Faculty Forum: Why an Academic Boycott of Israel is Wrong

By Emanuel Goldman

Virtually everyone in academia has by now heard of the so-called boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. In recent years, academics intent on delegitimizing Israel have repeatedly made proposals to college and university governing bodies and to professional associations calling for academic boycotts of Israeli scholars. For example, members of the American Historical Association have been asked to vote on resolutions endorsing academic boycotts and denouncing Israeli policies toward Palestinian universities in Gaza and the West Bank; these resolutions have been resoundingly defeated.

The AAUP as a matter of principle has long opposed academic boycotts because, in the words of a 2005 statement by Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the organization rejects “proposals that curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues” and supports “the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas.” There is good reason for this position: the core value of academic freedom is a direct casualty of academic boycotts.

An academic boycott of Israel would unfairly single out our Israeli academic colleagues (advocates of such a boycott rarely propose similar boycotts of other countries with alleged reprehensible policies). It would also deprive us of the knowledge and expertise of Israeli scholars, including those who are leaders in their fields and pioneers in some of the most sophisticated technologies in the world. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has been quoted as saying that Israel is “at the cutting edge of world technology,” and examples of innovative technologies developed in Israel are numerous. The USB flash drive, the current universal standard for portable electronic storage, was developed in Israel, as were some of Intel’s seminal microprocessors. Cellular phones and instant messaging were also Israeli innovations. Wireless capsule endoscopy, the “Pillcam,” comes from Israel. Many of Israel’s other technological accomplishments are described in the 2009 book Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.

A partial list of scholars whose expertise would be denied to us by a boycott would include Nobel laureates Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology, who clarified the mechanism of protein turnover in human and other eukaryotic cells; Nobel Laureate Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science, codiscoverer of the molecular structure of ribosomes, the organelle for manufacturing protein in all living cells; Moussa Youdim of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, who developed some of the first effective drugs for Parkinson’s disease; Ehud Shapiro of the Weizmann Institute of Science, who developed a DNA-based computing machine, the world’s smallest computer; Erez Braun of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, who developed nanowires and nanotubes for microscopic electrical applications; and Michel Revel of the Weizmann Institute of Science, a leader in research on Interferons, a potent natural antiviral defense mechanism.

Israeli academic institutions are scientific powerhouses, but a boycott would affect research in other fields as well. Even Israeli academics critical of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians would presumably be subject to the boycott. Take, for example, Benny Morris, a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, whose research uncovered evidence of some expulsions of Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence in 1947–49. Morris later argued that the Palestinian refugee problem was a result of multiple factors, of which the expulsions were only a small part, but would BDS advocates want research on such topics to be subject to a boycott?

When reading the BDS resolution placed before the American Historical Association, I was reminded of the classic story of a boy who kills his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan. Undoubtedly, academics and other inhabitants of the West Bank suffer many indignities associated with Israeli control. But beyond complaining about those indignities, as the BDS movement does, it must be recognized that placing constraints on the free exchange of ideas is not the answer to the indignities suffered by Palestinian academics. To the contrary, impeding scholarly communication would only work against the long-term interests of peace in the region.

Emanuel Goldman is professor of microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics at Rutgers University. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to academe@aaup.org for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.

Comments

Limited space available for my article did not allow inclusion of several additional points. One point in particular addresses that supporters of the boycott allege that Israel is an apartheid state. This ignores that the 20% Arab minority within the pre-1967 Israeli borders enjoy full legal and political rights, including electing members to Israel's parliament. An Arab serves on the Israeli Supreme Court, an Arab was chosen as Miss Israel, several Arabs have held administrative positions in the government, including Acting President of Israel. An Arab was a Commander in the Israeli army, and other Arabs have served in leadership positions in the Israeli army. These facts belie the false assertion that Israel is an apartheid state.

One additional clarification was lost due to limited space for the article. When I commented that the BDS resolution reminded me of the boy who kills his parents then asks for mercy because he's an orphan, I wanted to make the argument that the indignities suffered by Palestinians are consequences of the policies of the Palestinians themselves. If there were peace, there would be no indignities. But Palestinian leaders have rejected peace proposals brokered by Clinton in 2001 and others, accepted by Israeli leaders, that would have ended the conflict. The reason for those rejections is the heart of the matter: the Palestinians refuse to accept the right of Israel to exist. Further, many Palestinians have pursued terrorist activities against Israel; if there were no terrorism, there would be no indignities. The answer to the indignities suffered by Palestinian academics is not to support a boycott, but to encourage fellow Palestinians to accept Israel, renounce terrorism, and be willing to make peace.

The principle you are claiming to defend is regarding censorship of knowledge generated by scholars (such as research scientists) whose work is inherently non-political in nature.

Defense of academic freedom is obviously a worthwhile cause, but does not in any way require a lengthy digression into your views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just like the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects free speech independent of its content (save for a few very specific exclusions), the principle of academic freedom stands on it's own, independent of the actions or motives of those involved.

Unless, of course, you hold the belief that it is acceptable to restrict academic freedom or boycott the work of academics (whose work is apolitical), under certain circumstances. In which case it might then be helpful to your argument to define the specific circumstances where you would consent such restrictions in order to consider the context of your viewpoint.

Please do not confuse my comments with a disagreement of your views on the conflict. I am simply pointing out that Academe is (quite obviously) not the appropriate forum in which to confront this politically divisive and charged issue. However, given the fact that the majority of your comments (in both the article and appended statements) are devoted to doing just that, one is left to question the true motives for your editorial.

Actually, Academe did in fact publish an article that supports the boycott late last year, which is what initially motivated my interest in developing this article. I agree that Academe is not the appropriate forum to confront the political aspects of this matter, but unfortunately, the Academe Editorial staff failed to apply the same standard when they published the previous article.

To be perfectly clear, I am opposed to all academic boycotts, period. The published article is focused on this aspect.

I am additionally disturbed that the BDS justification for a boycott of Israel is based on false assertions. My post-publication comments are focused on those aspects.

You are now arguing that two wrongs make a right. The Academe editors are clearly not applying this standard to prior and current articles, which in the end was to your benefit.

And once again, your desire to expound in great detail on what you believe are "false assertions" is irrelevant to the core topic, completely overshadowing any self-professed effort to champion the cause of academic freedom, which has ended up being little more than a thin thread upon which to hang your political comments.

I will set aside other objections I might have to Emanuel Goldman’s recent Faculty Forum piece [Why an Academic Boycott of Israel is Wrong] and just focus on the following line: “When reading the BDS resolution placed before the American Historical Association, I was reminded of the classic story of a boy who kills his parents and then asks the court for mercy because he’s an orphan.” That line reminded ME of the classic academic story in which one professor encounters another carrying a book and asks, “Have you read it yet?” The other answers “Read it?? I haven’t even lectured on it.” Since anyone who has read the resolution submitted to the American Historical Association on Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian academics and students knows it would be wildly inaccurate, even dishonest to describe it as a BDS resolution, I will assume that Prof. Goldman has not actually read it, but obviously that hasn’t stopped him from lecturing us on it.

Barbara Weinstein
Silver Professor and Chair, History, NYU
Past President (2007), American Historical Association

First, let me note that Professor Weinstein was one of the signatories of the (de facto) BDS resolution that was defeated by the AHA. Second, I most certainly did read the resolution, and I stand behind my comment about the boy who killed his parents then asks for clemency because he's as orphan. The defeated resolution decries restrictions on Palestinian faculty and students, and "calls for the reversal of Israeli policies that restrict the freedom of movement" in the West Bank and Gaza. Proponents of this resolution fail to recognize that these Israeli policies are a consequence of the actions of the Palestinians themselves. If the Palestinians recognized the right of Israel to exist, and accepted any of the numerous peace offers brokered by third parties and accepted by Israel, there would be no restrictions on Palestinian faculty and students. If the Palestinians renounced terrorist actions that kill and maim Israeli and foreign civilians, there would be no need for those restrictions either. It is disingenuous, to say the least, to suggest that Israel is implementing these restrictions for any other purpose than to protect its population, an obligation that any society has to its constituents.

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