Letter to Ashley Dawson

By Members of the USACBI Organizing Collective

We write to you in regards to the articles and responses that appeared online in JAF on the topic of the Academic Boycott of Israel. We want to thank JAF for publishing essays that engage the public debate on Israel in the US academy. Volume 4 (2013) of JAF and the controversy that it has produced confirm the importance of these matters to a growing number of professors and students. In an academic environment subject to increasing external financial and political influence that seeks to restrict academic freedom, the JAF articles on the academic boycott of Israel exemplify how “struggles for academic freedom must work in concert with the opposition to state violence, ideological surveillance, and the systematic devastation of everyday life” (Judith Butler, "Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom," Radical Philosophy 135 (Jan/Feb 2006): 17. 

All parties to the debate on the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (ACBI) believe that they are defending academic freedom, but they hold differing understandings of this guiding principle of our professional activities as scholars and educators. AAUP has done very important work promoting academic freedom in the US and abroad, but it has in the past endorsed a rather narrow view that positions academic boycotts as antithetical to its mission. In an ever more polarized academic environment, around a wide range of international issues, the appearance of the JAF special issue suggests that AAUP is open to a broader understanding of academic freedom that acknowledges the legitimacy of the academic boycott of Israel. This development certainly must be unsettling to ACBI opponents, who have moved aggressively to discredit authors of academic boycott articles and the editor of JAF.

It should go without saying that in the United States, to advocate the boycott of Israeli universities is a difficult position to hold. As noted in several of the JAF articles, to take a public stand critical of Israel often comes at professional and personal cost to US academics. There is significant pressure on junior faculty in particular to maintain silence. And even if there is a growing number of academics prepared to endorse the boycott of Israeli universities, there is also a powerful countervailing trend aimed at containing criticism of Israel and undermining the freedom to express political views on campus. This tendency is evident, for example, in the highly tendentious 2012 report, "A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California." It is also more directly apparent in Jonathan Marks’ scurrilous attack on the editor of JAF in Commentary (“George Orwell Call Your Office” 10/14/2013) and Stanley Fish’s defense of the ivory-tower intellectual as an alternative to the politically engaged academic (“Academic Freedom Against Itself: Boycotting Israeli Universities” NYT Online 10/28/2013).

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