PennBDS – The Academic Boycott

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

On a couple of previous occasions, I’ve mentioned some name changes to items in the PennBDS agenda, mostly as by-the-by asides.  But in this instance, it’s worth highlighting the fact that a session once entitled “Debate on the Academic Boycott” is now simply called “The Academic Boycott.”

Now it may be that this is a simple name change and that the speakers for this event represent the strongest voices the PennBDS folks could find on either side of the issue, which means the audience will be exposed to a genuine debate over what the conference organizers consider to be a subject of great importance.

But if this name change represents a decision by these organizers to eliminate any part of their program that would even pretend that two sides of an issue existed, that would fit their choice to avoid debateat all cost, despite their constant assertions that they are dying for dialog with their opponents.

When BDS advocates have organized “debates” in the past, their preference is to choose choose both sides (usually recruiting a Jewish “anti-BDS” speaker who can be assured to laud the goals of the BDS “movement” but simply question their methods, with general agreement over the “Israel = Apartheid” propaganda message known in advance).  But if even a contrived, lopsided debate of this type is too much for the PennBDS cru to accept, I think we can all guess where they are coming from.

And if someone was to give them a real debate over “The Academic Boycott,” it would have to begin by pointing out that of all the boycott, divestment and sanctions activities advocated by PennBDS speakers and organizers, none is more loathed and despised than calls for international academics to boycott their Israeli colleagues which would involve refusing to invite them to conferences (or to attend their conferences), refusing to publish their papers, engage in joint research projects or even talk to them (lest you be found guilty of “normalizing” the Jewish condition – whoops! I mean “The Occupation”).

Consumer boycotts probably come in a close second with regard to the amount of disgust they generate, especially in the US where people don’t take kindly to being told what they can and cannot buy. But even if arguments have been found that take on product boycotts on principle (Davis Food Co-op’s highlighting that such boycotts would represent a betrayal of the Rochdale Principlesupon which the co-op movement was founded springs to mind), the principle of academic freedom is woven into the fabric of every educational institution and (with a few exceptions) everyone who educates others for a living.

To cite a few examples of how these principles have motivated action, when the leadership of a UK teacher’s union proposed a boycott of Israeli universities several years ago, the reaction of college and university presidents around the world was to declare that for the purpose of any boycott, their institutions should be considered Israeli universitiesand also boycotted.  It was a noble gesture, but ultimately unnecessary since the union’s membership (which was never consulted on this boycott decision – par for the course with regard to BDS “victories”) revolted upon hearing what was being said in their name and the boycott resolution was quickly withdrawn.

It’s interesting to note that it was Columbia University which spearheaded this campaign, the very Columbia that has been accused in the past of allowing teachers to inappropriately politic in the classroom, the Columbia that provided a platform for Iranian President Ahmadinejad to spew his bile to the community.  But when the question of a boycott came up, academic freedom easily trumped all other considerations.  Similarly, San Francisco State College has historically been one of the worst campuses in the country for pro-Israel activists, with an environment where this lovely poster (not to mention a near riot) didn’t rouse the administration to action.  But when faced with calls for an academic boycott, the President of SF State issued a resounding denunciation.

While BDS advocates highlight the few hundred American instructors who signed a petition calling their fellow academics to boycott their Israeli colleagues, they never mention that the 1.5 million strong American Federationof Teachers unionthat made it abundantly clear what they thought of calls for an academic boycott of Israel (which is not much, beyond hostility to it).

Those in favor of academic boycotts like to highlight the plight of students at Palestinian universities to make arguments that it is theirposition that represents true calls for academic freedom.  Needless to say, the fact that these very universities were built by Israel during the dreaded “Occupation” and only faced problems once they had been turned into cesspools of propaganda and violence after they came under PA administration during the Oslo years will never cross the boycotter’s lips.

But even with this history all but forgotten, the vast majority of academics react viscerally to the notion of shunning their Israeli colleagues, even with BDS advocates incessantly claiming that this is their only moral choice.

With Israeli academics winning Nobel Prizes and American and European colleges and universities fighting to create joint programswith Israeli institutions, it’s curious why the BDSers continue to press for academic boycotts, rather than putting their energy into efforts like their TIAA-CREF divestment campaign that (while failing) at least don’t come tinged with an assault on academic freedom.

The reason for this has to do with boycotters’ insistence that anyone joining their “movement” must sacrifice all to prove their devotion.  In the case of the churches, it’s not good enough for the Presbyterians or Methodists to make moral statements on secular political issues.  Rather they are asked to stake their positions on “Christian Witness,” declaring (in effect) that their political statements represent the will of God.

Academic boycotts follow a similar pattern, asking educators to place what they hold most sacred (academic freedom) on the sacrificial alter. And this makes sense once you realize that someone making a simple political decision can always change his or her mind.  But someone who has been maneuvered to sacrifice all they believe in for the sake of someone else’s cause can never turn back.

Now that’s something worth debating!

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