In the aftermath of the American Studies Association’s (ASA) December 2013 vote to support the boycott/divestment/sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli universities and scholars, the heads of 250 American universities voiced their opposition to both the ASA’s decision and to academic boycotts in general as violations of academic freedom.
Typifying their stance was that of Brown University president Christina Paxson, who said that such action “would be antithetical to open scholarly exchange and would inhibit the advancement of knowledge and discovery.”
Yet in failing to address the odiousness of singling out Israel for boycott, such reactions ignore the black heart of BDS: its profound anti-Semitism hiding under the guise of anti-Zionism, anti-colonialism or any cause de jour. A university president harboring intensely anti-Israel or anti-Semitic beliefs could still oppose BDS on academic freedom grounds while leaving unaddressed this key moral issue.
Former Harvard president Larry Summers made this point in a recent video interview with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol in which he said he was “disappointed by the response of university presidents,” because they “framed the argument almost entirely in terms of their distaste for academic boycotts rather than anything about the specific substance.”
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If boycotting Israeli universities is an offense to academic freedom rather than an act of overt anti-Semitism — i.e., if there are no moral reasons beyond standing for “the advancement of knowledge and discovery” to dissuade one from supporting BDS — one might ask if there are any circumstances under which a nation’s universities should be boycotted?
Judging by the standards applied by American academic leaders to German universities during Hitler’s reign, the answer might be a resounding No.
Following the Nazis’ implementation of their “cleansing process,” which legalized the expulsion of Jews and political opponents from the formerly great German universities by instituting racial and political tests for university appointments, many American universities maintained, and in some instances even strengthened, their ties with their German peers.
James Conant and Nicholas Murray Butler, presidents of Harvard and Columbia, respectively, entertained representatives of the Nazi government and brooked no opposition from objecting faculty or students.
Behind this shameful display in the 1930s lurked not a commitment to academic freedom at any price, however, but a blatant anti-Semitism stoked by the nativism then widespread in American society. Relations with German universities were warm in spite of their persecution of Jewish faculty and students precisely because most of those affected were Jews. A prejudice acceptable among American elites was unlikely to spark outrage when practiced overseas.
That same bigotry is at work today among supporters of the BDS movement who share with elite administrators of 80 years ago a conviction that Jews are uniquely deserving of censure and isolation. Put differently, the same hostility or, at best, indifference that allowed Conant and Butler to ignore the singling out of Jews for persecution motivates those persecuting the Jewish state today.
This point is important because boycotts, per se, are not inherently wrong-headed. The West’s unwillingness to object to Nazi policies targeting Jews during the 1930s, before the onset of war and the Holocaust, remains among its most abject moral failures.
In the shadow of this history, Summers was surely correct when he told Kristol, “I’m not sure that boycotting Hitler’s universities would actually have been such a terrible thing.”
A sweeping condemnation of boycotts in the name of academic freedom, as proffered by many university leaders today, provides cover for those who feel compelled to publicly oppose BDS, but don’t wish to be seen as supporting Israel — a controversial stance in academe that invites much more backlash than casting their position as a principled defense of academic freedom.
Ignoring the immorality at the heart of BDS — the singling out of Israel for opprobrium from among all the nations — university leaders appear to seize the moral high ground of defending academic freedom while lending a veneer of legitimacy to the invidious attacks on Israel from BDS proponents. Summers is right to be disappointed — and likely to be so for a long time to come.
Winfield Myers is director of academic affairs and director, Campus Watch, at the Middle East Forum.