Boycotts of Israel, Academic Freedom and Phan Nguyen Critique

My article on the tenure travesty of Norman Finkelstein, the most egregious persecution of a faculty member since the great US purges of faculty during the McCarthy Era, is cited in a comprehensive critique of the American Association of University Professors position on academic boycotts:

“However, with the exception of a single vague anecdote which I describe later, every example relating to Palestine/Israel that [Cary] Nelson documents is a case of the campus being attacked by “pro-Israel” forces, namely:

The article is written by Phan Nguyen, a Palestine-solidarity activist based in New York, for the website, “Mondoweis, The War of Ideas in the Middle East” and is an effort to raise inconsistencies in the A.A.U.P. position on academic boycotts of Israel and other organizational policies that appear to belie its comprehensive opposition to such boycotts. I serve as vice-president of the Illinois Conference of the A.A.U.P. and chair its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. I know many of the persons in the article and have reviewed very positively in two venues the article’s frequently cited work, Cary Nelson, No University is an Island. I consider Cary a colleague and friend and respect his avid defence of the right to organise, academic freedom and critical thinking on matters of public concern. He was a transformative figure while serving as president of A.A.U.P., and was always accessible and forthcoming when I needed his assistance, and in reverse I believe.

I share many of the A.A.U.P. concerns about academic boycotts. I also support the moral compass of the American Studies Association in their intrepid efforts to oppose Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. I joined the A.S.A., as an American historian and a scholar in many of the areas encompassed by the A.S.A., following their boycott (which is rather nuanced in some areas!) to assert my academic freedom to associate with any academic organisation of my choice. I admire the A.S.A.s goals in confronting colonialism, ethnic violence and the violation of a people’s rights to exist and live within a sovereign entity, free from imposing guard towers on an illegal wall built inside Palestine. Also as a member I will have the right to oppose a boycott but show solidarity with their ethical concerns of the long-standing repression of Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.

My concerns about academic boycotts are that it might restrain academic discourse between an American academician and other nationals living abroad. It might suppress interfaith, international, and the exchange of ideologically disparate views that would advance the interrelatedness of humankind. Israel and the US, as did Germany at the end of the Cold War, should tear down its walls of racism and shame whether in the West Bank or in the American Southwest borderlands. Likewise, academicians should not build walls of exclusion that add to the division of humankind. We need more not less transnational activity and communication. We need to assert the commonality of the academic enterprise in terms of unrestricted access and freedom of exchange. So I do agree with Cary, Rudy Fichtenbaum (AAUP national President), and Hank Reichman (First Vice-President) that an academic boycott could have significant ramifications for academic freedom.

However, I think the article’s description of the A.A.U.P. censure list is quite provocative. I support the censure list of A.A.U.P. and have contributed and advocated for its continued use as an attempt to rectify grievous wrongs and transgressions of academic freedom, academic due process and shared governance. I have been quite visible in the process that could lead to that eventuality as a result of Northeastern Illinois University’s denial of tenure for Dr John Boyle. Yet the caveat that the A.A.U.P. has used in describing the censure list does suggest a toleration or at least an ambivalence concerning boycotting post-secondary institutions:

“Members of the Association have often considered it to be their duty, in order to indicate their support of the principles violated, to refrain from accepting appointment to an institution so long as it remains on the censure list. Since circumstances differ widely from case to case, the Association does not assert that such an unqualified obligation exists for its members; it does urge that, before accepting appointments, they seek information on present conditions of academic freedom and tenure from the Association’s Washington office and prospective departmental colleagues. The Association leaves it to the discretion of the individual, possessed of the facts, to make the proper decision.”

While obviously the A.A.U.P. cannot order its members on how to conduct their affairs with other institutions or define their academic lives, it does clearly leave open individual choice to boycott a censured institution. The statement is basically pro-choice when it comes to boycotts and exudes a disturbing neutrality. I think it important that the A.A.U.P. seriously consider the apparent contradiction here and either support academic boycotts in all circumstances, support academic boycotts in some circumstances with carefully delineated exceptions, or reject academic boycotts in all circumstances. It is hard to reconcile its blanket opposition to boycotts of Israel as a matter of principle and its statement on the application of censure. Also perhaps a vote within A.A.U.P. might be considered were it to reinforce or revise its boycott position. I don’t recall there being an Association-wide discussion on the matter of boycotts as other academic organisations such as the A.S.A. have conducted!

We frequently hear that the State of Israel is singled out unfairly by American academics due to an implicit anti-semitism or other malevolent agenda. It is irrelevant whether this is true or not. One cannot read people’s hearts and thoughts. The only factor that is relevant is whether Israel is indeed violating international human rights law, the laws of war, and the laws against ethnic cleansing in its continued occupation of the acquired lands following the Six-Day War some forty-seven years ago! The argument: “Israel is a victim. Other nations are worse. Leave us alone. We are better than the D.P.R.K. or Saudi Arabia or the People’s Republic of China,” is risible and pathetic. It detracts from self-introspection that defenders of Israel should engage in. If one opposed American genocide in Vietnam, should one first ensure that no other nation was guilty of such action and that there were no other similar transgressions prior to condemning US foreign policy? Defenders of Israel should find another argument besides meaningless assertions of unfair targeted criticism. The A.S.A. boycott, however misdirected, is inspired by accurate and concrete observations of a perverse treatment of a lightly armed population by a major nuclear-weapons’ state.

Passion for the State of Israel undergirds much of the anti-boycott movement. Passion for the rights of Palestinians, displaced in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel, undergirds the boycott movement. I don’t see a common ground anytime soon but civil dialogue, the respect for different viewpoints, and recognising that academic freedom has a full range of competing applications in the varied aspects of this debate and dialogue are essential.

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