A Slap in the Face from George Washington University

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In December 2013, after the American Studies Association endorsed a boycott of Israel, George Washington University joined many other institutions in opposing the boycott. The language was rather tepid, to be sure: the University affirmed that it would continue its “multiple academic, research and programmatic relationships with Israeli institutions” and “explore new ones,” on the grounds that “academic exchanges and conversations lead to better understanding between nations and people of differing views.”

Why, then, has George Washington University appointed a vocal supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as interim dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs? Ilana Feldman has said that calls for a conversation of the sort GWU issued in 2013 are contemptible, “a call for inaction and support of the status quo under the guise of “moderate” action.”  At the same time, she has indicated that opposition of the sort BDS has encountered—well over 200 colleges and universities issued statements against the boycott—has to do with “more money . . . being devoted to shutting down criticism of Israel.” Feldman not only supported the ultimately failed effort to win the American Anthropological Association for BDS. She was among the organizers of the effort.

Colleges and universities have many good reasons to reject the BDS movement, quite apart from its willingness regularly to swim in anti-Semitic waters. Academic supporters of BDS are expected to oppose study abroad programs based at Israeli universities and to refuse to write letters of recommendation for students who choose to participate in them. They should shun conferences based at Israeli universities, faculty exchange programs that involve those universities, and research projects funded in whole or in part by Israel or what boycott guidelines call Israel’s lobby groups.

Our commitment to academic freedom requires us to tolerate such views among our faculty members, even if they would corrode our universities. They do not require us to accept supporters of BDS as high-level administrators of schools of international affairs. Indeed, David Bernstein at the Volokh conspiracy argues that supporters of BDS should, if they are to be deans, “publicly and contractually disavow any intention of adhering to BDS position while serving as administrators: no boycotting Israeli academic institutions, no discrimination against students or faculty who have ties to Israeli institutions or academic journals.”

I would not like to see it become a general principle that individuals whose published views contradict a college’s mission must formally disavow those views before assuming an administrative position. Nor would I like to see supporters of BDS formally excluded from academic leadership positions. Professionals are often capable of setting aside strongly held views to do their work. That includes professionals who hold rotten views. If, however, the university really considers Feldman indispensable, it ought to provide some reassurance that it will hold the line against BDS. Instead, the university has lauded Feldman’s work in Middle East Studies and brushed off complaints.

Especially in light of recent worries about anti-Semitism at George Washington University, that’s just not good enough. To the Jewish students who have stepped forward to identify the problem, it is a slap in the face.

A Slap in the Face from George Washington University

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Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College and publishes in modern and contemporary political philosophy in journals like the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Politics, the Journal of American Political Science, and the Review of Politics. He is the author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Marks also has written on higher education for InsideHigherEd, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. He blogs occasionally at Commentary Magazine.

Read all stories by Jonathan Marks