campus clock tower
UC Berkeley campus (Photo/file)

How Cal faculty who support Israel boycott get it wrong

Should faculty have the academic freedom to deny academic freedom to others? That is what eight UC Berkeley faculty are now demanding with their vigorous rejection (Daily Californian, Feb. 19) of a statement issued by the 10 chancellors of the University of California campuses in December. The chancellors’ short and powerful statement reaffirmed their opposition to the academic boycott of Israel. Quite rightly, the chancellors noted that subjecting Israel’s entire system of higher education to punishing boycotts is a “direct and serious” threat to academic freedom — but they wrote nothing more and nothing less.

How strange it is that now, for these eight faculty, the UC chancellors are by their own speech allegedly chilling the environment for free thought on the campuses. Did these faculty face any problem sharing their opinion openly in a published op-ed? Also bizarre is their insistence that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement “does not try to prevent anyone from saying anything or attempt to sanction or thwart individuals for their political positions.” This will be news to the numerous Israeli speakers who have had appearances disrupted over several years on UC campuses and to faculty who rely on collaborative research and teaching programs with Israeli colleagues whom BDS-supporting faculty seek to isolate from the international scholarly community.

Like many BDS advocates, these faculty believe that the academic boycott targets only institutions, not individuals — a daft argument that assumes it’s possible to boycott universities without affecting the people who work and study in them. But in fact, we know that academics in Israel are already being negatively impacted. In some disciplines, Israeli faculty are reporting that they’re finding it harder to get published and are starting to complain that they can’t get their graduate students funded. American graduate students tell us that they steer clear of enrolling in such politicized fields.

The eight UC faculty wonder why such a statement appeared as a collective position of the chancellors. Trafficking in shameful canards about conspiracy and undue influence, they suspect that outside “pressure” was brought to bear on the universities in this age of donations and private support. Apparently, they’re oblivious to the reality that the BDS movement itself is a prime example of outside influence on the campus, with off-campus national organizations like the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, American Muslims for Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and Palestine Legal directing and organizing on-campus anti-Israel campaigns.

These UC Berkeley faculty also want to know why the chancellors didn’t mention other infringements on academic freedom, specifically criticizing the chancellors for failing to warn against Israeli state policies that violate free speech on Palestinian campuses in the West Bank. Here, they display marked ignorance about what academic freedom requires and limited knowledge of the dynamics of Palestinian campus life, where the greatest threats to academic freedom come from terrorist groups operating without check and from student thugs silencing anyone who thinks differently. As with the case of Al-Quds University professor Mohammed Dajani, a key concern is that intimidated Palestinian faculty are provided little to no support from campus administrators.

Of course, the main responsibility of the UC chancellors is not to reform the world, let alone the Middle East; it is to maintain and support the conditions for open inquiry on the UC campuses so that students and faculty can benefit from a wide range of educational opportunities around the world. The chancellors certainly could exercise their own free speech rights to opine on this matter and offer their thoughts, which is what they did.

The bottom line is that these faculty critical of the chancellors’ stance are perfectly happy to ignore that BDS openly encourages faculty to work to end institutional programs of study abroad in Israel and to refuse to write letters for students who wish to study there. In shunning any and all exchanges with Israeli academic institutions, BDS also directly interferes with American scholars who research in Israeli universities and archives or who want to attend academic conferences in Israel. It’s worth noting that because of this “anti-normalization” stance, most pro-BDS faculty refuse to even engage in dialogue with dissenting faculty. It’s pretty clear that what BDS faculty and these dissenting UC academics really want is the right to be free of criticism and the unfettered ability to disseminate one-sided information about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

These faculty can do that, and even advocate for a discriminatory boycott of Israel as well as speak as they wish for Palestinian rights. But they are not free to impose their own political views on the campus or onto their students, nor demand that UC depart from its steady support of open inquiry and free intellectual exchange.

The reality, not well understood by the eight UC faculty who sloppily refer to the Academic Engagement Network as an umbrella organization that orchestrated the chancellors’ statement, is that over 100 independent and diverse Jewish and civil rights organizations congratulated the UC administrators for their stance, including WoMen for All, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors. We too applaud the UC chancellors for their leadership in championing the bedrock principles of academia, and for airing their views openly.

Kenneth Waltzer
Kenneth Waltzer

Kenneth Waltzer is the former executive director of the Academic Engagement Network.

Miriam F. Elman
Miriam F. Elman

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor at Syracuse University and the incoming executive director of the Academic Engagement Network.