On behalf of Vassar College, President Hill and Dean Chenette recently denounced the boycott of Israeli academic institutions endorsed by academic associations such as the American Studies Association (ASA) and Association for Asian-American Studies . They claim that supporting such a boycott contradicts the principles of “academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.” Their condemnation reflects a surface-level understanding of the boycott that contradicts one of its main purposes: to call attention to the denial of academic freedom to Palestinian students and scholars.
Reading ASA’s own words on what the academic boycott of Israel entails may help correct some of the misinformation presented in the statement released by the college. While the college’s statement suggests that the boycott infringes on the academic freedom of Israelis, the ASA explicitly states that they are “not endorsing a boycott of Israeli scholars,” but a boycott of “formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions…or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.” In the name of that academic freedom, the college’s statement obscures the injustices and atrocities committed by the Israeli institutions that are guilty of robbing Palestinians of their freedoms, academic and otherwise. Israeli universities help perpetuate an oppressive system in which Palestinians are discriminated against, silenced and subjected to internationally recognized abuses of human rights and international law. Israeli universities have forcibly annexed Palestinian land, operate out of illegal West Bank settlements, and many conduct research for the military establishment. Palestinian schools and universities have been bombed by U.S.-supported Israeli military forces, and Palestinian academics and students are frequently blocked from access to education by Israeli occupation forces and the illegal apartheid wall. For these reasons, among others, the ASA felt an “ethical responsibility to act.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, a member of the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) National Committee, was launched in 2004 by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals to challenge Israel’s apartheid system and colonial oppression of the Palestinian people. Their goal is to boycott Israeli institutions until Israel complies with UN resolutions and international law regarding the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the removal of illegal settlements, and the end of its occupation. The international call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions is an act of nonviolent resistance, not a disengagement from dialogue on the conflict. This form of political activism has a long history, the most often-cited precedent being the divestment from apartheid South Africa.
Judith Butler, in her article in The Nation, addressed a common misconception:
“Some people argue that the boycott cuts ties, but that what is needed is to build ties. But this formulation fails to realize that the ties the boycott movement builds are ones of solidarity in a struggle against damaged rights, occupation and dispossession, and it is these sorts of ties, not the ones that maintain the status quo, that are most important at this time.”
Israeli academics who support the academic boycott, such as Ilan Pappé, assert that academic freedom should not only apply to privileged groups, but rather be extended to all, including to Palestinian students and professors who have their mobility and academics severely restricted by the Israeli occupation. Support for the academic boycott challenges the privileging of certain voices by giving agency to voices that have been disenfranchised and obscured by Israeli restrictions on Palestinian academic freedom. Rather than vilify the boycott as anti-Semitic, it is important to recognize that there is support for the boycott among Israeli academics and citizens, as well as American Jews.
President Hill and Dean Chenette’s statement, though it claimed to represent the political beliefs of Vassar College, was made without consultation with faculty, administrators and students. As reported by the Miscellany News, one Vassar professor noted that most of the arguments against the boycott appear to misunderstand it. Some faculty and students at Vassar feel that their own academic freedom to express support for the BDS movement is jeopardized by the College’s official position. The condemnation of the ASA boycott is not shared by all at Vassar, and those of us who do not share the College’s official position feel silenced by its sweeping statements.
Vassar’s rejection of the academic boycott of Israeli universities on the grounds of “academic freedom” diverts attention from the continued obstruction of academic freedom for Palestinians. We call upon Vassar to recognize the diversity of values, experiences and opinions that constitute its learning community. We urge Vassar to recognize its role in supporting ongoing injustices and the fact that its position as an institution of privilege precludes it from the possibility of neutrality. President Hill and Dean Chenette’s unilateral condemnation of the ASA boycott impairs Vassar’s ability to provide an educational space for the independent thinking, respectful debate and engaged citizenship lauded in the mission statement of the college.
—Naomi Dann is a senior Peace and Justice Studies major and the president of the Vassar Jewish Union. Nicole Massad is a senior Biology major and the co-president of Students for Justice in Palestine.