- January 29, 2014
The National Association of Scholars opposes the movement in American higher education to single out Israeli academic and cultural institutions for punitive treatment. We stand against this movement because it violates core principles of academic freedom. It attempts to limit the free expression of ideas; it attempts to use instruments of coercion to advance a point of view; and it attempts to politicize the content of education and research.
The NAS is also mindful that this movement aims to single out and stigmatize an American ally and the most democratic nation in the Middle East. As an organization devoted to advancing free inquiry and free institutions, we are alarmed at any attempt to enlist American academic institutions on the side of Israel’s anti-democratic enemies.
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a growing presence in American higher education. Though the name does not announce the intention, BDS aims to stigmatize the state of Israel and exert pressure on behalf of the political aims of some Palestinian factions. BDS is, in briefest compass, a political movement. The means it employs to reach its goals has varied but little from the terms enunciated in its name. BDS seeks to recruit American academics, their academic organizations, and colleges and universities to join in boycotting Israeli institutions, divesting from Israeli companies, and creating other sanctions against the state of Israel.
The BDS movement has had as its principal advocate an organization known as the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which is the U.S. domestic arm of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. The U.S. branch was established in 2009 by a dozen or so faculty members in California, but quickly spread across the country. So far, however, no American college or university has responded to the campaign by divesting.
From the start, the BDS movement has been characterized by critics as anti-Semitic. Be that as it may, the movement unequivocally singles out the state of Israel for disparate treatment. The claims BDS activists make against Israel could be made, with much greater accuracy, against many other nations.
This singling out of Israel from other nations underscores the political nature of the campaign. It is not based on general principles but is designed to advance the ends of a political faction in the Middle East and as such is an invitation to American faculty members, their disciplinary organizations, and their colleges and universities to take a partisan stand.
BDS and the Politicization of Scholarly Associations
We, of course, recognize and support the right of individual faculty members to state their political opinions in appropriate contexts. That right, however, does not extend to using their classrooms or their professional organizations as platforms for political propaganda. That is what is at the heart of the current controversies involving the Asian American Studies Association, the American Studies Association, the Native American Studies Association, and the Modern Language Association.
On April 20, 2013 the Asian Studies Association became the first major academic association to adopt a resolution “to Support the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions.” The statement, which passed with “no objections and no abstentions,” explicitly associated the organization with the BDS movement, and declared: “Israeli academic institutions are deeply complicit in Israel's violations of international law and human rights and in its denial of the right to education and academic freedom to Palestinians, in addition to their basic rights as guaranteed by international law.”
On December 15, 2013, the general membership of the American Studies Association (ASA) voted by a two-thirds majority a resolution previously passed unanimously by the ASA’s National Council on December 4, calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It too explicitly references the BDS movement and calls “for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” saying “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation.” The ASA also declares: “The United States plays a significant role in enabling the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements and the Wall in violation of international law, as well as in supporting the systematic discrimination against Palestinians.”
Also on December 15, the Council of the Native American Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) likewise adopted a “Declaration of Support for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions.” It explained the interest of the NAISA as a matter of solidarity with other indigenous communities:
As the elected council of an international community of Indigenous and allied non-Indigenous scholars, students, and public intellectuals who have studied and resisted the colonization and domination of Indigenous lands via settler state structures throughout the world, we strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples.
On January 11, 2014, the Modern Language Association’s delegate assembly passed a resolution by a vote of 60 to 53 which “urges the U.S. State Department to challenge what the document says are travel restrictions imposed by Israel on some American academics, especially those of Palestinian descent, who want to teach or do research at Palestinian universities.” The substantial minority that opposed the resolution held that it “mischaracterizes freedom of movement for academics entering Palestinian territories and is “biased and discriminatory.”
The National Association of Scholars deplores the decisions of these scholarly organizations to make themselves accomplices to a political movement that subverts fundamental academic values. The resolutions misuse the language of academic freedom to advance a movement that in fact undermines free inquiry. Boycotts, as the American Association of University Professors points out, are not an appropriate means of advancing ideas and arguments within the academy. They are coercive by nature, and while they may play a legitimate role in non-academic contexts, they play no constructive role in matters of intellectual debate. The three academic organizations that have taken steps to advance the BDS movement have erred, and the MLA, which took a weaker step, is also on the wrong path.
More than 200 college presidents have so far issued statements opposing the ASA boycott in particular. The presidents of some colleges and universities have gone further by dropping their institutional memberships in ASA. These are commendable actions and one indication of the extremism exhibited by the BDS movement and its new institutional supporters.
The controversy is far from over. Small groups of pro-boycott faculty members on some campuses view the actions by their college presidents as infringements on their own academic freedom, and there may well be other scholarly associations that come under the sway of a radicalized leadership that will follow the ASA’s example and adopt resolutions supporting BDS or follow the MLA’s example of adopting a weaker version of an anti-Israeli resolution.
We are certainly aware that many academics today find it impossible to draw the line between the scholarly search for truth and the promotion of political goals. In their eyes, everything is politics and therefore nothing is amiss in using academic institutions to advance political ends. We firmly reject this debasement of academic ideals. Clearly there are legitimate instances in which political ideals legitimately trump academic principles. We do not believe, for example, that academic freedom justifies abetting nations (or movements) with which the United States is at war, or nations that are perpetrating atrocities. But if an academic boycott were ever warranted, Israel, one of the freest and most democratic nations in the world, is certainly not an appropriate target.
The National Association of Scholars calls on higher education to stand firm against the continuing pressure to boycott Israel. Colleges and universities should be above politics. They should be devoted to good argument, sound evidence, eloquence in defense of basic principles, consistency, and integrity. They should never bow to threats. Politics may intrude; threats may come; those charged with making good arguments may falter; but we should at least be clear about our foundational principles. The BDS movement is only the latest of many illiberal assaults on the integrity of academe. We should give it no welcome and repudiate those organizations that have erred by deciding to support it.
 Supporters of the movement sometimes claim that a decision by Hampshire College in 2009 to divest from a particular mutual fund was a victory. Hampshire denied that it was divesting in Israel.