Academic Boycotts and Counterboycotts

Higher education has been roiled over the past few months by boycotts of colleges, conferences, viewpoints, and academic organizations, followed in some cases by counterboycotts of the boycotters. Most of these academic boycotts, but not all, have involved Israel.

Many individuals and organizations have strongly opposed academic boycotts of Israel. Some have opposed all academic boycotts. Academic boycotts, they argue, violate the academic freedom of their academic targets.

But are academic boycotts always wrong? Consider some recent examples.

1. Sexism in chemistry. In February 2014 the International Congress of Quantum Chemistry posted a list of 29 confirmed speakers and chairs for its 2015 conference in Beijing. All were male. Three female chemists responded with a petition to boycott the conference. They noted that there are many female chemists "far more distinguished than many of the men being invited" and that the exclusion of women is an ongoing pattern. The conference organizing committee promptly apologized for "prematurely posting an initial list" and promised that the final list would be "representative of the demographics" of the field.

2. Boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In December 2013 the American Studies Association approved a resolution to endorse and honor "the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions." The resolution referred to the role of the United States in enabling "the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the expansion of illegal settlements" and other violations of Palestinian rights, including restrictions on their educational opportunities and academic freedom. It maintained that "Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights."

3. College presidents boycott back. Within weeks after the American Studies Association initiated its boycott, more than a hundred college and university presidents and other top administrators individually condemned the ASA, generally on the ground that academic boycotts are an outrageous violation of academic freedom. Many of these dissociated their institutions from ASA by denying or discontinuing membership, thus demonstrating their opposition to boycotts by boycotting the boycotters.

4. Congress to the rescue. In early 2014, bills were introduced in Congress and several state legislatures to withhold financial support from universities that boycott Israel or are affiliated with professional organizations that boycott Israel. Thus the government would essentially boycott any university that fails to boycott any professional association that engages in a boycott of Israel. Universities would be on notice that they must (counter)boycott the boycotters or face a (third order) boycott. Note also how these measures single out Israel to show their opposition to those who single out Israel.

5. Hillel speaker restrictions. Hillel, which calls itself "The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life," is "steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state." It will not "partner with, house or host organizations, groups or speakers" who hold views deemed anti-Israel or anti-Zionist. But in December 2013 the Swarthmore Hillel, rejecting these national constraints, declared itself an "Open Hillel." The Vassar Jewish Union followed suit in February 2014, maintaining that the national Hillel policy "censors and delegitimizes the diverse range of personal and political opinions held by Jewish students."

A good source of guidance in thinking about these cases is the Middle East Studies Association, which has an active Committee on Academic Freedom. MESA is opposed to boycotting universities simply on the basis of "the policies of the state in which they are situated." Nevertheless, it has already sent letters opposing bills that would require universities to boycott boycotters of Israel (#4).

Although MESA does not support the ASA boycott, it recognizes and responds to Israeli violations of academic freedom. In the past several years it has sent letters regarding repeated attacks by Israeli military forces on a Palestinian campus, ongoing restrictions on the opportunity of Palestinian students to attend universities and accept internship offers, and multiple cases of ideologically motivated censorship, tenure denial, and program termination at Israeli universities.

During the same period, MESA has also sent dozens of letters to many other countries, including, just in the past year, Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and the United States. Each letter focuses on a specific violation of academic freedom and urges specific corrective action from those responsible for the violation.

With case #1 in mind, I don't think academic boycotts are always wrong. But academic boycotts often do threaten the academic freedom of their targets, especially when they go beyond the clear focus seen in MESA's letters. Fortunately, as MESA has demonstrated, there are other ways of defending academic freedom and human rights.