Academic Freedom Win: Israel Boycott Supporter Ilana Feldman Will Not Be Dean at George Washington U

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Ilana Feldman, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University (GWU), recently was appointed Interim Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at GWU.

There was an immediate firestorm of controversy, since Feldman is a supporter of and longtime activist leader of the academic boycott of Israel, which is part of the larger Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

As we have documented, BDS was launched at the openly anti-Semitic Tehran and Durban Conferences in 2001, a repackaging of the Jewish Boycotts of the 1920s and 1930s, and the Arab League Boycott of Israel. BDS was a rebranding meant to appeal to western liberals, framed in the language of social justice. Part of that repackaging was to claim BDS started in 2005 as a call from Palestinian civil society. BDS supporters in the West mosly are ignorant of the history of BDS.

Feldman Will Not Be Considered For Permanent Dean

Feldman’s pro-BDS background, which involves a commitment not to treat Israelis (and by implication, supporters of Israel) fairly, went against the requirements needed for the senior administrative post of Interim Dean or permanent Dean.

GWU acknowledged the criticism, and issued a statement  reiterating its rejection of BDS:

May 18, 2020

We have listened and heard the concerns from some members of our community about the appointment of Dr. Ilana Feldman as interim Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs and personal views she has expressed about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The university’s policy on the BDS movement is very clear – GW does not support divestment or other actions called for by BDS. While the University supports academic freedom for all, members of the administration – including those in an acting or interim capacity – are required to comply with all University policies or actions, including those on BDS, and foster an atmosphere that allows all voices to be equally heard.  As vice dean, and now as interim dean, Dr. Feldman has and will adhere to all of our policies and specifically committed to adhering to GWU’s policy regarding freedom of expression.

The University also prioritizes the safety and security of everyone in our community. We do not tolerate discrimination in any form, including anti-Semitism and racism. We believe in an inclusive and robust community that respects all points of view.  These values are intrinsic to the GW community.

We have begun our search for Dean Brigety’s successor and will keep the community posted.

Sincerely, 

M. Brian Blake
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

The university also circulated an all-campus email which read, in part (emphasis added):

Dear GW Community:

We have listened and heard the concerns from some members of our community about the appointment of Dr. Ilana Feldman, current vice dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs, as interim dean following the announcement of Dean Reuben Brigety’s coming departure. The concerns revolve around personal views that Dr. Feldman has expressed about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The university’s policy on BDS is clear and unambiguous, as has been the setting of expectations with Dr. Feldman: GW does not support divestment or other actions called for by BDS. While the university does support academic freedom for all, members of the administration – including those in an acting or interim capacity – are required to comply with all university policies, including the policy on BDS, and foster an atmosphere that allows all voices to be equally heard. Dr. Feldman has also specifically committed to adhering to GW’s policy regarding freedom of expression.

To be clear, the university does not tolerate discrimination in any form, including anti-Semitism and racism. We also believe in an inclusive and robust community that respects all points of view.  These values, which at times can come into tension with each other, are intrinsic to the GW community.  We acknowledge that tension, but also insist on taking the opportunity to reaffirm our values; and we believe there is no better way to do so than by the appointment of a new dean who embodies the best of what the Elliott School has been and will be as we look to the future.

We thank all who have written and called to contribute to this important conversation, and invite you to engage in the process of identifying a new dean for the Elliott School, which is already underway….

We are working to identify a search firm to aid in the process of identifying potential candidates. We anticipate that the search committee will be charged at the beginning of June, with interviews to be conducted early in the fall semester. Dr. Feldman will not be a candidate for the permanent position. We appreciate her service during this interim period….

Sincerely,

M. Brian Blake
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

Feldman’s Deep Boycott Activism at AAA

Why all the fuss about Feldman?

Part of it is her support for BDS, but a larger part of it was that she was a leader of the academic boycott movement, a visible and vocal advocate pushing for the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to adopt the academic boycott. That effort ultimately failed, but not for lack of trying.

For almost a decade we have reported on and investigated the efforts of anti-Israel university faculty to coopt professional organizations to implement the academic boycott of Israel. Among the major associations we have written extensively about are the American Studies AssociationAmerican Historical Association, and Modern Language Association.

But of all the associations we have covered, the fight at the American Anthropological Association was the nastiest, dirtiest, and most vituperative. You can read our prior posts, some of which were by a graduate student using a pseudonym for fear of retribution from pro-BDS faculty, detailing the history of anti-Israel activism at AAA:

The AAA boycott effort ultimately failed a membership vote, barely.  According to the announcment by the AAA leadership, the results were: 2,423 members opposed to boycott against 2,384 who voted in support.

What made the AAA boycott effort worse than the others?

It was an intangible bitter quality that was lacking even at the American Studies Association, the only major American faculty organization to adopt the boycott. There were no happy warriors in the AAA boycott push. Perhaps it was frustration among advocates who thought BDS was on the verge of breaking through, only to see defeat in a short period of time at AHA, MLA, and AAA.

One of the leaders of the AAA boycott effort was Feldman. Her activism started long before the 2015 AAA effort and 2016 vote.

Even in 2006 and 2012, Feldman was involved in anti-Israel efforts aimed at Anthropology faculty. She helped write a handbook for faculty by the AAA’s Taskforce on Middle East Anthropology about how to boycott Israel while using a claim of academic freedom as a shield. That is one of the ultimate ironies of the academic BDS campaign: The claim of academic freedom is used to justify depriving others of academic freedom.

In 2014, Feldman co-authored a piece advocating for anthropologist participation in BDS:

https://anthroboycott.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/why-anthropologists-should-boycott-israeli-academic-institutions/

Feldman was also quoted in a report of the AAA 2014 business meeting where people gathered to defeat an anti-boycott resolution:

Ilana Feldman of George Washington University said that 25 years of working in Israel/Palestine “gives me the information I need to know that boycott is the right action we need to take to stand in support of Palestinians.”

She was part of a panel and roundtable discussion about the boycott at the 2014 AAA meeting:

https://aaa.confex.com/aaa/2014/webprogram/Session11155.html

And in the 2014 section report for the Middle East Section of the AAA, which reveals that Feldman was elected president of the section for 2015, the section has already begun discussing boycotting Israel and establishing the “task force” to investigate it.

She was part of a panel and roundtable discussion about the boycott at the 2014 AAA meeting:

https://aaa.confex.com/aaa/2014/webprogram/Session11155.html

And in the 2014 section report for the Middle East Section of the AAA, which reveals that Feldman was elected president of the section for 2015, the section has already begun discussing boycotting Israel and establishing the “task force” to investigate it.

The 2015 BDS AAA resolution itself was co-introduced by Feldman.

https://anthroboycott.wordpress.com/the-resolution/

Feldman was one of just seven faculty members who “managed” the effort through a group called Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions, which used the shorthand #AnthroBoycott hastag. Antroboycott circulated a petition signed by ovcr 1000 people agreeing to a Statement pledging to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

As part of the social media effort, Feldman and others posted images holding pro-boycott posters:

https://www.facebook.com/ilana.feldman/posts/10207945756019830

[Ilana Feldman Facebook]

https://www.facebook.com/pg/AnthropologistsForJusticeinPalestine/photos/?ref=page_internal

[Anthropologists for Justice in Palestine Facebook]

The effort received a boost from publicity generated by Marc Lamont Hill:

https://www.instagram.com/p/BEi7oIpypjS/

Academic BDS Is Anti-Academic Freedom

The AAA boycott pledge closely tracked the language and concepts of the BDS Academic Boycott. The BDS academic boycott guidelines have expanded a little over the years, but the core concepts remain true now as when the AAA, led by Feldman, considered the boycott.

I wrote about those academic boycott guidelines in detail in connection with the ASA boycott in 2014. The guidelines are sweeping, rejecting a myriad of normal academic interactions. The quote excerpt below is quite long because you really need to see how expansive the academic boycott guidelines are to appreciate how damaging it is to the academic system as a whole and the free exchange of information and ideas:

Academic Boycott Guidelines

Inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa as well as the long tradition of civil resistance against settler-colonialism in Palestine, the PACBI Call [4] urges academics and cultural workers to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid, by applying the following:

1. Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions;
2. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
3. Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;
4. Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;
5. Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.”

* * *

….PACBI urges academics, academics’ associations/unions and academic institutions around the world, where possible and as relevant, to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation or annulment of events, activities, agreements, or projects that promote the normalization of Israel in the global academy, whitewash Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinians rights, or violate the boycott. Specifically, the Palestinian academic boycott against Israel applies to the following events, activities, or situations:

1. Academic events (such as conferences, symposia, workshops, book and museum exhibits) convened or co-sponsored by Israeli institutions. All academic events, whether held in Israel or abroad, and convened or co-sponsored by Israeli academic institutions or their departments and institutes, deserve to be boycotted on institutional grounds. These boycottable activities include panels and other activities sponsored or organized by Israeli academic bodies or associations at international conferences outside Israel. Importantly, they also include the convening in Israel of meetings of international bodies and associations.
2. Institutional cooperation agreements with Israeli universities or research institutes. These agreements, concluded between international and Israeli universities, typically involve the exchange of faculty and students and, more importantly, the conduct of joint research. Many of these schemes are sponsored and funded by the European Union (in the case of Europe), and independent and government foundations elsewhere. For example, the five-year EU Framework programs, in which Israel has been the only non-European participant, have been crucial to the development of research at Israeli universities. European academic activists have been campaigning for the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement since 2002; under this Agreement, Israeli and European universities exchange academic staff and students and engage in other activities, mainly through the Erasmus Mundus and Tempus schemes [5]. It should be noted that Israel is in violation of the terms of this Agreement, particularly of the second article [6].
3. Study abroad schemes in Israel for international students. These programs are usually housed at Israeli universities and are part of the Israeli propaganda effort, designed to give international students a “positive experience” of Israel. Publicity and recruitment for these schemes are organized through students’ affairs offices or academic departments (such as Middle East and international studies centers) at universities abroad.
4. Addresses and talks at international venues by official representatives of Israeli academic institutions such as presidents and rectors.
5. Special honors or recognition granted to official representatives of Israeli academic institutions (such as the bestowal of honorary degrees and other awards) or to Israeli academic or research institutions. Such institutions and their official representatives are complicit and as such should be denied this recognition.
6. Palestinian/Arab-Israeli collaborative research projects or events, especially those funded by the various EU and international grant-giving bodies. It is widely known that the easiest route to securing a research grant for a Palestinian academic is to apply with an Israeli partner…
7. Research and development activities in the framework of agreements or contracts between the Israeli government and other governments or institutions. Researchers in such projects are based at American, European or other universities. Examples include the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), an institution established by the US and Israeli governments in 1972 to sponsor research by Israelis and Americans, and the “Eureka Initiative,” a European inter-governmental initiative set up in 1985 that includes Israel as the only non-European member.
8. Research and development activities on behalf of international corporations involving contracts or other institutional agreements with departments or centers at Israeli universities.
9. Institutional membership of Israeli associations in world bodies. While challenging such membership is not easy, targeted and selective campaigns demanding the suspension of Israeli membership in international forums contribute towards pressuring the state until it respects international law. Just as South Africa’s membership was suspended in world academic–among other–bodies during apartheid, so must Israel’s.
10. Publishing in or refereeing articles for academic journals based at Israeli universities. These journals include those published by international associations but housed at Israeli universities. Efforts should be made to re-locate the editorial offices of these journals to universities outside Israel.
11. Advising on hiring or promotion decisions at Israeli universities through refereeing the work of candidates [7], or refereeing research proposals for Israeli funding institutions. Such services, routinely provided by academics to their profession, must be withheld from complicit institutions. [footnotes omitted]

As can be seen, the academic boycott of “institutions” actually is a wholesale boycott of individuals. Universities are not just buildings, they are people. If you boycott the institution, you are boycotting the people who work at those institutions. As we also have seen in the real world, individual Israelis are targeted despite the claim that the boycott only is of institutions.

The guidelines now are even worse, with the introduction of the concept of “anti-normalization,” meaning no positive interactions with Israeli students and faculty because that would normalize Israel:

In the Palestinian context, normalization refers to any activity that creates the impression that Israel is a state like any other and that Palestinians, the oppressed, and Israel, the oppressor, are both equally responsible for “the conflict”. Far from challenging the unjust status quo, such projects contribute to its endurance and are intellectually dishonest and should be boycotted. However, a joint Palestinian/Arab-Israeli project is not boycottable if: (a) the Israeli party in the project recognizes the comprehensive Palestinian rights under international law (corresponding to the 3 rights in the BDS call); and (b) the project/activity is one of “co-resistance” rather than co-existence.

Academic boycotts are widely recognized as contrary to academic freedom. They deprive students and faculty of educational and research opportunities at American universities, not just at Israeli universities. It is for this reason over 250 university presidents rejected the ASA boycott (the first at a major faculty organization) and to this day reject academic boycotts, as does the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the leading faculty group protecting academic freedom.

Feldman’s BDS Effort Continues

After the 2016 AAA vote failure, Feldman gave an interview with the anti-Israel website Electronic Intifada. The resulting piece tried to spin the failure as entirely due to “outside interference” and also as a manifestation of “Israel’s weakness in combating the BDS movement”. Feldman also approvingly noted faculty pledges to continue with the boycott individually.

“Despite our disappointment with the results of the vote we should not let today’s outcome obscure the tremendous gains the movement for solidarity with the Palestinian struggle has achieved within the AAA,” Ilana Feldman, a member of the organizing collective Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions and a professor at George Washington University, told The Electronic Intifada.
Feldman noted that 1,300 anthropologists have pledged to adhere to the academic boycott of Israeli institutions in their own professional capacity.

https://www.facebook.com/AnthropologistsForJusticeinPalestine/posts/1748008552142278

https://archive.vn/wip/HwzWj

https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/charlotte-silver/full-might-israel-lobby-ekes-out-razor-thin-win-anthropology-vote?fbclid=IwAR0Ueo6jDo2fd9_kl2bgI_ii5tPCjRPkflDkI24sSL1Kd-2Tq5e6s2RYZUI

The Electronic Intifada article ends as follows:

Ilana Feldman told The Electronic Intifada that the AAA boycott collective will evaluate the actions as they are more fully developed.

“We continue to believe that boycott is the most effective action that the AAA as an organization and anthropologists as individuals can take in defense of Palestinian rights,” Feldman said.”

Feldman has been part of continuing the AAA effort to demonize Israel. The AAA issued another report called the AAA MPAAC Committee for Human Rights 2018-2019 Monitoring Report on Israel-Palestine. The report explains itself. All of the “advisory” faculty are anti-Israel, pro-boycott, and instrumental in advocating for the AAA’s involvement in BDS.

Feldman helped pro-boycott academics in the American Historical Association advocate for that association to adopt the boycott (it failed). A paper by E. Nathalie Rothman and Andrew Zimmerman of the AHA described their efforts to enact the boycott within the AHA (Emphasis added):

The idea for this special issue grew out of a panel we organized for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 2016 on the comparative history of boycotts. At that time a number of national academic associations, including the American Studies Association (ASA), the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), were considering resolutions responding to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). We thought that the AHA should have similar discussions.

…For our panel at the AHA we assembled a group of scholars who were experts in the history of boycotts. Matt García presented on the grape boycott by the United Farm Workers in California in the 1960s, Julie Holcomb analyzed the boycott of sugar by British antislavery activists in the nineteenth century, Jon Soske considered the sports boycotts of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, and Ilana Feldman outlined the campaign for a BDS resolution in the AAA.

…The next two reflections on the BDS movement, by Ilana Feldman and Amro Sadeldeen, present an illuminating tension. Both recognize BDS as the most important current movement for justice in Palestine, and both consider it from the perspective of “coresistance” to the Israeli occupation. Feldman highlights how adhering to the Palestinian call for BDS allows international scholars to follow a Palestinian lead, resisting with, rather than on behalf of, the oppressed.

The Merging of Academics and Activism Makes BDS Supporters Inappropriate For a Dean Position

Law professor David Bernstein recognizes the incompatibility of a pro-boycott Dean and academic freedom:

Feldman’s appointment puts into stark relief something I have been thinking about for some time—is being a supporter of academic boycotts of Israel consistent with holding an administrative position such as being a dean? …. I think the answer is no….

The problem currently is that BDS supporters are being appointed to deanships, department chairmanships, and so on, without any inquiry by their universities as to whether they will implement academic boycott policies.

Asaf Romirowsky notes how Feldman’s type of scholar-activism is all too prevalent:

She is a case study of a scholar-activist who has now been given authority by the university administration to extend her own sphere of influence beyond the classroom….

The bigger picture surrounding the Feldman kerfuffle is the broader state of academia that continues to produce vapid pro-Palestinian polemics under the thin guise of scholarship. Scholar-activists want to be seen as successors to the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, the leading proponent of academia’s Palestinianization and a key creator of its ruling intellectual paradigm, postcolonial theory. In that context, Said equated academics who support American foreign policy with 19th-century European intellectuals who, he alleged, propped up racist colonial empires.

A core premise of postcolonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his/her knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power. Said’s major work, Orientalism, blamed all of the troubles of the Middle East on the West, stemming from a “trifecta of evils”—imperialism, racism and Zionism. While Orientalism often ignored evidence that ran counter to its thesis, it is still the canonical text in the academic field of Middle Eastern studies. Feldman exemplifies this.

The correlation of identity politics and propaganda among younger pro-Palestinian scholar-activists who devote their time to misinformation rather than actual inquiry and research has also spread to other disciplines. One result has been the transformation of classrooms and campuses into places where only one narrative is offered and only one opinion is acceptable.

I think you probably get the point.

Feldman’s anti-Israel activism and scholarship completely merged. This is not uncommon among BDS supporters. Their academic reason to be is to advocate one-sided, ahistorical narratives about Israel in which there is one pure perpetrator, and one pure victim.

I’ve never met Feldman, but I have a sense of her from reading her writings and watching her videos. She is an honest advocate for BDS, meaning she’s a true believer.

There is no way Feldman could be expected to abide by GWU’s anti-BDS policies. It would be asking Feldman to deny who she is, to be a fake in the position. For Feldman to accept such restrictions would be for her to admit her life work was a fraud, that she didn’t really mean all the things she said about the necessity of boycotting.

The concern about putting a BDS activist in a position that requires non-discrimination and the promotion of academic freedom is that whatever the agreement to abide by university policies, there would be an under-the-radar boycott. What Feldman describes to the Electronic Intifada as “adher[ing] to the academic boycott of Israeli institutions in their own professional capacity.”

There’s a lesson GWU and other universities need to take away from this episode. You can have academic freedom, or you can have a pro-BDS Dean, but you can’t have both.

Academic Freedom Win: Israel Boycott Supporter Ilana Feldman Will Not Be Dean at George Washington U

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AUTHOR

William A Jacobson

William A. Jacobson is Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Securities Law Clinic at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York.

He is a 1981 graduate of Hamilton College and a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law School.

At Harvard he was Senior Editor of the *Harvard International Law Journal* and Director of Litigation for the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project.

Prior to joining the Cornell law faculty in 2007, Professor Jacobson had a highly successful civil litigation and arbitration practice in Providence, Rhode Island, concentrating in investment, employment, and business disputes in the securities industry, including many high profile cases reported in leading newspapers and magazines.Professor Jacobson frequently is quoted in national media on issues related to investment fraud and investor protection.

Professor Jacobson also is the founder and publisher of two popular websites, Legal Insurrection and College Insurrection, which receive well over 1 million page views per month.

In March 2014, Professor Jacobson was named Blogger of the Year by the National Bloggers Club, an independent group of right-of-center bloggers which had its annual awards ceremony in Washington, D.C..

Professor Jacobson has covered the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement for years, and is at the forefront of opposing the academic boycott of Israel.

Professor Jacobson's work against the academic boycott has been cited at major publications such as The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, Fox News, Forbes, National Review, Inside Higher Ed, Commentary Magazine, and throughout the blogosphere.

Among other things, through Legal Insurrection Professor Jacobson was instrumental in obtaining rejections of the American Studies Association academic boycott by over 250 University Presidents, and has filed a challenge to the American Studies Association's tax exempt status.

In May 2014, Professor Jacobson challenged 39 Vassar College professors who signed a pro-boycott letter to a debate. Not one accepted.


Read all stories by William A Jacobson

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