Trustees | Freedom of Expression

University Trustees: Educational Boycotts of Israel Threaten Academic Freedom

THE TOWER   |  March 10, 2017 by Tower Staff

The campaign on university campuses to boycott Israel poses a threat to academic freedom, a report (.pdf) published Thursday by an academic nonprofit group stated.

The report, compiled by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, showed how the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has stifled academic freedom, a value that the report said was “at the heart of America’s long record of achievement in higher education.”

The report cited calls from academics and university administrations for “more productive ways of addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” to replace the “aggressive, anti-democratic tactics galvanizing deep inter-group suspicions” that has marked the BDS campaign’s activities on many campuses.

Examples included the shouting-down of Israeli professor Moshe Habertal at the University of Minnesota in 2015; the disruption of an event hosted by Professor Ami Pedahzur of the University of Texas that same year; the interruption of a talk given by Israeli diplomat George Deek last year at the University of California, Davis; the withdrawal of Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan’s invitation to speak at Syracuse University last September; and the disruption of a talk by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at San Francisco State University that same month.

BDS activists who engage in such disorderly conduct are likely not protected by the First Amendment, the report stated. And when such disruptions target Jewish events, “it arguably does violate the Civil Rights Act,” exposing universities to potential legal liability.

The report noted that such incidents are “hardly isolated”:

Behind these increasingly common violations of the core principles of the academic freedom that has defined American higher education are the BDS movement and a small number of groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, that are willing to violate the liberties of faculty and their fellow students to advance their own political agenda.

The report identifies as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as one of foremost on-campus advocates of BDS. SJP is affiliated with American Muslims for Palestine, whose leadership, the report notes, “includes several persons formerly associated with the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), which was prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice for sending millions of dollars to the terrorist organization Hamas.”

The report also offered a brief history of the movement. BDS grew out of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), whose goal, according to its website, is to urge “academics, academic associations unions, and academic—as well as other—institutions around the world, where possible and as relevant, to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation or annulment of events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israeli academic institutions or that otherwise promote the normalization of Israel in the global academy, whitewash Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights, or violate the BDS guidelines.”

PACBI’s goal may not be peaceful: The group’s co-founder, Omar Barghouti,  said in 2013 that “We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it…I, for one, support euthanasia.” He also said the following year that Palestinians have a right to “resistance by any means, including armed resistance.”

The report also delineated a number of ways that the BDS campaign attempts to unduly influence academia.

One method involves pressuring university governing boards to divest from Israeli companies. During the 2014-2015 academic year, there were 19 resolutions calling on universities to divest from Israel, and the number has continued to rise since then.

The campaign also tries to politicize professional academic associations, such as the Association of Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association, which have both voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The report noted that this raises questions about “the appropriateness of such bodies taking political positions when they enjoy tax-exempt status as academic associations. It is also noteworthy that these associations have had little or nothing to say about egregious and well-documented violations of human rights and academic freedom in Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey, China, and elsewhere.”

The report pointed out that Israeli scientists and researchers are continually doing cutting-edge research in many fields, and in collaboration with colleagues around the world. Boycotts, by their very nature, “disrupt such scholarly interactions.” Because of this, the report noted, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities opposed boycotts targeting Israel, stating that a boycott “wrongly limits the ability of American and Israeli academic institutions and their faculty members to exchange ideas and collaborate on critical projects that advance humanity, develop new technologies, and improve health and well-being across the globe.”

Michael B. Poliakoff, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, explained that his organization’s research “suggests that the tactics employed by the BDS movement clearly conflict with the principles of academic freedom that enable students and educators alike to engage in open discourse, inquiry, and learning. Higher education leaders and trustees should take this opportunity to reinforce their commitment to free expression and institutional neutrality.”

These core principles are not to be taken lightly: They represent the foundation on which our colleges and universities have built a long record of achievements and expanded opportunity for millions. Americans are fortunate to enjoy a deep commitment to academic freedom and free expression that so many other nations do not.

Other recent studies have confirmed points addressed by the new report. Last September, a study by the Israel On Campus Coalition showed how the BDS movement was changing tactics and focusing more on intimidation as a means of spreading its message. Two months later, a statistical study by the AMCHA Initiative, a watchdog group, found a strong correlation between anti-Israel activity at a university and on-campus anti-Semitism.


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