Seventeen faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley, warned on Tuesday against the threat posed by the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign to the academic freedom of their students and colleagues.
Their letter responded to an op-ed published by eight UC Berkeley professors in the student-run Daily Californian last month, which criticized a December message issued by all ten UC chancellors against a boycott of Israeli universities and scholars. The op-ed also claimed that BDS did not restrict free speech or penalize individuals for their political positions — a statement the authors of Tuesday’s letter called “simply untrue.”
“Official guidelines from a Palestinian organization associated with the movement say faculty members should refuse to write letters for students seeking to study in Israel,” wrote the faculty members, some of whom are affiliated with the Academic Engagement Network. “Similar sources say BDS seeks to close down study abroad programs in Israel.”
“We believe that BDS supporters also seek to prevent Israeli scholars, politicians and others from coming to the University of California based solely on their country of origin,” they added. “For years BDS supporters have disrupted campus events featuring individuals who espouse views they oppose, and they have thus deprived University of California students, faculty and staff of their right to hear alternative viewpoints.”
“The goals of BDS and its supporters’ actions therefore do pose a clear and direct threat to academic freedom and, in our view, are also discriminatory,” the faculty wrote.
Activists affiliated with the BDS campaign — a self-described human rights movement that has been disavowed by major Jewish groups in the United States and internationally for disproportionately targeting Israel while denying the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination — have repeatedly been accused of infringing on free speech rights and academic freedom in their efforts to implement these demands.
According to the official guidelines of the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), members of the academic community are required “to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation or annulment of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israel academic institutions or that otherwise promote the normalization of Israel in the global academy.” The boycott also extends to individual Israeli university administrators and in some cases academics.
Late last year, in apparent compliance with these demands, two instructors at the University of Michigan withheld letters of recommendations from students who sought to study in Israel, citing their personal support for BDS as a justification. This month, BDS supporters successfully lobbied members of the College Council at Pitzer College — which includes faculty, students, and staff — to vote to suspend a study abroad program at the University of Haifa in Israel. The decision was vetoed by the president of the college, who pointed out the damaging effect it would have on the academic freedom of individual students and “the free exchange of ideas.”
Student BDS supporters have also been involved in — and sometimes sanctioned for — attempts to disrupt or shut down events hosted by Jewish and Zionist groups on campuses nationwide.
The faculty noted this behavior while challenging suggestions that the chancellors may have issued the statement following “external pressure” from “private donors.”
“We do think there is a less conspiratorial explanation for restating these principles: repeated attempts by campus activists advocating an Israel boycott to disrupt Israel-related events and rally student governments and other campus bodies to their cause,” they observed. “BDS supporters have disrupted events at UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Riverside and UC Davis. So the chancellors’ restatement is, in fact, much-needed.”
More than 200 American university leaders have already rejected BDS, while none have affirmed support for the boycott, “so the UC chancellors do not stand out in their opinions,” the faculty added.
The group also countered claims that the chancellors’ statement would chill pro-Palestinian activism, noting that the professors themselves were able to publish their op-ed in the Daily Californian.
“If the signatories of the previous op-ed and others who support their views want nothing to do with Israel, that is their prerogative,” they wrote. “But there is no reason why the University of California should permit them to foist their politics and discriminatory attitudes on the rest of the university.”