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Stanford and the ASA Boycott: Pushback & Response

September 18, 2014

I previously wrote and spoke about the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academics, and the complicit role of Stanford University as an institutional member of the ASA. I asked Stanford to follow the lead of Bard College, Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College, Penn State Harrisburg), the University of Texas (Dallas) and the University of Utah, and terminate its institutional membership in the ASA.  Failing that, Stanford could announce that, as a matter of policy, it will not allow university funds to be used for ASA membership dues and journal subscriptions, travel to ASA conferences, or other ASA-related activities.  (The American Studies Program can maintain its academic freedom and independence by raising its own funds for this purpose, separate from the university budget.)

Following both my initial efforts on this issue in December 2013/January 2014, and my more recent reunion talk, I received some very thoughtful feedback, considered comments and reasoned arguments. (I also received some less constructive critiques, including those chastising me for using allegedly inappropriate forums for the discussion.) I deeply appreciate the responses from those who engaged in this discussion, and the opportunity to continue the conversation

The strongest push-back I received was that academic freedom, already compromised by the ASA’s discriminatory resolution, should not be further diminished by the response to this initiative. The boycott response from the Association of American Universities, also quoted in Stanford’s official statement made this point: “Efforts to address political issues, or to address restrictions on academic freedom, should not themselves infringe upon academic freedom.”

In only 19 words, this concise reply contains two very different arguments. First, it appears to accept the claim that Israel’s actions somehow, allegedly, restrict academic freedom. But, it implies, even if Israel is guilty of misconduct, the American Studies Association’s boycott response is inappropriate or excessive. The ASA boycott further limits academic freedom, by placing some scholars and their work off-limits to the ASA and its members.

The second implication is that any responses to the boycott should not further restrict or impose on academic freedom—for example, by asking scholars, departments, or institutions to quit or denounce the organization. This second inference brilliantly preempts and rejects actions to oppose the boycott—while at the same time opposing the boycott. It says, in effect, that rhetorical objections are acceptable, but any more substantive reaction may cross the line to “infring[ing] upon [the boycotters’] academic freedom.” The statement provides an excuse and shield against those who are opposed—as I am—to academic boycotts in general, and boycotts of Israel in particular.   If we object to the ASA boycott on the grounds that it undermines academic freedom, the circular argument goes, then we must remain silent, because any anti-boycott protest or action would itself undermine academic freedom.

I must admit that this point has some merit, striking at the heart of the academic-liberty case against the boycott. It is especially effective when coming from university administrators—like John Hennessy, Stanford’s president—who are rightly loathe to impose political constraints or edicts on departments, programs, and individual faculty members within their institutions. How can we support academic freedom when it comes to collaborating with Israeli scholars, and not apply the same standard to the ASA and its members?

The answer is that freedom is never, and should not be, absolute. There are limits on free speech, arguably our most cherished liberty: We are not permitted to shout (untruthfully) “fire” in a crowded theater, or to steal another’s copyright, or to slander or libel, or to distribute child pornography, or to incite to violence. There are limits on the freedom of association, such as when such association impedes others’ freedom of movement, or trespasses on private property. Similarly, academic freedom is not absolute. Academic freedom must not be used to subvert others’ freedom to study, publish, and associate as they wish. This is a misuse and abuse of the university’s prerogative, crossing the boundaries of the acceptable and defensible.

If a university department or faculty member affiliated with a hate organization, such as the Ku Klux Klan, or expressed support for a terrorist organization, like Al Qaeda, what would be the administration’s response? Note that I am not equating the ASA with the KKK or Al Qaeda; of course, they are not remotely similar. I am simply pointing out that there must be some limit to the academic-freedom argument. We can debate, of course, where that limit is or should be; the point is only that it does exist somewhere. Universities (and publics) should not be asked tolerate everything, however hateful and intolerant, in the name of tolerance.  If a scholar or academic institution refused to work with people of color, or gays, or Muslims, or members of any other identifiable minority group, would we be required to accept such a shameful boycott as consistent with that scholar’s or institution’s academic freedom? Surely not; we would denounce them, rightly, as bigots.  The response to the ASA’s Israel boycott should be no different—otherwise it, too, is a form of discrimination and bigotry.

This is also my answer to the Stanford faculty member who responded to my initial complaint, calling the boycott resolution “a mockery of academic freedom and a shocking display of ignorance.” But at the same time, he also defended his continued membership in the American Studies Association. This person wrote to me, “Frankly, if I left an organization each time its membership did something that I found disagreeable, I would be left alone.” I agree with the sentiment overall—not every dissent or perceived transgression is a reason to sever ties. But is there any disagreement, any difference over a moral issue—not a simple intellectual difference—that justifies disassociating with an organization? And if there is, does this one cross the line?

The American Studies Association and others who subvert and undermine academic freedom should not be allowed to use academic freedom to inoculate themselves from the repercussions of their hateful and discriminatory decisions. By infringing on the freedom of Israeli scholars and of its own members, the ASA has abdicated its right to use academic freedom to shield it from being shunned for its decision. Those who are truly committed to liberty should not stand for its abuse.

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