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May 25, 2014 6:56 pm

Why Do Israel Haters Want to Silence Their Academic Critics?

avatar by Meytal Chernoff

A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Photo: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

During the Modern Language Association’s meeting of the Delegate Assembly this past April, the MLA voted to approve Resolution 2014-1. This new resolution passed by a vote of 60 to 53, and urges the State Department to “contest Israel’s denial of entry to the West Bank by US academics” and to support the boycott of Israel. Additionally, it calls for the United States to stop buying Israeli goods and for the American academic community to cut off all communication with Israeli academic institutions. The MLA’s decision, based on documented falsehoods, along with the recent actions of the American Studies Association, sets a dangerous precedent within the realm of academic freedom.

Over winter break, the students of Washington University received an email from Chancellor Wrighton stating the refusal of the university to participate in the academic boycott of Israel. He wrote that “a boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom.” The term “academic freedom” is defined as the right of teachers and students to teach, express their ideas, and discuss knowledge without religious, political, or institutional restriction. When faced with this definition it is clear that the boycott of Israeli academic institutions violates this right to teaching and discussing knowledge by placing a political and institutional restriction on academia from a particular region. The right to this freedom is currently under attack from the ASA and as resolution 2014-1 moves on to the MLA Executive Council, its position grows even more precarious.

What makes this situation sadder is the false foundations upon which the resolution and boycott are built. Israel does not place any restrictions on the entrance of academics or on partnerships between foreign academics and Palestinian institutions. Occasionally, there are issues of security that make travel problematic for all people including academics. For example, the security fence and checkpoints lengthen the daily commute for many individuals. However, since the fence was erected, terrorist attacks in Israel have seen an 80% reduction. The right to life and to live free from the threat of violence makes those security measures necessary.

Additionally, Israeli universities remain on the forefront of research in medicine, technology, nano-science, and agriculture to name just a few, and to cut students off from this knowledge would be a grave loss. Also, by restricting access to Israeli universities, the MLA and ASA hurt the many Palestinian students who attend these universities. The boycott claims to fight for the rights of the Palestinian people, and yet it accomplishes the opposite. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has spoken out against the boycott of Israel saying, “we have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”

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An amazing asset of academia on the university level is the ability to share ideas, debate different opinions, and hear sides of an argument that you may have never considered. As paragons of academia, one would hope that the MLA and ASA would see the beauty of this free discussion and encourage it rather than seeking to silence the voices from one particular country. At the MLA conference, the resolution and discussion of Israel included only speakers in favor of the boycott. The other side was given no voice.

Meytal Chernoff is a Fellow at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) at Washington University in St. Louis. This piece was originally published in the CAMERA blog In Focus.

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