Changing My Mind about the Boycott

By Joan W. Scott

In 2006, I was one of the organizers of an aborted AAUP conference on academic boycotts. The point was to open a conversation about the utility—past and present—of such political actions, to understand what was actually involved in the choice of that strategy, to conduct a conversation in a setting above the fray (in this instance at the Rockefeller Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy), and to learn what we could from the various points of view we hoped to represent at the conference. Idealistically, we imagined the conference to be an exercise in academic freedom, the fulfillment of the best of AAUP principles. In fact, our experience was anything but the fulfillment of AAUP ideals. From the outset, defenders of right-wing Israeli politics—with Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University in the lead—sought to prevent the meeting, arguing, in the name of academic freedom, that “illegitimate” (that is, Palestinian) voices would be included in the group. Soon the then-leaders of the AAUP—Cary Nelson and Jane Buck—joined the opposition, notifying the funders of the conference that it did not have official AAUP approval. (They did not notify the conference organizers of these actions.) At that point the conference was canceled. The full story, as well as some of the papers that would have been presented at the conference, was published in a special report in Academe (September–October 2006).

Those of us who organized the conference were not promoting academic boycotts; we were simply interested in debating the issue in order to better understand and evaluate the strategy of the boycott. In fact, at the time, I agreed with the prevailing view at the AAUP that academic boycotts were contrary to principles of open exchange protected by academic freedom. I have now reconsidered that view. Even at the time, in the heat of the controversy about our conference, it began to seem to me that inflexible adherence to a principle did not make sense without consideration of the political contexts within which one wanted to apply it. Indeed, given the vagueness of the principle of academic freedom, its many different uses and applications, knowing how to apply it required understanding the different functions it served in practice. If the conference was meant to achieve that understanding, it was thwarted, for we had clearly walked into a political minefield—the so-called defenders of Israel were going to prevent us from exercising our rights to free speech (to discussion and debate), just as they were preventing their critics within Israel from doing the same by threatening and firing those who represented dissenting views. What did it mean, I wondered, to oppose the boycott campaign in the name of Israeli academic freedom when the Israeli state regularly denied academic freedom to critics of the state, the occupation, or, indeed, of Zionism, and when the blacklisting of the state’s critics is the regular tool of state authorities against Israel’s own academic institutions?

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