A Question of Academic Freedom

BDS opponents are wrong — boycotts are well within the bounds of academic conduct.

Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP, is one of the most prominent academic opponents of BDS. Sage Ross / Wikimedia

Many academics have objected to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel on the grounds that it violates academic freedom — an accusation that has been remarkably successful in gaining traction.

Zionists denounce those who would disrespect the “free flow of ideas within the international scholarly community,” as Russell A. Berman puts it, but refuse to recognize that, in Palestine, ideas (not to mention people) face severe restrictions. The apparatuses of settler-colonial violence — which BDS’s opponents typically show little interest in dismantling — brutally contain thought in Palestine. This self-evident truth hasn’t yet exposed the academic-freedom argument for the hypocrisy it is.

The claim gets much of its force from the false notion that boycotts represent an exception to the academy’s normal functioning. Opponents don’t just want liberals to see BDS as an attack on a fundamental principle of scholarly exchange — they also want to shock them with the scandalous breach of academic politesse that BDS supposedly represents.

But this vision of academic life is a chimera: a closer examination reveals that restricting the flow of ideas constitutes much of the daily conduct of research and teaching, and indeed, of the working life of universities in general. Academic exchange is not intrinsically bound up with the free exchange of ideas, but rather, with their regulation. That’s perhaps why many of the boycott’s fiercest opponents themselves regularly try — illegitimately — to restrict ideas they disagree with.

What Academic Freedom Means

As conventionally understood, academic freedom concerns more than individual academics’ rights, even though boycott opponents tend to approach it from that limited perspective. Traditionally, academic freedom describes universities’ collective right to self-governance free of external interference, particularly from the state.

This definition prohibits outside actors from controlling or regulating academic business and grants academics alone the right to collectively regulate their own workplaces. That is, only the academy can regulate the speech and activities of its members.

This understanding of academic freedom has some straightforward implications for how to argue in favor of BDS. We can, and should, oppose the discrimination and physical oppression that denies Palestinians access to higher learning, but we should do so without projecting a naive fantasy of what academic freedom under non-oppressive conditions looks like.

Further, we should not allow Zionists to claim that an academic boycott departs from the usual norms of supposedly free scholarly exchange. On the contrary: BDS aligns with academic freedom in the traditional sense because it represents the autonomous, self-regulating activity of the academy.

Universities’ meritocratic ideology insists that intellectual attainment determines acceptance and exclusion: your paper gets rejected from a conference because it’s not good enough, not because someone doesn’t like your politics. But academics routinely restrict scholarly exchange for political reasons.

A small selection of examples from the last five years — less than half the time the boycott of Israeli universities and their academic officials has been running — substantiates this point.

Over sixteen thousand researchers are refusing to associate with the multinational publisher Elsevier as a result of its extortionate subscription prices. This boycott directly obstructs — in the name of the literally free exchange of ideas — the academic freedom of researchers who choose to continue publishing with them.

Calls to make conferences more inclusive have gained momentum in this same period. In 2013, scientists boycotted a NASA conference that excluded Chinese researchers. Likewise, after Trump’s election, thousands of academics called for a boycott of international conferences held in the United States in hope of exerting pressure on the new administration and on those scientific associations who would not move their meetings to allow for Muslim participation.

In 2014, over fifteen hundred researchers called for the boycott of the Congress of Quantum Chemistry to protest its all-male program. A growing international movement, both in and outside academia, is refusing to attend panels and conferences that do not include women.

These actions are taking place all over the world. Three conferences held in Thailand have faced a boycott call because of that nation’s lack of academic freedom. In 2012, Romanian researchers decided not to participate in a conference chaired by Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who was accused of plagiarizing his PhD thesis. The boycott group believed that attending would have been tantamount to accepting Ponta’s academic dishonesty.

Strikes and other forms of union interference function much like boycotts, restricting academic freedom in order to achieve some other end. In the United Kingdom, the University and College Union has “full academic boycott” provisions against different institutions. An academic boycott is currently underway against London Metropolitan University. Some Turkish universities are also currently subject to a targeted boycott call.

These examples parallel the boycott of Israeli academic institutions: in all cases, academics curtail the free flow of ideas by withdrawing from certain arenas of collaboration with colleagues or students. They do so in order to shape professional activity in accordance with particular political goals — often, in fact, with the goal of increasing academic freedom overall. For example, the researchers refusing to support conferences that exclude women or citizens of certain countries act in favor of academic freedom by rejecting institutions and practices that they believe restrict scholarly exchange.

Critics of BDS tend to forget that boycotters are restricting their own academic freedom as much as, if not more than, anyone else’s: Israeli academic officials will be refused participation at a boycotter’s conference — a refusal which, in conformity with the boycott guidelines, would disappear if they returned to their status as ordinary faculty members — but the boycotter can’t attend any conference sponsored by an Israeli institution at all.

Academics restrict their own and others’ freedom in these ways because they want to ensure that their profession is just. It’s not enough that they conduct themselves justly — they aim to make the norms governing their work just.

This fits with the liberal image of academics as autonomous, critical intellectuals who should continually monitor, and if necessary, modify, their profession’s ground rules. When Italian academics refuse to participate in the national research assessment exercise, when Australian academics exert pressure to prevent a climate-change minimizer from opening a research center, or when Swedish academics boycott a racism and extremism center because they believe it is excessively politicized, they are all trying to politically shape the nature of their work.

A Double Bind

Examining the academic freedom argument against BDS from this perspective not only reveals it to be incoherent, but underlines its proponents’ hypocrisy.

Those who object to the boycott on academic freedom grounds must answer the following question: what about the Palestine-Israel question disqualifies a boycott as a legitimate political act that would not also immediately disqualify other examples of restrictions on academic freedom for political or moral reasons? If respect for the profession’s values rules out a boycott against Israel, what, if anything, rules boycotts in for other situations?

All boycotts violate academic freedom if we define it narrowly enough. BDS opponents must tell us what principled reason distinguishes the Israeli boycott from all the other, apparently acceptable, regulations on scholarly exchange.

Boycott opponents can only offer two responses. They can separate the boycott of Israeli institutions from other academic boycotts, or they can accept that nothing distinguishes BDS from similar calls for academic boycotts. Both replies have uncomfortable results.

The first requires them to abandon the argument against boycotts from the perspective of academic freedom. Other academic boycotts violate academic freedom in the same way BDS does, so, if these other boycotts are acceptable, then academic freedom cannot be the decisive argument against the Israeli boycott. The BDS supporter need only ask why academic freedom should not be violated in the case of Israel, especially in the face of the unambiguous evidence that Israeli universities support their state’s oppression of Palestinians.

The second position — acknowledging that BDS is no different from other academic boycotts — demands that opponents condemn academic boycotts in principle, a minority position. This would have ruled out all the boycotts mentioned above, as well the academic boycott of South Africa, Carlos Fuentes’s call for an academic boycott of the United States during the Vietnam War, and any number of other discretionary academic decisions to withdraw collaboration for political reasons.

Ironically, vocal BDS opponents have rarely hesitated to violate their colleagues’ academic freedom. Alan Dershowitz, for instance, has stated outright that “a counter-boycott is justified in the face of a boycott. It is not open to the same objections as the boycott itself.”

But it isn’t right to call BDS a boycott movement. Instead, we should see it as a counter-boycott because it responds to Israel’s illegitimate restriction on academic exchange. BDS supporters want to implement their own restriction in order to call for a more inclusive flow of ideas.

Cary Nelson, one of the most prominent anti-boycott voices in the United States, is another case in point. Nelson committed himself to a “personal boycott” of New York University in 2006 in order to support the graduate student union’s push for recognition from the administration. The fact that he later recanted doesn’t change the fact that he frequently participates in strikes, which, like boycotts, involve restricting the free flow of ideas in the service of a higher political agenda.

Even BDS opponents, then, have restricted academic freedom while arguing for that value’s primacy in the case of Israel boycott. They are trapped in an unsustainable contradiction.

The University's Purpose

The academic freedom argument against BDS gets its power from the common liberal belief that higher education should — and does — serve social progress. Many academics have stated their skepticism about BDS in precisely these terms.

They argue that because academic exchange serves social progress, we should not abandon it in the case of Israel: not only would BDS limit an inherently beneficial activity — academic communication — but the path to reconciliation surely lies in increasing, not restricting, dialogue with Israeli institutions.

These skeptics fail to recognize that the belief that higher education serves social progress actually supports proponents of BDS.

If we justify academic exchange on the grounds that it produces social goods, then we view the academy as a means, not an end: we pursue our research because it leads to a better world, not because it is desirable in itself. A better world — not scholarly thought — becomes the final goal.

There is no reason to believe, however, that we need academic exchange to reach that end point. More often than not, social justice has been won in the streets, not the seminar room. Indeed, the history of struggles for social progress suggests that academics tend not to march in the vanguard of social change.

Boycott opponents who have a genuine commitment to social justice need to demonstrate why academic dialogue is more likely to succeed than BDS. The two techniques’ track records — the sclerotic failure of dialogue since Oslo, on the one hand, and Israel’s intense opposition to BDS, on the other — make this position difficult to hold. At a minimum, they need to show why the social values to which they’re committed — “dialogue,” or the intrinsic value of scholarship — trump the social good for which BDS aims: peace with justice.

They would also have to explain why they won’t even try BDS for a limited, experimental period, to see if it proves more effective than their preferred mechanisms. Many of them will also have to explain why they are willing to persecute BDS supporters and stamp out the movement entirely, which will make it impossible to determine whether boycott tactics work.

Academics not only boycott each other all the time, but it’s also their right to do so since regulation through exclusion represents an essential aspect of academic self-governance and freedom. When BDS opponents ask, “Why just boycott Israel?”, BDS supporters should reply, “Why exempt officials of Israeli institutions from what are, in reality, unexceptional acts of academic activity?”

Boycotts are well within the bounds of academic conduct, even as liberals conceive of it. Outlawing them would outlaw a constitutive feature of academic professionalism itself.