Academic Freedom Against Itself: Boycotting Israeli Universities

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I hate it when I have a book in press and people keep writing about the subject anyway. You would think that they would have the courtesy to hold their fire until I have had my say. I raise the issue because my book on academic freedom (“Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution”) will be out in about a year and the online Journal of Academic Freedom (published by the American Association of University Professors) has just posted its fourth volume consisting of essays on a topic that figures prominently in my analysis — the boycott of Israeli universities by academic institutions and scholars housed in other countries.

For those of you who haven’t heard about this movement, let me briefly rehearse its history. Since the early 2000’s a number of academics have been arguing that because Israel is a rogue state engaged in acts of oppression and apartheid, and because Israeli universities are by and large supported and administered by the state, it must be assumed that those universities further the ends of a repressive regime, either by actively supporting its policies or by remaining silent in the face of atrocities committed against the Palestinians. Accordingly, it is appropriate, and indeed a matter of urgency, for right-thinking (meaning left-thinking) academics to refuse to engage in intellectual discourse with the Israeli academy. If you have an exchange program with an Israeli university, suspend it; if you are the editor of a scholarly journal and an Israeli researcher is a member of your board, remove him.

In response to the objection that such actions violate the academic freedom of Israeli academics by singling them out for exclusion from the scholarly conversation for which they were trained (thereby making them into second-class academic citizens), boycott supporters make two points that are somewhat in tension. They say, first, that the academic freedom of Palestinian professors and students is violated daily when they are denied access, funding, materials and mobility by the state of Israel; no academic freedom for you if you don’t accord it to them. This argument, you will note, assumes that academic freedom is a primary value. The second argument doesn’t. It says that while academic freedom is usually a good thing, when basic questions of justice are in play, it must give way. Here is the Palestinian researcher Omar Barghouti making that point in the current issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom: “[W]hen a prevailing and consistent denial of basic human rights is recognized, the ethical responsibility of every free person and every association of free persons, academic institutions included, to resist injustice supersedes other considerations about whether such acts of resistance [like a boycott] may directly or indirectly injure academic freedom.”

Or, in other words, adhering strictly to academic freedom standards is O.K. in the conduct of academic business as usual, but when something truly horrible is happening in the world, the niceties of academic freedom become a luxury we can’t (and shouldn’t) afford: “[I]n contexts of dire oppression, the obligation to save human lives and to protect the inalienable rights of the oppressed to live as free, equal humans acquires an overriding urgency and an immediate priority.”

The repetition of the word “free” in Barghouti’s statements alerts us to something peculiar in this line of reasoning: academic freedom, traditionally understood as the freedom to engage in teaching and research free from the influences or pressures of politics, is being declared an obstacle to — even the enemy of — genuine freedom, which is defined politically. You can be true to academic freedom, at least in this logic, only if you are willing to jettison its precepts when, in your view, political considerations outweigh them. David Lloyd and Malini Johar Scheuller (writing in the same volume) say as much when they describe a boycott as “a specific tactic, deployed in relation to a wider campaign against injustice.” Wider than what? The answer is, wider than an academic freedom conceived as a professional — not moral or political — concept. That professional conception of academic freedom, characterized by boycotters as impoverished, desiccated, and an alibi for neoliberal hegemony, must be left behind so that actions in violation of academic freedom narrowly defined may be taken in the name of an academic freedom suitably enlarged.

The formula and the rationale for this vision of academic freedom undoing itself in the service of academic freedom are concisely given in a Howard Zinn quotation Lloyd and Scheuller ask us to remember: “To me, academic freedom has always meant the right to insist that academic freedom be more than academic.” This declaration has the virtue of illustrating just how the transformation of academic freedom from a doctrine insulating the academy from politics into a doctrine that demands of academics blatantly political actions is managed. What you do is diminish (finally to nothing) the limiting force of the adjective “academic” and at the same time put all the emphasis on freedom (which should be re-written FREEDOM) until the academy loses its distinctive status and becomes just one more location of a universal moral/political struggle. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, cited by Rima Najjar Kapitan in her essay, says it forthrightly: “[A]cademic freedom is not only an end…. It is also the means for realizing other important ends, including individual freedoms , that go beyond expressive freedoms to encompass all freedoms such as nondiscrimination.” When the means, strictly adhered to, seem to block the realization of the end, sacrifice them. (Oh, Kant, thou shouldst be living at this hour!)

As you can tell from my citations, nearly all of the essays in the new issue of J.A.F. support the boycott although the A.A.U.P. itself is against it, at least so far. Only one commissioned essay (out of nine, plus a polemical and biased introduction) and two published responses to the volume take the opposite position. Ernst Benjamin, an old A.A.U.P. hand, makes the key point when he observes that “The A.A.U.P. is not itself a human rights organization.” Cary Nelson, until recently the president of the A.A.U.P., elaborates, explaining that “The focus of the A.A.U.P.’s mission is higher education.” It follows, he continues, that academic freedom is to be understood within the context of that focus: “[A]cademic freedom is a specialized right that is not legally implicated in the full spectrum of human rights that nations should honor.” (That’s perfect.)

This does not mean, of course, that academics are bent on violating human rights or that they display an unconcern with them. It means, rather, that watching out for human rights violations and taking steps to stop them is not the charge either of the A.A.U.P. or the academy or the doctrine of academic freedom. Watching out for academic freedom violations — instances in which a scholar’s right to pursue his or her research freely has been compromised by an overweening administration — is the charge, and it includes taking steps to stop him or her by exerting pressure or threatening legal action. As Nelson’s vocabulary reminds us, this is a specialized monitoring of behavior in circumscribed educational contexts, not a monitoring of bad behavior wherever on earth it might be found. We should not, says Benjamin “compromise this principle [of academic freedom] in the name of others which, though they may be larger and even more important, are not the principles specific to our association.” If we do so, and extend academic freedom only to those “found worthy” by a political measure, we shall have lost our grip on academic freedom altogether, for “[p]olitically qualified academic freedom is not really academic freedom at all.” (Amen!)

Distinctions like the ones invoked by Benjamin and Nelson are likely to be waved away by those they argue against, because, as Marjorie Heins, the third dissenter, observes, in the eyes of academics “incensed at Israeli policies …delicate questions about the unjust targeting of innocent professors, or of imposing political tests, are minor concerns compared to the moral exigency of the issue.” “The issue” is of course the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and while it is easy to understand how academics, among others, might find that treatment objectionable and reprehensible (and I take no position on the question here), it is not so easy to understand how moral outrage at a political action can be so quickly translated into an obligation to deny professional courtesies to people whose responsibility for that action is at best attenuated and in many instances non-existent. And it absolutely defies understanding — except by the convoluted and loose arguments rehearsed above — that the concept of academic freedom could be used to defend a policy, the policy of boycott, that so cavalierly throws academic freedom under the bus.

A final question. What animates the boycotters? They would, I am sure, answer, we are animated by a commitment to the securing of social/political justice, a commitment that overrides lesser commitments we might have as professionals. I’ll grant that as a part of their motivation, but another, perhaps larger, part is the opportunity to shed the label “ivory-tower intellectual” — a label that announces their real-world ineffectuality — and march under a more flattering banner, the banner of “freedom fighter.” But the idea that an academic becomes some kind of hero by the cost-free act of denying other academics the right to play in the communal sandbox (yes, this is third-grade stuff) is as pathetic as it is laughable. Heroism doesn’t come that cheaply. Better, I think, to wear the “ivory-tower intellectual” label proudly. At least, it’s honest.

Academic Freedom Against Itself: Boycotting Israeli Universities

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