Academic Boycotts Reconsidered: A Response to the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, Volume 4

By Cary Nelson

The limit case is always Nazi Germany. Would I have supported a boycott of German universities during the Nazi period? I cannot of course place myself back in that historical moment—before I was born—and be certain how I would have felt. But I can respond in principle. And I believe my answer at the time should have been “No,” but not, as it happens, because of the AAUP’s policy against academic boycotts. When the Nazis criminalized their institutions of higher education they ceased to be universities. Thus I would argue there was fundamentally nothing “academic” left to boycott. There was no meaningful dialogue with German academics to preserve.An academic boycott suggests there remains a redeemable core at the enterprise in question, that the “faculty” have some hope of engaging in meaningful national political discussion and debate, that international pressure on them might change attitudes and practices. Crediting such expectations would have been folly in the case of Nazi Germany. 

Have we reached that point with Israel? Hardly. Although the AAUP does not have the resources to do in-person academic freedom investigations at foreign institutions, Scholars at Risk, headquartered at NYU, provides reports on the state of academic freedom abroad. Human Rights Watch issues reports that bear substantially on whether academic freedom is possible in particular countries. And essays by individual academics sometimes testify to the state of academic freedom in a given country. Press reports and other sources add to the knowledge base about academic freedom around the world. Could international reporting about the status of higher education be improved? Yes. But we know quite enough to state unequivocally that there is more academic freedom in Israel than in other nations in the Middle East. It is hypocritical and a fundamental betrayal of our mission as academics to advocate boycotting universities not because of their fundamental character but because of the policies of the nation in which they are located.

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