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Middle East Professors Boycott Israel — Where’s the Moral Outrage?

avatar by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Opinion

A Palestinian boy looks on near graffiti boycotting Israel in Bethlehem, November 3, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Stephen Farrell/File Photo.

Hours after the American Studies Association (ASA) announced its membership had voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israel in 2013, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement expressing its disappointment with the ASA vote, claiming it represented “a setback for academic freedom.”

Within the week, the Association of American Universities (AAU) issued a statement roundly condemning the ASA boycott, charging that it “directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle … of American higher education.” Before the end of the month, the president of the American Council on Education (ACE) issued a statement averring that ASA’s actions were “misguided and greatly troubling, as they strike at the heart of academic freedom — a central tenet of the teaching, research and service that takes place every day at colleges and universities worldwide.”

Before the year’s end, dozens of university presidents had denounced the ASA boycott. By the time the ASA condemnation frenzy died down in March 2014, more than 250 university leaders had issued statements condemning the ASA vote and its violation of the principles of academic freedom.

Despite the obviously symbolic nature of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions by an association of American Studies scholars with little or no disciplinary connection to Israel or the Middle East, the moral outrage was palpable.

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Fast forward eight years.

In March 2022, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israel.

Unlike the ASA’s symbolic boycott, MESA’s embrace of academic BDS couldn’t be more consequential. The production and transmission of knowledge about Israel and its relationship to other countries in the region is a crucial part of Middle East Studies, and MESA’s nearly 3,000 members are the primary purveyors of such knowledge on many American campuses. If these same scholars were to feel emboldened enough by the MESA vote to actually implement academic BDS — a boycott that directs faculty to disrupt and even shut down the production and transmission of knowledge about Israel — they would clearly be undermining the academic mission of both their discipline and their universities.

Considering the loud outcry that erupted in the wake of the ASA’s endorsement of academic BDS, one would expect the condemnation of the MESA boycott to be deafening. Instead, what’s deafening is the silence.

MESA has received absolutely no public condemnation of its boycott from the AAUP, AAU, or ACE. Not a peep. And except for Brandeis University and NYU, no other university leaders have spoken out publicly against MESA’s boycott.

Where’s the moral outrage?

To answer this question, it’s important to understand what the AAUP, AAU, ACE, and 250 university presidents failed to grasp about academic BDS, even as they forcefully condemned it eight years ago, and to consider the deeply disturbing turn that academia has taken since then.

Not one of the hundreds of condemnatory statements acknowledged the biggest casualty of academic boycotts: students on US campuses who want to study in or about Israel, or to openly express their support for the Jewish state.

Even a cursory examination of the boycott’s guidelines reveals this to be true.

Academic BDS’ fundamental rejection of “the normalization of Israel in the global academy” demands that faculty work towards boycotting educational programs in or about Israel at their schools; refuse to write letters of recommendation for students wanting to participate in such programs; and endeavor to cancel or shut down pro-Israel events and activities on campus.

The guidelines also promote a “common sense” boycott that encourages the censuring, denigration, protest, and exclusion of pro-Israel individuals, including students who use their free speech to advocate on behalf of Israel. These boycott-compliant actions simply cannot be carried out by faculty without directly and substantively hurting their own students, revealing such behavior to be both morally repugnant and indefensible.

But in limiting their condemnation of ASA’s boycott to its negative impact on an abstract concept of “academic freedom,” without condemning, or even mentioning, the very real and intolerable harms that the boycott’s implementation would inflict on vulnerable students, the AAUP, AAU, ACU and 250 university presidents ceded the moral high ground to boycott-supporting faculty, who claimed  that their “academic freedom” was being violated by the condemnation.

More importantly, by primarily framing academic BDS as a violation of academic freedom principles rather than as an egregious transgression of institutional standards of faculty conduct, higher education leaders effectively gave faculty boycotters a free pass to continue privileging their political animus towards the Jewish state over their professional responsibilities to their students and university. And unfortunately, that’s a gift that has kept giving.

Within the last eight years, the number of faculty who have publicly expressed support for an academic boycott of Israel has more than doubled, with over 3,000 faculty boycotters currently employed on more than 450 campuses nationwide.

Accompanying this dramatic uptick in faculty support for academic BDS is a documented increase in the willingness of faculty boycotters to bring their support for BDS into their classrooms and departmentally sponsored campus events.

But a new line was crossed last May, following the onset of the Israel-Hamas war. More than 150 academic departments took the unprecedented step of issuing or endorsing blatantly anti-Zionist statements, more than half of which called for or endorsed some form of BDS, including an academic boycott of Israel. Shamefully, all of the statements positioned their anti-Zionist political stance squarely within their disciplinary missions, a disingenuous maneuver to provide academic cover for departments to use their institutional status to advance a purely political agenda.

Against the backdrop of these unprecedented departmentally-endorsed statements, the MESA vote to adopt academic BDS has become a defining moment, not just for the organization or even the discipline, but for the entire academy and its future.

Middle East Studies, until recently, sought to project a strictly scholarly, non-political image. That is, until 2017, when the organization quietly eliminated the adjective “non-political” from its online mission statement and official bylaws, just in time to voice its first-ever opposition to pending federal legislation: the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act.”

Then, in December 2021, as the association voted to advance the academic BDS resolution to its full membership, the “About MESA” webpage was once again updated with a new section entitled “Vision Statement” and a link to MESA’s “Strategic Plan 2021 – 2025,” both of which contained a radically new characterization of the association’s mission: “The strength of MESA lies in its dual commitment to scholarship and advocacy.”

Conveniently, academic BDS now fell squarely within MESA’s newly minted mission.

It is important to point out that since MESA began issuing full-membership resolutions in 1993, Israel is not just the only country in the Middle East that has been targeted by a MESA resolution for an academic boycott, but it’s the only country in the region to be targeted by that group for any punitive action. This, in a region that includes such flagrant human rights violators as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iran – countries that routinely engage in human trafficking, execute members of the LGBTQ community, and turn a blind eye to honor killings – as well as soaring levels of antisemitism, which are two to four times higher than in any other region of the world.

Yet instead of punishing these countries with boycotts, as it has done to Israel, MESA defends them from boycotts.

For example, six months after Iran’s Supreme Leader released a video denying the Holocaust, and just a few weeks after the Iranian government funded its Second Holocaust Cartoon Contest showcasing hundreds of cartoons denying or mocking the Holocaust, MESA’s Board sent a letter to US legislators urging them to review the government’s “long-standing network of Iran sanctions … to take care not to continue imposing restrictions on the free flow of ideas and knowledge.”

When a professional organization with a decades-long reputation for non-political, high caliber scholarship radically redefines its organizational mission and, by implication, the mission of the discipline its members have largely shaped — for the express purpose of carrying out politically motivated and directed advocacy and activism that unfairly targets the only Jewish country in its purview (and in the world) — it can’t help but have at least five devastating consequences.

First, MESA’s behavior is an object lesson in the fundamental incompatibility of scholarship and politics, and how, when they are artificially forced into a “dual commitment,” scholarship cannot survive intact. That’s because genuine scholarship is based on a search for knowledge and truth, while advocacy and activism rest upon unquestioned political dogma that not only requires no such search, but actively inhibits it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the adoption of an academic boycott that, by definition, restricts “the free flow of ideas and knowledge” that are the lifeblood of any intellectually rigorous discipline.

A second obvious result of MESA privileging political advocacy and activism over scholarship is that a generation of students will be deprived of an objective and accurate understanding of a complex topic of global importance. Instead, consistent with the “anti-normalization” guidelines of the MESA-endorsed boycott, students will be force-fed a wholly one-sided, false narrative intended to demonize and delegitimize Israel and cast it as a pariah state unworthy of inclusion in the family of nations.

Third, it’s not hard to see how such boycott-compliant, hate-filled propaganda, intended to poison students’ perceptions not only about Israel but also about those who support the Jewish state, could incite acts of aggression targeting Israel’s on-campus supporters. Indeed, a study examining the contribution of faculty supporters of academic BDS to the skyrocketing incidence of campus antisemitism in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war last May found that the presence and number of faculty boycotters was not only strongly linked to the anti-Zionist statements issued and endorsed by 160 academic departments, but to every measure of antisemitic activity during that period, including acts of assault, vandalism, and harassment.

Fourth, MESA’s embrace of political advocacy and activism, particularly its adoption of academic BDS, throws into question whether Middle East Studies scholars can be a trusted source of unbiased information about a region of the world that has an enormous impact on our own. This is particularly relevant for the Federal government, which, under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, pours millions of dollars annually into university-based Middle East Studies programs throughout the country, for the express purpose of subsidizing the production and transmission of knowledge vital to national security. Yet almost every Title VI-funded Middle East Studies program is an institutional MESA member, and MESA’s president, immediate past president, and half of its Board of Directors are faculty in Title VI-funded programs. How then can faculty in these programs be trusted not to use Federal funds to implement a MESA-recommended boycott of Israel that seeks to stop the production and transmission of accurate knowledge about one country in the region, directly violating the intent and spirit of the taxpayer dollars they are receiving?

The fifth and final casualty of MESA’s politicization of Middle East Studies is academic freedom itself. Although academic freedom is generally conceived as a set of rights protecting the freedom of faculty to engage in their disciplinary pursuits free from outside interference, those rights are granted for the purpose of preserving the intellectual integrity of our educational system, which in turn serves the public good. But if the threat to intellectual integrity comes not from outside the discipline but from within it, then academic freedom not only does nothing to preserve intellectual integrity and the public good; it actually accelerates the demise of both.

This, of course, leaves those who construct their arguments against professional organizations adopting academic BDS on the grounds of academic freedom — think AAUP, AAU, ACU, and hundreds of university leaders — utterly speechless, unable to even acknowledge let alone condemn the vile harm that an academic boycott inflicts both inside and outside of the university.

But that’s not the worst of it.

Middle East Studies may be among the first disciplines to have its “non-political” scholarly mission revised to include political advocacy and activism, but it will surely not be the last.

It’s high time that higher education leaders break their silence about this moral outrage. They must loudly and publicly acknowledge that while an academic boycott of Israel may ostensibly target Israeli universities and scholars, its implementation directly and substantively hurts their own universities by impeding the scholarly and educational opportunities of students and threatening their safety, corrupting the academic mission of the university, and destroying the public trust. And they must establish and publicly affirm robust safeguards to prevent faculty from using their university positions and departmental affiliations to engage in politically motivated advocacy and activism, including the promotion or implementation of an academic boycott targeting Israel and its supporters.

If higher education leaders refuse to break their silence, state and Federal legislators should withhold funds from schools that permit faculty and departments to engage in such behavior. The public, too, must demand that colleges and universities establish safeguards against the politicization of educational spaces and never allow their tax, tuition, or donor dollars to be used for hateful political propaganda and activism that dangerously undermine the public good.

Silence is not an option.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to combating antisemitism at colleges and universities in the United States. She was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years.

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