A potentially important BDS development this month is the appearance of an issue of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Journal of Academic Freedom dedicated to boycott of Israel. This report presents background and analysis regarding this development.
The AAUP is the largest and most significant organization of academic faculty members in the United Stares, with over 47,000 members. It was established in 1915 with the goal of defending academic freedom from outside pressure. The organization advocates for academic freedom, shared governance and a variety of other issues such as collective bargaining, discrimination and intellectual property. It operates both nationally and locally through some 450 campus chapters. A small number of campus chapters are unionized and represent faculty, staff and others in contract negotiations.
The AAUP publishes several journals including Academe, a trade industry publication in which contributors comment on various issues, an annual bulletin summarizing the organization’s activities on academic freedom and other issues, and the annual on-line Journal of Academic Freedom. Founded in 2010, the journal “publishes scholarship on academic freedom and on its relation to shared governance, tenure, and collective bargaining. Scholarship on academic freedom is typically scattered across a wide range of disciplines; the Journal provides a central place to track the developing international discussion about academic freedom and its collateral issues.”
Four issues of the Journal of Academic Freedom have appeared. Most contributions may be characterized as complaints regarding the decline of faculty governance of universities, and perceived threats to academic freedom emanating from government and corporations. Volume number four for 2013 is dedicated to BDS.
The AAUP’s policy is not to support academic boycotts generally or a boycott of Israel specifically. This policy was articulated in 2005 and reiterated in 2007 and May 2013. The rationale for dedicating almost an entire issue of their flagship journal to articles advocating boycott of Israel may therefore appear unclear.
In his introduction, journal editor Ashley Dawson of the Graduate Center/City University of New York notes the “call for papers for this issue of The Journal of Academic Freedom was focused on the globalization of higher education and its impact on academic freedom.” Though he expresses the AAUP’s concerns regarding academic freedom on satellite campuses of US universities such as Yale-Singapore and the problems associated with massive online open courses (MOOCs), the “main response to the call for papers came in the form of a roundtable concerning the issue of academic boycotts in general, and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in particular.” Six of the nine essays in the issue of the journal support BDS while one opposes it. Two additional essays discuss broader issues.
Dawson’s role is shaping the content of the journal is open to question. Though an English professor, most of Dawson’s publications are political critiques of capitalism, imperialism and the United States. As was pointed out by Jonathan Marks, Dawson is on record as supporting the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USCABI) and in 2012 edited a volume entitled Why Boycott Israel?: A Dossier on Palestine Today. This volume was apparently published in a series connected with the journal Social Text, where he is the web editor, but is not available online. Arguably, the issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom calling for BDS is Dawson’s second such product in a year.
Most of the essays in the issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom are standard restatements of BDS viewpoints. Israel is cast as the single worst abuser of human rights in the world, singularly worthy of boycott. Failure to do so is, as one of the contributors puts it, is “the casual fetishization of academic freedom as part of a liberal hegemony that provides ideological cover for brutal acts of intellectual and political terror by Israel.” Israel is so egregious that an academic boycott, or its destruction, is effectively justified in the name of academic freedom.
The contributors are, as Marks puts it, “a founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; a founding committee member of USCABI, an advisory board member of USCABI; an endorser of that same campaign who also signed the Association for Asian American Studies boycott resolution; a signatory of a 2009 letter to then President-Elect Obama, gently urging him to view Israel as the perpetrator of “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times”; a former contributor to the Electronic Intifada, and another Electronic Intifada contributor who wrote “Answering Critics of the Boycott Movement.””
It should be added that one of the Journal of Academic Freedom contributors, Malini Johar Schueller, a professor of English at the University of Florida, co-edited a special issue of Social Text on academic freedom with Dawson along with another book on “US Culture and the New Imperialism.” Dawson and Schueller’s special issue of Social Text also included an essay by Purdue University English professor Bill V. Mullen, who contributed to the Journal of Academic Freedom issue.
Several important observations may be made. The first is that global issues of academic freedom and the organization of academia were allegedly proposed for the journal but the final product is focused almost exclusively on Israel. The opportunity to explore global issues was lost if not intentionally discarded in favor of polemics again Israel.
Two sequential sets of editorial decisions may thus be posited – to cast a wide net but settle on Israel, to not seek out additional contributions, and to proceed with publication, or as appears more like, to ostensibly cast a wide net in order to focus on Israel. Either way, the decision to focus overwhelming on boycotting Israel has been endorsed by the AAUP.
A second observation is that BDS supporters eagerly responded to the call for papers, in this case from someone in their own camp who has again used an editorial position for BDS purposes. This shows the extent to which BDS supporters readily politicize editorial positions, the degree of preparedness on the part of BDS supporters to contribute lengthy calls for Israel to be boycotted, and their readiness to contribute quickly to almost any forum. A secondary observation is their eagerness to contribute polemics and politicize any academic forum possible, sometimes in the name of exercising or defending “academic freedom.”
Another hint to why the Journal of Academic Freedom dedicated an entire issue to Israel and BDS is the fact that there have been consistent efforts to use AAUP as a platform to vocalize support for BDS. In 2006, with the support of the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the organization had planned to undertake a conference on BDS, featuring a majority of prominent BDS supporters, at the Rockefeller Foundation facility at Bellagio, Italy. After this event was publically criticized as imbalanced, and the accidental distribution of a paper from a neo-Nazi publication, anti-boycott participants refused to participate and then the foundations withdrew their support. The conference foundered. The papers from the conference, including those of anti-boycott participants, were later made available on the AAUP web site.
In the current issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom the co-organizer of the 2006 conference, Joan Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, states that she is now a strong supporter of BDS. Her piece is a lengthy bill of particulars against Israel and its supporters and she declares that a boycott of Israeli institutions, not individuals, is “a strategic way of exposing the unprincipled and undemocratic behavior of Israeli state institutions; its aim might be characterized as “saving Israel from itself.”” Scott’s curious defense is somewhat belied by the severity of her accusations against Israel. The current issue of the journal nevertheless completes the work of using AAUP as a platform for BDS, despite the organization’s stated opposition.
Two additional essays have now appeared on the Journal of Academic Freedom web site voicing opposition to BDS by Cary Nelson, the journal’s founder, and Ernst Benjamin, formerly the AAUP’s general secretary and a consultant to the organization. Both defend the AAUP’s stance against boycotts (although Benjamin calls for a boycott of Israeli institutions across the “Green Line) but refrain from criticizing the pervasive misrepresentations of Israel by the contributors.
Interestingly, press coverage of the AAUP journal has been minimal. The organization’s reiteration of its opposition to boycotts in May 2013 received some attention from sources focused on higher education issues. In contrast, the September issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom has only been noted by BDS supporters (from whom the journal’s contributors are drawn). Not surprisingly, their response has been positive.
It is also necessary to note that efforts to use professional societies and journals as vehicles to promote BDS are becoming routine. Another recent incident was the 2013 declaration of support for BDS by the Association for Asian American Studies. This marginal organization is one of the only to adopt a BDS resolution but such efforts have been successful in British and more recently Irish academic unions. Boycott proposals in other US organizations, notably the Modern Language Association, have been proposed but to date have failed.
The Journal of Academic Freedom BDS issue demonstrates the extent to which American academic organizations continue to be an arena for BDS activists, many of whom move from one platform to another. This usefully demonstrates again the organized nature of BDS and the determination of activists to penetrate all aspects of academia. The use of “academic freedom” as a means to vilify and expel Israel from the global academic community is certain to intensify.