Open Letter To NYU’s President: Why The American Studies Assn.’s Israel Boycott Makes Me Ashamed To Be An Alumnus

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NYU President John Sexton (courtesy of NYU photo bureau)

NYU President John Sexton (courtesy of NYU photo bureau)

Dear NYU President John Sexton,

I’m a journalism graduate of New York University. Over the course of a three-decade career, I’ve been invited numerous times to speak to NYU students who are studying for masters degrees in business and economics reporting.  That program, known as BER, is arguably the best in the nation, and I was honored to have served years ago on a BER advisory panel.

This letter is lengthy, and I can only hope that you may find the time from your busy schedule to stick with it – or at least most of it. Thanks for your consideration.

Delegates of the 130-year-old Modern Language Association of America (MLA) on Saturday adopted a preliminary resolution that – if approved by its 28,000 members – will denounce Israel for controlling its own borders.  It will call on the State Department to “contest Israel’s denials of entry… by U.S academics” who have been “invited to teach, confer, or do research” at Palestinian universities on the West Bank.

Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, has mounted a counter-campaign, and Hillel knows the facts – such as how much easier it is for Americans to enter Israel and the Palestinian territories than for Israelis to enter the U.S.  (The refusal rate in 2012 was just 0.023% for the former, versus 5.4% for the latter.)

This singling out of Israel by the MLA comes, as you do know, on the heels of a similar announcement in mid-December by another academic group, the 62-year-old, American Studies Association (ASA). In that case, the membership voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli colleges and universities. ASA’s reasoning is that Israel is responsible for curtailing the academic freedom of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. While the resolution is not binding on its members, ASA’s list of institutional members includes more than 90 universities and colleges across the country, among them NYU.

As a result of that vote, the once-obscure ASA — it claims nearly 5,000 members — has suddenly propelled itself into the global limelight, because the blowback has been immense.   “A repugnant attack on academic freedom…under the guise of phony progressivism,” states Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth. “A dangerous and ill-conceived action,” echoes Indiana University’s leader, Michael A. McRobbie.  “A geopolitical tool,” cringes Kenyon president Sean M. Decatur.

“Academic leaders at the University of Connecticut will continue to visit Israel and Arab nations… and pursue research collaboration with the many outstanding Israeli universities,” promises the school’s president, Susan Herbst, in a statement of defiance. “We do this with pride.”

I tip my hat to Cornell law professor William Jacobson, who is compiling a fuller list of statements from college heads bashing the ASA resolution. But I’ll offer five more here:

Middlebury president Ron Liebowitz: “The singling out of Israel for this action is astounding… the vote is a sad reflection of an extreme and hateful ideology by some members of the academy.”

James F. Jones, Jr., who heads Trinity College:  “Were we still an institutional member, we would not be any longer after the misguided and unprincipled announcement of the boycott of the only democracy in the Middle East.”

In an email to me:  “The segregation of scholars on makeshift political grounds undermines the very basis of academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas,” writes Alfred I. Tauber, the chairman of the Board of Governors of the University of Haifa (Israel), and a former professor of medicine and philosophy at Boston University. “Simply, an academic boycott is a non-starter.”

If you’ve spent some time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “you probably know of the bronze plaque near the front doors of Bascom Hall,” says Rebecca M. Black, chancellor of the school. “It calls for the ‘continual and fearless sifting and winnowing’ of ideas. The class of 1910 donated the plaque in 1915 as a class memorial. It commemorate the wording from the Board of Regents meeting of September 18, 1894 supporting Professor Richard Ely, who was accused of socialist, pro-union activities. Our sifting and winnowing plaque is as relevant today as it ever was…  it is never appropriate to punish scholars over political differences… So, I disagree strongly with the ASA boycott approach. Political disagreements with the government of a country should not limit our ability to reach out to and collaborate with academic institutions and scholars from that country on projects that we consider valuable.”

On Dec. 31st, Catholic University became the 100th American college (the list now tops 190) to condemn the resolution.  “The Association has appointed itself as a kind of inept volunteer fire department, aiming to put out the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration by throwing gasoline on the fire,” sneers the school’s president, John Garvey.

Newspaper editors, too:  “What foolishness,” writes the Chicago Sun Times editorial board.  “Israel, for all its perceived failings, is among the most intellectually open societies in the world, where public discourse — especially about Israel’s perceived failings — is freewheeling and relentless.”  Similarly, the Washington Post’s editors call the ASA boycott “terribly misguided,” and “utterly narrow-minded” and “fundamentally wrong…. Israel has become a lively and durable democracy.”   (In fairness, I should add lamentably, the New York Times, alone among major U.S. newspaper editorial boards in its routine hostility towards Israel, says nothing.)

By all appearances, the expressions of outrage have left ASA’s incoming president, NYU professor Lisa Duggan – plus the other 17 über-radical colleagues on the “national council” who voted unanimously for the boycott — unmoved.  They don’t care that they have torpedoed ASA’s reputation (what was left of it).  It seems she and her national council took it as a badge of honor, proof of their righteousness. (If ‘the establishment’ is upset, and not a single council-comrade voted against the resolution, they must be right! Right?)  “Sadly, I have received an avalanche of abusive and threatening email, but I’m ignoring it,” Duggan wrote me on December 23rd.   “We’re getting a lot of supportive messages too, and more new members than resignations so far.”

It’s disgraceful if people are hurling abuse and threats at her. But they have a right to be angry. She does not seem to understand that, and her tin ear is the least of her failings of comprehension.

I’ve discovered that Duggan, as I’ll discuss in more detail further down, is pressing for the release of a Palestinian terrorist who was recently indicted in Detroit.  The terrorist is accused of lying on her U.S. immigration application. She allegedly claimed she hadn’t ever been convicted of a crime, when in fact she spent ten years in an Israeli prison for her involvement in the bombing of a Jerusalem supermarket that killed two Israelis.


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Open Letter To NYU’s President: Why The American Studies Assn.’s Israel Boycott Makes Me Ashamed To Be An Alumnus

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