The intellectual embargo: Political tool – or censorship of free ideas?

“In dozens of countries academics are imprisoned for their beliefs. So the universities of which country does BDS want to sanction and boycott?” the prime minister questioned.

Netanyahu speaking at AIPAC 2014 (photo credit: screenshot)
Netanyahu speaking at AIPAC 2014
(photo credit: screenshot)
On March 4 Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in a move many found surprising, closed his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
“In dozens of countries academics are imprisoned for their beliefs. So the universities of which country does BDS want to sanction and boycott?” the prime minister questioned. “Israel – the one country in the Middle East where professors can say, write and teach what they want.”
Jacqueline Mondros, dean and professor of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York City, disagrees vehemently with the American Studies Association’s December decision to boycott Israeli universities for those policies.
“If it were to be successful, it’s another kind of tyranny,” she says.
Yet, Mondros says she has misgivings about governmental policies regarding the Palestinians.
“Many of us, myself included, wish things were very different in Israel. I probably don’t agree with a lot of things that are occurring there.”
Is it a grievous violation of academic freedom or a legitimate tool to put pressure on an oppressor? Conversations with scholars across the globe regarding the ASA boycott reveal a much-nuanced discussion taking place. There are loud voices echoing from faculty lounges and the media; trepidation from some about speaking out and those that express ambivalence towards the issue.
“If you want to support the Palestinians and weigh in on that side of this very complicated issue, you get engaged and bring people to the table,” says Mondros.
The boycott decision by the ASA saw 1,252 of its members participate in that vote, passing with a majority of 66 percent.
Their resolution for the boycott is meant to show solidarity “with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom,” according to the ASA website.
“The ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott emerges from the context of US military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and finally, the support of such a resolution by a majority of ASA members.”
Yet many detractors continue supporting the argument against the boycott that cutting off dialogue with Israeli universities is self-defeating in the goal of raising awareness on both sides toward a solution for peace. Some, like Samuel Fleischacker, a professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, point out that at its core, an academic boycott is squarely contradictory to the philosophy of higher education.
“The academic world is a part and a paradigm of free speech,” said Fleischacker.
“Universities are supposed to be places where people can really talk about things they can’t talk about elsewhere.”
He cites by way of example, the workplace, where it is verboten to discuss politics.
Fleischacker may disagree with the ASA boycott, but he also sees a squelching of free speech by members of the Jewish community in the US. He has posted a petition online that simultaneously rebukes the boycott and calls on American and Israeli Jews to uphold the principle of academic freedom even where critics of Israeli policy are involved.
In a recent opinion piece he wrote for the Jewish Daily Forward, Fleischacker cited several recent events as part of a “worrying trend” of obstruction to free speech in the States: pro-Israel advocacy groups putting pressure on universities to refuse tenure to anti-Zionist faculty members; the current consideration of a law in the New York State legislature that would strip funding from universities that support the ASA boycott; the brouhaha involving Hillel International’s guidelines rejecting partnerships with groups deemed hostile toward Israel.
“We can’t just say, Jewish institutions, if you take a view that is anti-Zionist, then you are not allowed in the building,” says Fleischacker. “That would be suicidal for us, I think.”
While Fleischacker lobbies for freer discourse, others say the conversations against the boycott are completely disingenuous.
David Lloyd, distinguished professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, is an endorser of the ASA boycott who calls into question the sincerity of the debate itself.
“As usual, the concern for Israeli academics and their hypothetical difficulties erases the actual disabilities under which Palestinian scholars and students daily have to work and which are direct attacks on their academic freedoms,” said Lloyd in an email. “The pretense at dialogue and exchange under such unequal conditions makes a mockery of genuine interchange.”
Lloyd’s argument echoes the ASA’s resolution statement, which says, in part, “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation.”
Supporters of the resolution say this issue features prominently in their desire to put pressure on Israel.
David Palumbo-Liu, professor of comparative literature at Stanford University, agrees with the contention that Palestinians experience infringements that impede their ability to undertake academic work. He cites both Israeli laws and what he sees as logistical obstructions on the ground that impact Palestinian professors and students.
In an email, Palumbo-Liu said: “Some infringements do not take the form of explicit laws, but rather the form of state practices such as punitive ‘security’ measures that contain students behind checkpoints for inordinate amounts of time.”
He added, “Others, like the well-known Nakba law and the practice of restricting travel – the refusal of visas for students to accept Fulbrights for example – clearly deny Palestinian academic freedom.”
Travel-related restrictions of other kinds – in particular, the refusal of visas to American professors – have often been cited by proponents of the academic boycott.
It is a subject Ilan Troen, Stoll Family chairman in Israel Studies and director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, addressed head-on when he spoke on a panel at a recent conference of the Modern Language Association. That group had followed ASA’s boycott with a resolution that contested what it characterized as Israel’s discriminatory “denials of entry” to American scholars seeking to visit the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities.
Troen disagreed with that premise.
“Israel isn’t stopping them,” he said. “If you visit websites of the United States government, of the State Department, it warns Americans not to go to Bethlehem, except during the daytime and then with great care. It tells about the potential problems of terrorism in the territories. In short, it gives the opposite story of which they wish to convey.”
His remarks on the MLA panel included the statistic that in 2012 Israel denied entry to a total of 142 Americans, for a refusal rate of about 0.023 percent. Troen says, in fact, hundreds of foreign teachers successfully enter Palestine, and that his own university, Brandeis, regularly sends faculty and students to Al-Quds in the West Bank.
Hillel Schenker, coeditor of the Palestinian-Israel Journal, a Jerusalem-based English-language publication, and cofounder of the Peace Now movement, says the ASA is wrong to state that there is no academic freedom for Palestinian students, that the ASA statement fails to accurately present the whole picture.
“The fact is, there is a very vibrant Palestinian academic life in such universities as Al-Quds and Birzeit, as well as in Bethlehem, Hebron and Gaza. At the same time,” he said, “you have terrible restrictions on, let’s say, students in Gaza to go to a West Bank university.
There are almost never even permits to be able to move.”
Schenker, whose journal features articles from prominent Israeli and Palestinian scholars, will not accept submissions from Ariel University in the West Bank. He says while he prefers engagement to boycott, “At the same time, I realize that the Palestinians look at the situation and they say, ‘We have been negotiating since Oslo began in 1993 – for 21 years. The settlements are continuing to grow and we don’t see a solution.’” It is unsurprising that Dr. Mehnaz Afridi finds the idea of an academic boycott to be antithetical to her work, which is steeped in building bridges across religions and cultures. A Muslim professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York, Afridi experienced a measure of controversy when she was named director of the school’s Holocaust education center.
“I think punishing Israeli, American and Palestinian students for political reasons is not going to get us into peace talks,” says Afridi, whose academic areas of interest include research on Islamic communities that resisted Nazi efforts during the Holocaust.
“As an educator, education should be a developing process and perhaps the place where we can have intelligent conversations.”
Depending on whom you talk to, the academic boycott, which is a subset of the larger movement of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel – will either gain traction, thereby applying pressure for Israel to change its policy on such issues as the settlements – or have no substantive result. Some say one problem with the movement is contradictory goals among its minions.
Dr. Tony Klug, a special adviser on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group in the United Kingdom and formerly vice-chairman of the Arab-Jewish Forum, sees an incoherence in the BDS message.
“You have two broad factions in the BDS movement,” says Klug. “One aims to end the Israeli occupation, while the other aims to end Israel.”
He contends that while the two factions can’t agree on the objective, they agree on the strategy and tend to keep quiet about the objective so as not to split the movement. Ultimately, Klug says, BDS cannot achieve its aim because it has not settled on what that is.
“This is not to say that it won’t continue to gather momentum and have a significant impact for as long as Israel continues to be an occupying power, even if some of the ‘victories’ are more apparent than real,” says Klug, who believes ending the occupation is the only sure way to bring an end to these and similar actions.
He also draws an important distinction between boycotting all of Israel or just the settlements – a message that is often unspecified on campuses in the debate.
“I would certainly support actions that are aimed at resurrecting the old ‘Green Line’ between Israel and the Palestinian territories and impressing on the majority of the Israeli population – the 94% who are not settlers – that such actions are not aimed at them.”
Making that argument is essential, Klug says, in winning in the court of Israeli public opinion.
“What people who want to bring pressure need to do is to take action which clearly demonstrates that distinction.”
While some academics agree such actions can be persuasive, others, including Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Canada and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem, say the academic boycott in particular is having the opposite effect.
“It is backfiring and bolstering support for Israel, so maybe I should be encouraging it,” he jokes.
Troy says the debate on university campuses about Israel, including on his own, is hostile and biased, and therefore ineffective. He points to a perceived intellectual pile-on and demonization of Israel. “The sloppy use of incorrect historical analogies like ‘apartheid’ and the use of words like ‘racism’ and ‘colonialism’ to describe a situation which is neither, suggests there is a deep animus, an irrational bias, which is more in the realm of the bigot.”
That deeply divisive tenor, found at many universities, manifests itself in the form of student groups that ban activities related to Israel – for example, Israeli speaking engagements.
“People will creep in with some intellectual justification and then try to boycott everything – specifically boycott Israel,” says Ashley Grossman, professor of endocrinology, Oxford Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism, Radcliffe Department of Medicine, University of Oxford in England.
He pointed out that the sentiment behind such action does not extend to the general population at his university, but that the groups behind it are successful because they are well-organized.
However well-organized, Troen says none of the boycott measures against Israel will have an impact. He questions whether biblical scholars, for example, will decline the opportunity to work with Israelis; whether scientists will opt out of learning what the latest findings in Israel are, and what Israel is inventing. Troen points out that 162 countries have relations with Israel, including China, which plans to build the Technion Guangdong Institute of Technology with a foundation sponsorship of $130 million.
“There is zero impact,” Troen says of the boycott efforts. “ The whole thing is a farce.”
Bashar Azzeh, a Palestinian businessman and member of “Breaking the Impasse,” an initiative of the World Economic Forum established to renew momentum for peace, vehemently disagrees the boycotts are ineffective.
He views them as an eye-opener for the international community of what is going on in Israel, and points to a recent statement by US Secretary of State John Kerry regarding a perceived delegitimization campaign that is building up against Israel.
Azzeh, who lives in east Jerusalem and works on the West Bank, sees the value of most boycott efforts involving Israeli products and the settlements, though he is not in support of the boycott of Israeli universities.
“When it comes to an intellectual boycott, in my opinion, you are killing the most important outlet for education, for change.”
He believes conditions are ripe for such change in the world’s community and is hopeful the current peace talks will be successful.
As those talks drag on, however, “The average Muhammad and Salah walk in the morning and see checkpoints,” says Azzeh. “They see settlers, and an increase in Jewish settler violence. They see soldiers and a lack of natural resources. They see houses with gardens and swimming pools on the hill but they live in a village without any of those things.”