On Dec. 15, the American Studies Association called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The American Studies Association, which describes itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history,” has around 5,000 members, of which 1,252 participated in the vote to endorse the boycott. About 66 percent of the voters endorsed the resolution, passed in the name of the “preservation and support of academic freedom.”
In the few weeks following, though, the American academic community went berserk as only academic communities can (with strongly worded op-eds in prestigious newspapers), and the presidents of more than 80 United States colleges, including our very own presidents, Lee Bollinger and Debora Spar, have condemned the vote. Even Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said, “we do not support the boycott of Israel. But we ask everyone to boycott the products of the settlements.”
This column isn’t on the efficacy of boycotts as an instrument of change, though, or even the situation in Israel as a whole (as impossible as that may be), but on the concept of an academic boycott.
President Bollinger has long been a defender of a free and open global discourse. He famously invited now former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the World Leaders Forum, stating in his opening remarks that “free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self-restraint against the very natural but often counter-productive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear.” Bollinger also strongly criticized the ASA boycott, along with the similar 2007 boycott by the British University and College Union.
Meanwhile, Spar released a much more powerful statement of condemnation, writing that “all scholars have the right to speak out against issues or policies with which they disagree, but academic boycotts pose a threat to the intellectual exchange and open debate that sit at the very core of our educational mission.”
Of course, the supporters of the boycott vehemently reject this accusation, stating that in no way would their academic boycott censor academic freedom. In the ASA petition, they claim that the opposite is true—Israeli academic institutions impose restrictions on education, scholarships, and participation in campus activities, conferences, and research for Palestinian students and academics, and are complicit in Israel’s violations of international and human rights law by not taking “measures to oppose the Occupation.”
Thus, the only natural step is to restrict academic freedom in turn by boycotting Israeli academic institutions (an eye for an eye makes the whole world equal, as I believe Gandhi once said). But academic freedom, as safeguarded in the petition, will not truly be restricted, because the “ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the BDS movement.” In other words, if you agree with what the ASA does, they won’t boycott you.
Although I may not agree with the rationale, I understand the idea of a boycott of Israeli goods or corporations through the idea of disinvestment. Boycotting academic institutions is a whole other matter. It’s boycotting open discourse, and ensuring that the people—and not only the people, but the intellectuals—with whom you disagree won’t be part of your discussion.
I’ve always considered myself to be on the very left of whatever spectrum you draw up, and although everyone’s definition of liberalism and leftism is entirely subjective and indeterminate, to me, the one constant and cornerstone is freedom of expression. An increasing trend from people on the left is to ignore this cornerstone, and dogmatically defend certain ideas they hold to be absolute truth, with any dissension meaning an ignorant, and personal, attack.
Discourse is broken on the left. I know I’ve written about this in the past, but the more I see of it at Columbia and in academic circles, so-called bastions of liberalism, the sadder and scarier it is. Too many times, people justify shutting down others’ opinions or right to speak in the name of social justice, without realizing the injustice they’re doing to themselves and their cause. If you care deeply about something, the easiest reaction when you hear a challenging view is to shut it down—to be convinced that the reason for the view is ignorance or misunderstanding, and that the person holding the challenging view needs to be educated. But if you’re this passionate and convinced in what you believe in, it can blind you to the flaws in your reasoning.
Too much of the discourse on campus is inclusive only to people who agree with one another; this accomplishes nothing. To make any headway in mitigating massive problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shutting down entire groups of people from the conversation will never lead to progress. The same is true with any type of discussion. True inclusiveness means accepting and working with opinions different than your own.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Mondays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.