Opinion | Op-eds

A fight for intellectual freedom, not Israel

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.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.


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Zachary Neugut posted on

You are correct in the fact neither one addressed Israel itself, just their opposition to all academic boycotts. However, you need to go one step further and point out that this is flawed. Bollinger and Spar should have pointed out the anti-semitic aspect to the boycott as well, about how this criticism starts and ends with Israel. And if you don't think it it motivated by anti-semitism, to quote Alan Dershowitz "When the President of the American Studies Association, Curtis Marez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at The University of California, was advised that many nations, including all of Israel’s neighbors, behave far worse than Israel, he responded, “One has to start somewhere.” This boycott, however, has not only started with Israel. It will end with Israel. Marez’s absurd comment reminds me of the bigoted response made by Harvard’s notorious anti-Semitic president A. Laurence Lowell, when he imposed anti-Jewish quotas near the beginning of the twentieth century. When asked why he singled out Jews for quotas, he replied, “Jews cheat.” When the great Judge Learned Hand reminded him that Christians cheat too, Lowell responded, “You’re changing the subject. We are talking about Jews now.”"

Anonymous posted on

The commenter below is reproducing a distorted quote from Curtis Marez that Dershowitz and a few other commentators who can tolerate no critique of Israel whatsoever produced to misinform people and get them riled up. Also, Dershowitz accuses all critics of Israel of being anti-semitic; that's always his strategy and it includes people like Alice Walker, who he has also demonized. in the rest of the quote Marez says Israel is the largest recipient of US aid and that the ASA was responding to a call from Palestinian civil society. Thus the tactic of acting amazed that Marez didn’t say more depends on suppressing the rest of what he said. Here is the original NYT story: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/16/us/scholars-group-to-disclose-result-of-vote-on-an-academic-boycott-of-israel.html?_r=0. It's kind of pathetic that people can't deal with what was actually said and keep trying to distort this quote to get people all worked up in a misleading way. If you have a strong argument against the boycott, why would you need to do that?