campus square, on the university website, and through the academic senate. Faculty boycotters have also created advocacy groups to defend the right of faculty to continue using university resources to promote BDS. The boycotters’ efforts have been facilitated by the activist focus of some departments in the social sciences and humanities, the lack of clarity about (and misrepresentation of) academic freedom, and the unwillingness of administrators to enforce university policy and state and federal laws that would curb the behavior of the boycotters. The net result is that many universities are at risk of becoming bastions of political hatred directed against Israel, and inhospitable to Jewish students who identify with the Jewish state.

The problem is not with these faculty taking such public positions, something they are entitled to do both as US citizens and as faculty members engaged in extramural expression of their political opinions. The problem arises when such political convictions become so fanatical that classroom instruction becomes coercive, students’ rights to express alternative views are compromised, or discussion becomes intimidation. That is a problem universities need to face with a level of courage and honesty little in evidence now.