Politics & Government

Questions roil debate on academic boycott of Israel

An academic boycott of Israeli educational institutions has sparked legislation in at least five states and in Congress that would punish colleges and universities if they support the organization that called for it.

State lawmakers in Kansas, Florida, New York, Maryland and Illinois, as well as two Illinois members of the U.S. House of Representatives, have proposed bills that would withdraw taxpayer dollars from schools that fund any group that supports the boycott.

The various bills are in reaction to the boycott begun in December by the American Studies Association, a professional group for scholars of U.S. history and culture. It grew out of a Palestinian-led international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign designed to pressure Israel to relinquish control of occupied Palestinian territories, dismantle its security wall and respect Palestinian rights, including the right of refugees to return.

But the move quickly led to cries of anti-Semitism – “simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Washington this month – and triggered a debate over academic freedom and free speech.

The association’s resolution declared that, while it opposes anti-Semitism and all other forms of discrimination, it targeted Israeli institutions of higher education and their official representatives because “they are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.”

The boycott is largely symbolic because it doesn’t affect academic exchanges by individuals. The Association for Asian American Studies passed a similar resolution.

But the American Studies Association’s version triggered a bigger reaction. More than 100 university leaders wrote statements declaring their opposition. But even as many in the academic community oppose the boycott, they also recoil at the political response.

The American Association of University Professors, which disagrees with the boycott, said in a statement that the proposed bills would undermine “constitutionally protected academic speech and debate in order to promote a particular viewpoint.” Academic freedom, it said, includes protection of people who support unpopular positions.

The bills would prohibit a college or university from paying membership dues or reimbursing travel or lodging for faculty members who attend meetings of groups that promote a boycott. The professors’ association said that universities should make those types of decisions on the basis of professional standards, not the dictates of politicians.

“Whatever one’s views regarding the various proposed boycotts of Israeli scholars and universities (my own opposition to such boycotts over the years is a matter of record),” Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, a leading First Amendment scholar, said in a statement, “it is essential that these opinions be expressed through the exercise of First Amendment rights in a public forum, not through enactment of laws infringing free speech.”

He added that “the curbs on free speech contained in the anti-boycott legislation appear to violate the U.S. Constitution, as it has been interpreted for decades, and would degrade the academic freedom long cherished not only at Columbia but across all of American higher education.”

State Sen. Ira Silverstein, the sponsor of the Illinois legislation, said he saw the issue as “plainly anti-Semitic.”

“I’m all for free speech,” he said in an interview, “but I just thought what they did was wrong.”

Silverstein said he had no opinion about the constitutionality of his bill.

Illinois Reps. Peter Roskam, a Republican, and Dan Lipinski, a Democrat, contend in their anti-boycott legislation that “discriminatory boycotts violate the principle of academic freedom guaranteed by the United States.”

Lipinski, who earned a doctorate in political science from Duke University and has taught U.S. government at the University of Notre Dame, said he supported the legislation as a way to discourage the boycott.

“I am hopeful there won’t be a need to pass this bill because universities will see the folly of imposing such a boycott,” he said in a statement.

Opponents fighting the bills as attacks on free speech say they have a chilling effect.

“The fact these bills have even been introduced in so many states sends a signal to academics that if you express a viewpoint in support of Palestinian rights, you’re going to be silenced,” said Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights.