February 2, 2014

CASTLE | The ASA Boycott: Why the ‘Academic Freedom’ Argument Won’t Fly

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By ANNA-LISA CASTLE

In mid-December the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to join the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement against Israel by cutting ties with Israeli academic institutions. As my fellow columnist, Rebecca John, pointed out in her Jan. 29 column, this follows the academic boycotts by the Association for Asian American Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. In response, the Association of American Universities (AAU) issued a statement signed by its executive board, including our own President Skorton, opposing the academic boycott on the grounds that it violates the principles of academic freedom. I respectfully disagree. Last week, the New York State Senate passed a bill that would defund state colleges and universities participating in academic boycotts. This anti-boycott law, of course, is an absurd attempt to suppress free speech and is likely to incur legal action challenging its constitutionality.

First, it’s important to understand that the move to end consumer and academic relations with Israel is not the spontaneous work of radicals. It isn’t rooted in anti-Semitism, and it isn’t unprecedented. This is the tactic that Palestinian rights activists have asked the international community to take up in solidarity. The movement is largely inspired by the successful BDS efforts that ended South African apartheid, which is widely seen as a parallel struggle against oppression, segregation and colonization. Though many have mischaracterized the movement, the intention of BDS is not to blindly attack Israel or put an end to the Jewish state. The goal is to create non-violent global grassroots pressure on Israel to abide by international human rights law and the United Nations resolutions that it has thus far ignored. The demands are stated clearly in Palestinians’ call to boycott: ending Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, respecting the personhood of Palestinians and allowing refugees to return to their homes.

The academic component of the boycott is similarly misunderstood. The ASA resolution does not target Israeli academics, rather it targets colleges and universities. This means that the ASA as an organization will not formally engage in partnerships with Israeli institutions, which as some have pointed out, doesn’t happen often anyway. The ASA has since emphasized its commitment to academic freedom, explaining that the largely symbolic boycott does not and will not penalize individual academics or their scholarship. Understanding the goals and terms of the boycott makes it clear that the academic freedom argument that opponents have levied simply doesn’t stand.

Though this has not been the principal argument of supporters, I would add that I find it preposterous to place a simplistic, decontextualized idea of academic freedom before the right to live, to live without fear of displacement and bodily harm, to grow and eat food, to drink clean water and to move and speak freely. As John noted, serious violations of Palestinians’ freedom are systematically enacted by the state of Israel, with huge support from the United States. And what about academic freedom for Palestinians? Students in Gaza and the West Bank have been silenced, Fulbright recipients prohibited from traveling and academics barred from leaving the country. The ASA boycott doesn’t even come close to that level of censorship. (Plus, it’s probably pretty hard to contribute to the academic discussion or organize a conference when your neighborhood is being bulldozed.) I understand that it is dangerous territory to take what some would call a dismissive attitude toward academic freedom or to organize “types” of freedom in a hierarchy. But that’s exactly what the AAU and other opponents are doing when they argue that preserving official institutional ties is more important than Palestinians’ freedom that the ASA is standing up for or more important than the free exchange of ideas outside of compromised institutions, which the boycott permits.

This brings me to my other concern: If opposition to the academic boycott is not about academics or actual scholarship, what are we talking about when we say “academic freedom?” The argument hinges on the idea that the institution itself is necessary for the continuation of academic, or rather, intellectual discourse. Of course, this is an obvious position to take for the AAU, whose board is comprised of university presidents. However, things are changing. Try as they might, universities are not the gatekeepers of wisdom they once were. We have the Internet. Additionally, an increasingly corporate structure of academic institutions and an increasingly corporate cast of bedfellows have their own interests at stake. For example, if I’m top brass at Technion, I’d sure as hell expect President Skorton to condemn the ASA. The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is Cornell’s partner on the new tech campus and would fall under the terms of the academic boycott. I’m not saying, “down with the academy,” but I think it’s important to recognize that the academic boycott raises issues of institutional autonomy at a time when the institution is losing relevance –– or is at least in a process of serious transformation.

In the digital age, universities have no monopoly on knowledge; the academic boycott should not be considered a threat to academic freedom, though perhaps it undermines the academy as we know it. A recent and predictable Letter to the Editor that appeared in The Sun, arguing against BDS, was titled “Boycotts Won’t Work.” To an extent, the author is right. Even if every civilian organization in the world boycotted Israel, it could survive on the many, many billions it gets in aid from the U.S. But it’s not about strangling the state into taking action, it’s about building a movement so big that dignity for Palestinians is the obvious conclusion and change is inevitable.

Anna-Lisa Castle is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at amc394@cornell.edu. Nonstop Biweekly Real Talk appears alternate Mondays this semester.