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March 20, 2018 4:54 pm

After Anti-Israel Referendums, University Leaders Defend Academic Freedom, Reject BDS Campaign

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Smith Hall at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Photo: AlexiusHoratius.

The leaders of universities where anti-Israel referendums were considered this month recently spoke out in defense of academic freedom and against the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

After students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) rejected a divestment referendum targeting companies that do business with Israel, the president of the University of Illinois system, Tim Killeen, affirmed his administration’s “strong opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement’s call for a boycott of Israel.”

“While we acknowledge and affirm the rights of faculty and students to express their own viewpoints, we believe that actions such as those espoused by BDS would damage academic freedom and may have an intended or unintended anti-Semitic effect which we utterly condemn,” he wrote.

Killeen warned that the university system’s efforts “to better the human condition through our world-class research, scholarship and service … can only be diminished by targeted restrictions on academic freedom and global engagement.”

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He committed to “continue to strenuously oppose actions that go beyond protected speech and that seek to harass, delegitimize, alienate and spread fear within our student communities on the basis of religion.”

Before the referendum’s defeat, Jeffrey Brown — dean of UIUC’s College of Business — likewise asserted that “whatever the stated motivation” for BDS, its effect is “antithetical to the core values of a great public university.”

Similar sentiments were shared by President Eric Kaler of the University of Minnesota, after a non-binding referendum targeting companies that do business with Israel was approved by students earlier this month.

Kaler argued that the ballot — which also sought to penalize the companies for “violating Indigenous sovereignty,” and “maintaining and establishing private prisons and immigrant detention centers” — effectively “convolutes three issues.”

“I want to state clearly that the University does not endorse — and I personally oppose — the action advocated in the referendum, which echoes, in part, the language and sentiment of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement,” he continued. “In general, our University should be extraordinarily wary about such boycotts, given our core values of academic freedom and our commitment to the free exchange of ideas, uncertainty about the impact of such efforts, and concerns that we may be unfairly singling out one government and the citizens of the country in question.”

Kaler pointed out that “the global BDS movement does not seem to distinguish between opposition to the policies of the government of Israel and opposition to the existence of Israel.”

The BDS campaign, whose leaders have called for the end of the Jewish state, has been routinely condemned by academic leaders. After the American Studies Association voted in 2013 to boycott Israel — the only country it ever targeted for a boycott — over 250 universities and academic organizations registered their opposition, including the American Association of Universities, American Association of University Professors, and American Council on Education.

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