Tolerating BDS as ‘Differing Views’ Flips Academic Freedom on Its Head
Who is the true arbiter of academic freedom?
Earlier this month, a New York judge attempted to play that role, ordering Fordham University to recognize the pro-BDS student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
The ruling occurred after the New York City-based university denied SJP’s request to become an official student group. Fordham’s Dean of Students Keith Eldredge wrote in an email released by Inside Higher Ed that the goals of the SJP chapter, including support for BDS, would “clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the university.” Eldredge called out BDS as presenting “a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.”
However, New York Judge Nancy M. Bannon stated in her 21-page legal ruling, “The consideration and discussion of differing views is actually part of Fordham’s mission, regardless of whether that consideration and discussion might discomfit some and polarize others.” The decision can only be described as Orwellian, as it flips academic freedom on its head and flies in the face of the foundational values that free societies hold dear.
Academics like Eldredge know too well that student groups like SJP regularly discriminate against Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus — their approach is not encompassed under the umbrella of “differing views” that we can tolerate.
In fact, other universities have attempted to suspend their SJP chapters. At Northeastern University, SJP was temporarily suspended in 2014 for “repeated non-compliance with university standards and polices,” and UC Berkeley’s SJP chapter was temporarily suspended in 2016 for “occupying an academic building and interfering with the rights of other students to continue their education.”
And as most academics also understand, allowing BDS does not promote academic freedom in the slightest — quite the opposite, actually.
“You can’t teach people how to think if you teach them what to think,” stated University of Haifa President Prof. Ron Robin earlier this year as he became Chairman of the Committee of University Heads of Israel (VERA).
Preceding his election to VERA, in which he serves as the leading voice for Israel’s academic community on the issue of countering BDS, Robin’s own university found itself on the frontline of the BDS battleground in the U.S.
Following last November’s initial pro-BDS vote by the Pitzer College faculty to suspend its semester exchange program at University of Haifa, Robin and Pitzer President Melvin L. Oliver joined forces to condemn the vote and the BDS threat more broadly. It was a key manifestation of Robin’s work with VERA, which he has called a quest to “promote the truths about Israel’s status as the only Middle East society which respects the values of free speech and academic freedom — truths that Israel’s detractors and BDS’s proponents so blatantly disregard.”
Those truths are self-evident at University of Haifa, where Jews and Arabs not only coexist, but thrive alongside one another as students and faculty members. Approximately 35% percent of our students are Arabs of Muslim, Christian and Druze backgrounds. Our Arab and Jewish students are bound together by their love of knowledge and mutual respect. The Arab students “study, work and play beside Jewish students, and this is the epitome of social justice, equality and opportunity for education,” Robin has explained.
So when Dan Segal, the SJP adviser at Pitzer, led the attempt to end his school’s exchange with the University of Haifa, what he really wanted to end was our ability to refute BDS’s false premises that Israel “undermines Palestinian right to education” and that Israeli universities play a key role in “Israel’s violations of international law.”
In reality, BDS and its proponents like SJP are the ones undermining the free exchange of ideas, argument, and disputations — the very educational mission of institutions like University of Haifa, Fordham and Pitzer College.
As universities are what Robin has dubbed the “ground zero” for BDS, it is time for more academic institutions to stay true to the fundamental values of higher education by playing a central role in the charge against the boycott movement. In the US, universities can join the various American Jewish advocacy groups who combat BDS on social media. In Israel, universities can work with the Israeli government to formulate a more unified voice against BDS.
Those who have already stood up to SJP and BDS in academia are the true protectors of academic freedom, not a judge in New York who thinks that “differing views” are celebrated through a group touting an academic boycott — and certainly not a group that purports to protect Arab students by cutting off ties with programs that promote mutual understanding, equal opportunity, and true academic freedom.
Karen L. Berman is CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa. The opinions expressed in this article are her own.