In a controversy testing the limits of academic freedom, the State University of New York joined more than more than 100 academic institutions last December in condemning the American Studies Association for its approval of an academic boycott of Israel.
In a statement on the SUNY website, Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher said, “As a leader in higher education … we strongly oppose the boycott of Israel. Boycotts are the antithesis of the very notion of academic freedom.”
The boycott, aimed at Israeli academic institutions, was established to protest Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian neighbors at the request of Palestinian organizations that are focused on resisting Israeli forces.
The American Studies Association is an organization made up of 5,000 professors and numerous American universities that “exists to promote and encourage the study of American culture,” according to the ASA website.
The ASA’s resolution supporting the boycott states, “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.”
Hundreds of academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, have come out against the boycott, arguing that in the quest to defend Palestinian academic freedom, the ASA is attacking Israeli academic freedom and that the ASA is unfairly targeting Israel while ignoring other countries violating human rights.
Stony Brook University and SUNY University at Buffalo are the only schools in the SUNY system affiliated with the American Studies Association.
In the New York State Legislature, efforts are underway to punish universities that have not condemned the ASA. One such piece of legislation, written by Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Sen. Jeff Klein, would end state aid to institutions that do not reject the ASA and its resolution within 30 days of its passage.
The ASA defends the boycott by pointing to Israel’s establishment of settlements in the West Bank, military control of a large portion of Palestinian territories and history of closing Palestinian universities.
The ASA has not been alone in supporting the boycott of Israeli academics. Organizations including the Association of Asian American Studies and the Modern Language Association have all supported the boycott in the belief that Israel is encroaching on Palestinian academic freedom.
The boycott supported by these American organizations results from the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian campaign for the end of Israeli occupation that takes its inspiration from the successful anti-apartheid effort in South Africa.
The actions by the American Studies Association are largely symbolic, however, since the ASA’s resolution only addresses institutions and not individual professors or students. There are also no Israeli institutions currently affiliated with the small group.
According to John K. Wilson, the founder of the Institute for College Freedom and contributor to the American Association of University Professors’ website, “since the ASA in its official capacities has essentially zero collaborations with Israeli universities, this boycott is truly meaningless.”
The debate over the boycott in American academics has been largely philosophical, with the central theme being the question of what constitutes academic freedom and if the ASA’s resolution crosses the line.
Though there is no agreed upon definition of academic freedom, the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom states that academic freedom applies to individual professors and students, without mentioning institutions.
It states, “Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.”
Stony Brook University has dealt with the subject of academic freedom before when, in 1983, Professor Ernest Dube called Zionism—the movement for the creation of a Jewish homeland—a form of racism. The remark prompted a debate over whether or not the professor had crossed the line in his academic freedom to express his opinion. The controversy resulted in Stony Brook University concluding the line was not crossed, though it did deny the professor tenure four years later.
While some argue the resolution issued by the ASA will have little impact, it has touched off a wide-reaching intellectual battle that will surely remain.