It is easy to conflate both University President Lee Bollinger’s and Barnard President Debora Spar’s recently stated oppositions toward the American Studies Association’s boycott with support for Israel. However, doing so would be naive, as neither president focused on Israel, its actions, nor the possible impact that an academic boycott could have on Israeli life within the Columbia-Barnard academic and social atmosphere in their reasons for dissent.
Instead, they both dissented due to a theoretical opposition. Neither president opposed an academic boycott on Israel, instead, they opposed the necessity and utility of academic boycotts in general. Furthermore, neither president even mentioned the rationale of the ASA boycott (to protest “the illegal occupation of Palestine, the infringements of the right to education of Palestinian students, and the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel”) in their respective responses either. The lack of discussion surrounding ASA’s decision to boycott contributes to the overarching sense that neither president discussed the issue relative to Israel, but rather the issue of academic boycotts in general.
Bollinger, a first amendment scholar and a proponent of freedom of speech, responded to the ASA’s decision to boycott with an obviously constitutional approach to understanding the boycott. Bollinger’s history with Middle Eastern topics and the necessity to discuss these issues stemming from the Middle East supports his more recent stance on the academic boycott.
When the former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spoke at Columbia in 2007 (and when various organizations blasted Bollinger for inviting him to speak), Bollinger preempted Ahmadinejad’s arrival with a statement to Columbia discussing the values of scholarship, in which he claimed, “It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas.” His response to the ASA boycott models his reaction to the public outcry over his invitation of Ahmadinejad in which he very similarly claimed, “To be sure, it is entirely appropriate for our campuses to provide a forum for discussion and debate about the policies of any government, including our own. But the ASA’s vote runs counter to this essential academic and political freedom.” Bollinger’s opposition to the ASA decision directly refers to academic boycotts as contradictory to academic freedoms and in no way refers to the reasoning for the ASA boycott.
President Spar’s claim, that “academic boycotts pose a threat to the intellectual exchange and open debate that sit at the very core of our educational mission,” further embodies Bollinger’s reasoning for his dissent: specifically, that any academic boycott results in a dissolution of political and academic freedoms and ultimately devolves into a situation that jeopardizes individuals’ academic roles based on nationality or some other non-academic characteristic. For Spar too, the decision to oppose the ASA boycott did not stem from any discussion on the reasoning for it.
Bollinger’s and Spar’s rhetoric and reasoning for their respective oppositions toward the academic boycott therefore should not be taken to mean an avowed support for Israel. Rather, each president successfully avoided discussing the reasoning of the boycott—their dissent developed from a preference of conversation on any issue over an academic boycott, which could limit necessary and constructive debates.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore with a prospective major in political science.
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