BDS is a blow to academic freedom

Boycotts impoverish American higher education and shut down Israeli-Palestinian dialogue necessary for peace

Pro-Palestinian students at University College London disrupt an Israel advocacy event on campus on October 28, 2016. (screen capture: YouTube)
Pro-Palestinian students at University College London disrupt an Israel advocacy event on campus on October 28, 2016. (screen capture: YouTube)

Academic freedom — the freedom to explore any subject wherever it leads and to exchange ideas with colleagues of one’s choosing — lies at the heart of the academic enterprise. Without this freedom, our universities would be servants of special interests and political ideologies. This would create the safe space some students seek in which students would be spared exposure to vigorous give-and-take on contentious issues. But this would be an education stripped of intellectual diversity.

These are the demands of the academic BDS (the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement — to cut off debate, stop the exchange of ideas with Israeli academics, and coerce faculty around the country to follow the dictates of a narrow political movement.

Boycotts deprive American academics and their students of valuable cross-cultural interactions. However, it is Israelis, and to an even greater extent, Palestinians, who pay the greatest price. Boycotts reinforce prejudices and harden positions so that developing a rich Palestinian civil society, in which divergent views can be aired, is made more difficult, and Palestinians who openly engage with Israelis are placed at greater risk. It is unfortunate that highly qualified academics on both sides who might contribute to the resolution of this complex conflict are moved further apart, since it is only through dialogue that the groundwork for resolving this conflict can be laid.

Last spring, in a hastily called meeting, with little time allowed for discussion, the Doctoral Student’s Council (DSC) of the City University of New York (CUNY) passed a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Shortly thereafter, the students were praised for their courage in an open letter from CUNY faculty ready to man the barricades to protect embattled students. The faculty letter includes the passage:

“And we wish to make it absolutely clear that we will be vigilant against, and will not tolerate, any attempts to intimidate, threaten, harass, or enact reprisals of any sort against any of the students who have been involved with the DSC, whether such intimidation comes from members of the CUNY community or from groups or individuals outside the college.”

This is Orwellian doublespeak. There has been no intimidation of students who support the boycott of Israel. There is no personal cost for those who propose or support the academic boycott of Israel. Indeed, for many, it brings the inestimable pleasure of international ideological solidarity in focusing hostility on a single people. It is rather students who speak out in support of Israel who are shouted down and whose loyalty to fellow students and activist causes has been questioned at campuses around our country.

In response to the attacks on free inquiry and association for academics, members of the CUNY faculty have circulated a letter entitled “Dialogue not Boycotts.” The signers of the letter are united in their support for academic freedom, but have diverse views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the steps that should be taken in seeking to resolve it. The letter takes no stand on contested issues in this conflict. But the letter recognizes that open dialogue between all parties at all levels will be critical to arriving at a resolution of the conflict. In our view, boycotting Israelis committed to the search for knowledge, who together with their counterparts at Palestinian universities can provide informed counsel and stimulate discussion within and between their societies, would be irresponsible and counterproductive.

Accordingly, we insist on our rights to explore, discuss, debate and create with individuals of our own choosing. The way forward is through openness and unfettered dialogue. We therefore oppose the academic boycott of Israel and stand against efforts to abrogate our freedoms.

Dr. Azriel Genack is a Distinguished Professor of Physics at Queens College and the Graduate School of CUNY. Dr. Fred Naider is a Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry and Leonard and Esther Kurtz Term Professor at the College of Staten Island and Graduate School of CUNY.

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