Monday, January 20, 2014

Invitation to sign a public statement of principles defending academic freedom against "boycotts", blacklists, and other threats from various directions

Don't Let the Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Undermine Academic Freedom
For over a decade there has been a persistent campaign to institute a blacklist—misleadingly and euphemistically described as a "boycott"—of Israeli academia.  Its goal is to stigmatize Israeli academics as a group and exclude them from international academic and intellectual life (with possible exceptions for individuals who actively express politically acceptable views) as a way of putting pressure on Israel.  Over time, in response to objections, some supporters of this campaign have tried to pretend—or have persuaded themselves—that the aim is confined to instituting a "purely institutional boycott" that (somehow) doesn't affect actual people.  But even when those claims are not simply disingenuous, in practice that is not a genuinely workable distinction.  (Some brief and cogent explanations of why that's true are here & here & here & here & here.)  And at all events, even the most carefully disguised "boycott" measures emanating from this campaign violate one of the key constitutive norms for the whole structure of academic freedom—namely, that academics and academic institutions should should not be punished for the actions of their governments.  

The most conspicuous manifestations of this campaign have been in the British Isles, starting with the 2005 blacklist resolution by the Association of University Teachers (AUT), later repealed by a vote of the full membership, and continuing with a string of actions by its successor organization the Universities & College Union (UCU).  In 2005 the AUT blacklist was strongly condemned as a violation of the basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange by a number of academic and scholarly associations on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the US, these included the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the American Political Science Association (APSA), and the American Psychological Association (APA).  The American Sociological Association (ASA) followed suit in 2007, in response to a similar action by the UCU.  But the fever for academic blacklisting is no longer a purely British (and Irish) disease. In 2013 several US academic associations, beginning with Asian-American Studies, passed resolutions for a "boycott" of Israeli academia. The most recent and most serious one, which finally caught widespread public attention, was a "boycott" resolution passed in December by the American Studies Association (which we might call the Other ASA).

At the same time, academic freedom in Israeli universities has also been threatened by hostile political forces in Israel itself, and ideological passions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have generated threats to academic freedom in other places and from sources on all sides of this conflict.

=>  There are many reasons why this boycott/blacklist campaign is a bad and pernicious idea.  I won't try to spell them all out here.  But one consideration  should be decisive by itself, whatever one's views on Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and related issues. It is a striking example of what Julien Benda called the "treason of the intellectuals"—that is, assaults by intellectuals on their own fundamental interests and vocation—and a violation of the basic guild obligations of academia. It should not be hard for academics to grasp that blacklisting other academics because of their nationality and/or their affiliations attacks a key foundation of academic freedom.  If academics themselves make it clear that they don't take seriously the most fundamental principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, then why on earth should we expect anyone else to take them seriously?  And taking those principles seriously also requires defending them against threats from all sources and directions.

Fortunately, the American Studies Association's academic "boycott" resolution has been condemned by a wide range of American universities and academic associations (a useful list, periodically updated, is here).  That's encouraging, but it would be a mistake to feel complacent.  These dangerous tendencies need to be fought on several fronts—and fought in the right ways, according to the right principles.

=>  A few of us, spearheaded by my friend Sam Fleischacker of the University of Illinois in Chicago, have set up an on-line petition intended to affirm the basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange in a non-partisan way that disentangles them from opposing positions regarding the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, Zionism vs. anti-Zionism, etc.  Let me emphasize that this statement does not express a position on any of those larger political and ideological conflicts.  And it is not primarily intended to serve as a petition per se, aimed at a specific recipient, but as a public declaration of principles.

=>  I urge anyone concerned with the defense of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange to join in endorsing this public statement of principles.  Follow this link, read the statement, and look for the tab labeled "Sign the Petition".
Don't Let the Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Undermine Academic Freedom
=>  You can see the list of signatures here.  At the moment, this statement has already been endorsed by over 150 people, including Todd Gitlin, Steven Lukes, Cary Nelson, Eric Alterman, Jeffrey Goldfarb, Gershon Shafir, Chad Goldberg, Michael Bérubé, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Andy Markovits, Roger Friedland, Terry Winograd, Carol Winograd, Morris Dickstein, Ralph Luker, Alan Wolfe, Allan Silver, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, Donald Black, Jack Goldstone, Dan Slobin, Michael Walzer, Jeffrey Alexander, Carole Joffe, Fred Block, James Robins, Robert Fishman, Michael Kimmel, Rogers Brubaker, Michael Kazin, Jeanne Marecek, Steve Cornell, Claude Fischer, Anne Swidler, Nathan Glazer, Richard Swedberg, Christopher Jencks, Ilan Stavans, Maurice Samuels, Russell Berman, Ilan Troen, Robert Fine, Barry Schwartz, and Michael Schudson    ... among others.

—Jeff Weintraub

Don't Let the Politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Undermine Academic Freedom

We, the undersigned, urge our colleagues in the United States and across the world not to use the politics of the Israel/Palestine conflict to undermine academic freedom.

We are dismayed by the international campaign calling for a boycott of Israeli universities, manifested recently in the boycott resolution passed by the American Studies Association.

We do not agree that there is a meaningful distinction between boycotting universities and blacklisting individual scholars, nor do we think that universities should be held responsible for government policies.

Academic freedom means that the pursuit of knowledge is based on the merit of ideas, not on the nationality of scholars or their institutional homes, and not on the zealousness of political beliefs, no matter how fervently held. When academics themselves take the initiative to attack or undermine these principles, the results can be especially corrosive.

Academic boycotts are not the only danger to academic freedom linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the threats come from both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel constituencies.

We are opposed to attempts to intervene in tenure cases on political grounds, whether with public fanfare, such as campaigns by pro-Israel groups to block the tenure of pro-Palestinian academics at Barnard College in New York and De Paul University of Chicago, or by the sometimes quieter, but no less pernicious, practices of discrimination in some departments by pro-Palestinian academics against scholars who support Israel.

The irony is that some who decry the attempt to boycott Israeli academic institutions are themselves undermining academic freedom. The Israel Ministry of Education did so when it attempted in 2012 to close a department at Ben Gurion University on patently political grounds. Some pro-Israel groups in the United States do so when they threaten or take legal action against American universities for anti-Israel political speech.

Partisans on all sides of this conflict seem increasingly willing to sacrifice the principles of academic freedom and, more generally, of the free expression and exchange of ideas. We call on our colleagues to resist this tendency, whatever their views of the conflict itself. Boycotts, blacklists, politically motivated interventions in tenure, and attempts to stifle speech do not belong in the university. They set an ominous precedent that can be used by intolerant and repressive movements of all sorts in the future. Everyone who values freedom should stand up against them.