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In Protest of Indifference: Academic Freedom and the American Studies Association

I am a member of the American Studies Association, which on December 15, 2013, endorsed a resolution to support an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, called for in 2004 by Palestinian civil society.

The resolution and supporting documents are accessible on the ASA’s web site and should be read by anyone who wants to understand the motives behind the decision of the membership and why Israel is the specific target of the boycott.  I am not going to repeat those arguments here. Rather, I want to respond to the most frequent argument against the boycott: that it undermines the cause of academic freedom.

The gold standard for defining academic freedom is the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure with 1970 Interpretive Comments,” which defines the topic as follows:

“Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.”

Academic freedom and tenure are specifically linked because the AAUP understands tenure as the mechanism that guarantees academic freedom to college and university teachers as individuals. The statement’s focus is on individual rights and responsibilities within institutional contexts—not on institutions per se. Important, in this respect, is that the AAUP has historically protected the academic freedom of university and college teachers over and against the infringement of those rights by the institutions that house them.

In its online Frequently Asked Questions about the boycott, the ASA stipulates: “This boycott targets institutions and their representatives, not individual scholars, students or cultural workers who will be able to participate in the ASA conference or give public lectures at campuses, provided they are not expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents, etc.), or of the Israeli government.”

Further, as the same document states: “The ASA supports a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, given that these Israeli institutions are complicit in the multitiered system of oppression that has denied Palestinians their basic rights,” including academic freedom for Palestinian university students and teachers.

The boycott, then, is in support of the academic freedom currently denied Palestinians (with the complicity of Israeli institutions), rather than opposing the academic freedom of Israeli teachers and students.

In 2006 the AAUP published its “Report on Academic Boycotts,” which was generated in 2005 in response to an announced boycott of two Israeli universities by the British Association of University Teachers. This boycott was itself generated in response to a call for such boycotts by groups within Palestinian civil society. Citing the 1940 “Statement of Principles,” the report argued that such boycotts in the final analysis controverted academic freedom,  which “rests on the principle that ‘institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good … [which] depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.’”

This argument makes two assumptions that I think are fundamentally flawed:

First, it assumes that academic institutions can simply be separated from state power, which is not necessarily concerned with the “common good” and may even be opposed to that good—as is certainly the case if we consider the common good of the Palestinians. Second, the argument mistakenly holds that academics and their institutions share a common identity, so that the boycotting of the latter automatically constitutes a boycotting of the former (something the ASA document I have cited contradicts in its open invitation to all Israeli scholars).

So while the academic and cultural boycott of Israel definitely places impediments in the way of scholarly communication across borders (when it involves inter-institutional collaborations), it neither fundamentally stops such communications (between individual scholars) nor opposes the fundamentals of academic freedom (quite the contrary), and may even serve to encourage inter- and intra-institutional forums on the crucial issues driving the boycott.

In its “Report on Academic Boycotts,” the AAUP states in relation to academic institutions that it finds censurable: “The AAUP engages in no formal effort to discourage faculty from working at these institutions or to ostracize the institution and its members from academic exchanges.” Yet in its 2011 “Report on the Termination Of Ward Churchill,” the Colorado Conference of the AAUP, finding that the professor’s academic freedom had been grossly violated by the University of Colorado, recommended “that faculty in search of employment consider a position at the University of Colorado only as a last resort because of the University of Colorado’s indifference to the ideals of academic freedom.”

Apparently, under certain circumstances, the AAUP does endorse a form of boycott as a way of protesting “indifference [by universities] to the ideals of academic freedom.” Responding to the call by Palestinian civil society for an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions, the ASA boycott, as I understand it, is in protest of such indifference by Israeli universities.

Eric Cheyfitz is a professor of English and American and Native American studies at Cornell University.

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