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Anti-BDS Academics Should Be Honest About Their Motives

The latest flap over BDS at Syracuse University showcases how critics of an academic boycott are using the rhetoric of academic freedom to push their real cause: hasbara for Israel.

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Mary Anne Grady Flores of Ithaca, N.Y., wears tape over her mouth during a rally in the War Room at the state Capitol on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, in Albany, N.Y.
BDS’s call to action prioritizes international law, human rights and justice and doesn’t act primarily in the name of academic freedom. Credit: Mike Groll, AP

Is the academic boycott against Israel alive and well on American campuses, or is the threat being inflated? When people criticize the boycott on the grounds of preserving academic freedom, is that what they’re really criticizing?

On the first question, I’m beginning to think it’s a bit of both. On the second, I’m seeing more partisanship than principle in some of the most vocal expressions on the issue. I find it all a bit dispiriting.

The latest flap comes from Syracuse University. After Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan was sort-of-disinvited by religion professor Gail Hamner in an apologetic email (apparently an invitation hadn’t ever been formally issued) from screening his film “The Settlers” at a conference hosted by the university, the Atlantic pounced with a story about BDS faculty members holding the reins.

In response, Zachary Braiterman, professor of religion at Syracuse, described  the events as a “a burning scandal manufactured out of nearly nothing.”

Then came Miriam Elman, a Syracuse political scientist, arguing in Haaretz that “stealth” BDS is at work. Elman has partnered with the Academic Engagement Network to urge the university administration to investigate. The AEN, for its part, bills itself as “opposing the BDS movement, standing for academic freedom and supporting robust conversation about Israel on campuses,” while also addressing “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities” and “mentor[ing] students in their efforts to support Israel,” and “encourag[ing] universities to forge and enhance U.S.-Israel academic ties.” For an organization purportedly concerned with academic freedom, it sure mentions support for Israel a lot.

Meanwhile, a petition being circulated among BDS-supportive faculty and students at Syracuse (with 46 signatures currently), denies that the formal BDS campaign played any role in the Dotan affair. As “supporters of academic freedom, we endorse open discussions of difficult but necessary topics, including those relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the petition states, adding, “We therefore welcome speakers, scholars, and artists whose work relates to Palestinians and Israelis in adherence with the Palestinian civil society’s BDS guidelines. Importantly, these guidelines do not call for the boycott of individuals for being Israeli or for expressing certain views.”

But something about Hamner’s prediction to Dotan that “the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come" – still wasn’t sitting right with me. I couldn’t reach Hamner for comment (she had since apologized publicly for her role in the affair), but I did manage to interview Chandra Talpade Mohanty, the chair of the department of women’s and gender studies, and the petition’s lead signatory. In June 2011, Mohanty traveled as part of the Indigenous and Women of Color Feminist delegation to Palestine. Upon their return, she and her fellow delegates pledged to support BDS.

BDS’s call to action prioritizes international law, human rights and justice and doesn’t act primarily in the name of academic freedom. But I asked Mohanty whether she sees the academic boycott as violating the principle of academic freedom.

No, she said. “Israeli scholars are free to publish wherever they want, to present their work and engage in collaborations with scholars anywhere in the world,” she explained. Quoting from the boycott guidelines, she said that the call “rejects on principle boycotts of individuals based on their identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion) or opinion.  If, however, an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution (such as a dean, rector, or president), or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to ‘rebrand’ itself, then her/his activities are subject to [the boycott]. Mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott.’”

I asked Mohanty whether she expects her colleagues to protest Dotan’s visit if he eventually comes. (Syracuse’s Vice Chancellor and Provost plans to invite Dotan at a later date.) “I have no idea whether BDS supporting faculty would protest the film,” Mohanty said. When I pressed her to explain what exactly about his visit – in principle – would be grounds for protest, she responded that she “doesn’t think” she would protest it.

Perhaps the film falls under the cultural (rather than academic) boycott? (Dotan is an adjunct faculty member at NYU, making the case a bit of a crossover.) But those guidelines state that “Israeli cultural products that are funded by official Israeli bodies but not commissioned or otherwise attached to any political strings are not per se subject to boycott. ‘Political strings’ here refer to conditions that obligate a fund recipient to directly or indirectly serve the Israeli government’s or a complicit institution's rebranding or propaganda efforts.”

No wonder the discussion around academic and cultural boycott feels like such a rabbit hole. There is nothing that would make Dotan’s film boycottable according to the guidelines, but I still left the interview confused. Other examples –  though anecdotal – of the slippery application of the academic boycott abound. I guess that’s what’s called a chill factor.

But then there’s the problem that some critics of the boycott, who seem to promote a concern with academic freedom, are actually out to do something else – burnish Israel’s image.

Take Elman’s piece. When she closes the essay by urging “Zionists to fight together to ensure that all their voices can be heard on campus,” Elman tips her hand. If this is truly about academic freedom, then Elman should be calling for all scholars, regardless of their political commitments, to rally around the flag of academic freedom.

And if the oddly-named Academic Engagement Network is really about “academic engagement,” it should likewise be supporting all students in those aims – whether “Israel supporters” or not. But in reality AEN-type operations’ call for academic freedom means as much calling for partisan support for Israel as they are for that principle of freedom. This mixing of motives necessarily dilutes and confines their real commitment to academic freedom.

This debate isn’t actually about the scholarly imperative of academic freedom. Instead, it’s about serving to prop up Israel, triggered by ethnic attachments or political allegiances. That’s not what academic and critical inquiry – the hallmarks of a university – is meant to be about.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov

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