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Whose Academic Freedom Are We Talking About?

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Source: To The Point Analyses



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Part I -- An Inevitable Controversy 

The controversy that broke out over the American Studies Association's December 2013 vote to adopt an academic boycott of Israel was inevitable. The ASA's academic boycott is a just a part of a much larger effort -- the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement -- which has been growing worldwide over the last decade. In fact the movement's progress in the United States has been relatively slow, but this is changing, and the ASA controversy is an indicator of this shift. That being the case, the reaction on the part of Zionist supporters of Israel in and out of academia came as no surprise. 

On 5 January 2014 the New York Times reprinted a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education  more or less summarizing the reaction to the ASA move. It noted that "the presidents of more than 80 United States colleges have condemned the vote." In addition, five of these institutions of higher learning "have withdrawn from ASA membership." The Chronicle piece concludes that the ASA has become "a pariah of the United States higher-education establishment." 

That is a rather premature judgment. There are roughly 4,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. Being condemned by the administrations (which is not the same as the faculties and student bodies) of 80 represents condemnation by less than 2 percent. Over 100 institutions of higher learning have ASA membership. Losing five is again a small percentage. All of this hardly makes the ASA a "pariah."   

There are also other ways of judging the impact of the ASA action. If one goal of the ASA boycott move is to stimulate debate about Israeli behavior and policies within a society (the U.S.) that has long been dominated by Israeli propaganda, then the move is certainly a success. It has brought to the surface many statements and charges that demonstrate just how decontextualized attempts to defend Israeli behavior are. If insightful counter-arguments are spread about because of the ASA resolution, then the "pariah" has done quite well. 

Part II -- Charges and Responses 

Let's take a look at some of the public charges and possible responses: 

Damaging Academic Freedom: 

- Carolyn A. Martin, president of Amherst College: "Such boycotts threaten academic speech and exchange, which is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect."    

- Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council of Education: "Such actions are misguided and greatly troubling, as they strike at the heart of academic freedom." 

Response: It is hard to argue against the ideal. Everyone associated with higher education does, or should, value academic freedom and the free flow of ideas. The problem is, people such as Dr. Martin and Dr. Broad and many others are directing their criticism at the wrong party. The ASA resolution, which one suspects has not been read by many of its critics, is not directed against individual scholars, researchers or teachers. It is quite explicitly directed against   Israeli institutions -- institutions that have abetted in the destruction of the Palestinian right of academic freedom for decades. The Israelis have just done this largely out of sight of the American academic community, to say nothing of the American people.  

The fact is that the Israeli government, assisted by many of the country's academic institutions, runs an illegal occupation that has long impeded education in the Palestinian Territories. One wonders just how aware of this historical fact are those who criticize the ASA. The facts in this regard are not a secret, although one does have to go out and look for them. Just do a thorough on-line search of the subject and all kinds of reports, analyses, and documents show up. For instance, here is a link to a report about the complicity of Israeli universities in maintaining the occupation. Here is another on the impact of occupation on Palestinian education, and yet another on the struggle for Palestinian academic freedom.  

It should also be mentioned that the Israeli government is embarked on an effort to enforce its own version of history on Palestinian schools. This may soon appear as an Israeli priority in its ongoing negotiations with the Palestine Authority. And, right now in the U.S., the Zionist student organization Hillel has laid down rules restricting any free discussion about Israel in their chapters on American college campuses. These facts should raise questions about the sincerity of Zionist concern over academic freedom and the free flow of ideas. It is policies and actions such as these, which have multiplied themselves out many fold, that are part of the context of the BDS movement and the action taken by the ASA.   

Damaging Institutional Reputations and Solvency: 

- William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University and president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: "Boycotts are a bad idea. ... It is dangerous business ... for institutions to become embroiled in these kinds of debates. The consequences for institutions are just too serious."  

Response:   What might this mean? I don't think that Dr. Bowen is implying that what the ASA did is "dangerous" because it allegedly put the institution on the wrong side of a moral question. Here is another possible answer:  

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http://www.tothepointanalyses.com

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign
Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest
; America's
Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli
Statehood
; and Islamic Fundamentalism. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.

His blog To The Point Analyses now has its own Facebook page. Along with the analyses, the Facebook page will also have reviews, pictures, and other analogous material.


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