During Winter Break on the second day of the New Year, the College released a statement announcing its opposition to an academic boycott of Israeli educational institutions. This decision comes weeks into an intense debate in academia that has drawn fault lines through colleges and universities across the country.
Posted online on the Office of the President’s website and signed by President Catharine Hill and Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette, the statement reads, “We are opposed to boycotts of scholars and academic institutions anywhere in the world, and we strongly reject the call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”
Last December, the American Studies Association (ASA), an organization of academics, ignited the conflict when its members voted in favor of a resolution to boycott Israeli universities. The ASA wrote in an emailed statement, “[The boycott] represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.”
The boycott would prohibit formal collaboration between Israeli Universities and the ASA. Scholars holding administrative positions at Israeli universities such as dean or president would not be invited to ASA conferences or lectures.
The boycott, however, is not a mandate for zero contact. Individual ASA members are still free to engage with Israeli universities, if they so choose. The association also clarified that “The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication.”
The ASA’s actions, despite being a rather small coalition, sent waves across the academic world, and Vassar College found itself needing to articulate where it stood on the boycott to the rest of the world.
As Chenette wrote in an emailed statement, “After the members of the American Studies Association voted in December to endorse a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the President’s Office received numerous inquiries about Vassar’s response.”
The American Association of Professors, the Association of American Universities and the President of the American Council on Education had already come out against the ASA’s boycott, saying it would stifle debate and the free exchange of ideas.
Pennsylvania State University at Harriburg, Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College and other institutions terminated their membership and pulled funds from the ASA (New York Times, “Backlash Against Israel Boycott Throws Academic Association on Defensive,” 1.5.2014).
Last month, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth penned an Op-Ed decrying the ASA and its decision (Los Angeles Times, “Boycott of Israeli Universities: A repugnant attack on academic freedom,” 12.19.13).
In it Roth writes, “Under the guise of phony progressivism, the [ASA] has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom. Others in academia should reject this call for an academic boycott.”
A few weeks later, Vassar denounced academic boycotts, both in general and specifically in the case of Israel.
“Vassar’s commitment to academic freedom not only leads us to reject a call for a boycott, it helps ensure that our faculty and students may pursue their academic interests wherever they may lead, engage in unconstrained discussions, and express their views freely,” the statement said.
One student organization on campus took note of the President’s letter. Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) responded in an emailed statement,
“The college’s condemnation of the boycott endorses universities that conduct research for the military and operate out of illegal West Bank settlements, helping to perpetuate an oppressive system in which Palestinians are discriminated against, silenced and subjected to internationally recognized abuses of human rights and international law.”
They went on, adding, “SJP rejects this institutionalized whitewashing of an apartheid regime through the rhetoric of ‘academic freedom.’ We instead recognize the Vassar community’s diversity of values and opinions and refuse to be made complicit in a policy that debases the academic freedom, human rights and social justice of Palestinians.”
To SJP’s claims, Chenette responded that “Individuals may and will hold varying views about the political issues under debate here.” He maintained that the reasons for the statement, however, had more to do with matters of free speech and inquiry than anything else.
“For the college, the fundamental question here is whether academic boycotts are consistent with core principles such as academic freedom,” wrote Chenette.
The definition of academic freedom, which Chenette said he and President Hill consulted, is that of the College’s Governance, which says, “All teachers in the service of the college are entitled to complete liberty of research of instruction and of utterance upon matters of opinion.”
Associate Professor of History and current director of the Jewish Studies program Joshua Schreier is the instructor for a course at Vassar called “The Roots of the Palestine-Israel Conflict”.
Schreier explained that his stance on whether or not to boycott Israeli academic institutions has changed over time.
He wrote in an emailed statement, “Originally, I was instinctively against it. Recently, I have heard far more reasoned, substantiated and detailed arguments in favor of the boycott.”
Schreier continued, writing, “Most of the arguments I have read or heard AGAINST the boycott appear to misunderstand it. These problematic arguments are being advanced by some of my best friends and smartest colleagues. So suffice it to say that my opinion is evolving, but I am currently leaning in favor of it.”
He explained what he perceived as the nuances of the ASA’s resolution that other academics often overlook. The boycott, Schreier pointed out, does not preclude visits of Israeli scholars to the U.S. or of American scholars to Israel.
“As the ASA statement made quite clear, the boycott is aimed at formal institutional collaboration, not individual scholars or their research. This contrasts with what some college deans and presidents have implied in their condemnations of the boycott,” wrote Schreier.
ASA’s actions are part of broader Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel, which borrows from a similar campaign launched against South Africa during Apartheid. Boycotts against South African products, as well as universities, brought international attention to the policy of Apartheid and to the plight of black South Africans.
Asked whether he was convinced by the comparison between Apartheid and Israel’s the treatment of Palestinians, Schreier wrote, “There are potentially two different questions here. The tacit one is whether the boycott will work, as it did in South Africa. I tend to avoid predicting the future, but I don’t think it is crazy to think it may help bring some pressure against the occupation.”
He proceeded, writing, “The second, explicit question is whether Apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel are comparable. Before anything, let me say clearly that I would never say the two countries are the same. This being said, it is hard to deny that both counties maintain (or maintained) hierarchies based on race or, in Israel, what is often called “nationality.”
While other universities, including neighboring Bard College, have rescinded their ASA membership because of the boycott, Chenette said that Vassar will not be following suit.
“We have also heard calls that the college should drop its membership in the American Studies Association, but we reject those calls equally firmly as inconsistent with academic freedom,” wrote Chenette. “Our faculty, departments and programs are entitled to determine which academic affiliations best serve their important work as teachers and scholars.”
Still, this will likely not be the end of the matter. The ASA might soon find an ally with another, more powerful academic organization: the Modern Language Association.
Meeting in Chicago earlier this month, the MLA’s Delegate Assembly did not vote on a boycott, but did narrowly pass a preliminary resolution censuring Israel for denying the entry of American academics into the West Bank and Gaza.
Meanwhile, a possible complication for Vassar’s decision not to withdraw its ASA membership is two New York State legislators, Dem. Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx and Dem. Dov Hikind of Brooklyn. Klein and Hikind are planning on introducing a bill to the New York assembly that would give public but also private universities, like Vassar, 30 days to pull support from the ASA or any other organization that is calling for an academic boycott on Israel. Failing to comply would strip colleges of state aid and bonding privileges.
Sen. Klein and Asm. Hikind said in a statement, “We cannot encourage our colleges and universities to engage in this type of discrimination against Israel. New Yorkers expect us to reject discrimination in every form, and cutting off the state spigot is the best way of doing that.”