THE BLOG
03/13/2014 10:17 am ET | Updated May 13, 2014

Boycotting Israel's Universities Is Wrong

Scholars Rashid Khalidi and Judith Butler don't want their own ideas stifled, but see no problem with urging academic boycott of Israel.

The movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel as a means of pressuring it to end the occupation of the West Bank has gained momentum. One of the forms BDS has taken is an academic boycott that can include refusing to cooperate with Israeli universities or preventing Israeli academics from participating in conferences. A number of U.S. institutions have recently countered by treating BDS supporters in a similar way.

The Manhattan Jewish high school Ramaz withdrew its invitation to have Arab studies scholar Rashid Khalidi speak, and Jewish groups have criticized the decision to grant Judith Butler, a University of California, Berkeley, professor who has vocally supported the BDS movement, Germany's prestigious Adorno Prize for outstanding achievement in philosophy, theater, music or film.

Butler and Khalidi, both of whose academic work I greatly respect, have since launched an online petition to stop what they call the censorship of their views by academic institutions. They argue that preventing academics from presenting their point of view is an infringement of the foundations of academic life, writing: "We ask cultural and educational institutions to have the courage and the principle to stand for, and safeguard, the very principles of free expression and the free exchange of ideas that make those institutions possible."

Let me make my position clear: I think academic institutions that prevent proponents of BDS from voicing their positions are indeed making a grievous mistake by violating the academic spirit and the principle of fostering diverse ideas and perspectives. Freedom of speech and academic freedom become relevant precisely when academics espouse positions with which we disagree. Shutting people up is wrong as long as they do not call for violence against anybody.

Butler and Khalidi correctly point out that boycotts are "internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression," and say they are therefore entitled to express their point of view freely. But their call for an academic boycott of Israel violates the very principle they invoke when they want to protect their right to voice their own political views.

The distinction drawn by Butler and Khalidi between boycotting Israeli universities (which they support) and boycotting individual academics like them (which they oppose) does not work. Judith Butler has argued that Israeli academics should be allowed to publish in journals and participate in conferences and other academic activities, but only as long as no Israeli government funds are used to pay for these activities. This would put pressure on Israeli universities to take a clear stance against the occupation without harming individual Israeli academics' freedom of speech.

But this distinction between maintaining Israeli scholars' freedom while pressuring their employers, the universities, into opposing the occupation is spurious. Israeli academics, like their colleagues elsewhere, receive their salaries from the universities, which in Israel are all public. Most Israeli academics use travel funds, which are part of our salaries, to attend conferences and other academic activities.

In practice, Butler's proviso means that even if Israeli academics pay their expenses out of pocket, an option Butler endorses, they would still be using their university wages to do so -- unless they are independently wealthy, which surely can't be the criterion by which Butler would want to determine which Israeli scholars can or cannot attend academic activities.

Butler and Khalidi might retort that this infringement on Israeli academics' freedom of movement and expression is negligible compared to the restrictions Israel imposes on Palestinian academics, who often cannot travel at all. As both Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi know very well, the occupation of Palestinian territory and the infringement of Palestinians' human and political rights is Israel's moral and political catastrophe. I have made my views public for many years, and I find Israel's restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinian academics outrageous. But I think that counteracting one moral wrong with another is untenable.

Ultimately, Butler and Khalidi urge opponents of the occupation to use their political power to restrict academic freedom, in a way that is not dissimilar from the restrictions imposed on them. It is imprecise when they say that their freedom of expression is curtailed.

Because they are internationally recognized for the quality of their work, Butler and Khalidi suffer no dearth of possible outlets for their views, and it is misleading to say that their freedom of expression is curtailed; it is only their access to certain venues that is blocked. They need to realize that the same cannot be said for Israeli academics whose names are less well known than theirs. With an academic boycott in place, Israeli scholars who have yet to build a reputation that would secure them funding from outside Israel will no longer be able to participate in international academic life, making it difficult fro them to evolve intellectually and academically.

One of the European enlightenment's most important contributions to human civilization has been the notion that the free flow of ideas must be protected under all circumstances. Any politically motivated attempt to stem this flow can have potentially catastrophic consequences. Despite Butler's provisos, any political suppression of Israeli academics' freedom of movement ultimately carries the potential for great harm; such suppression can end up serving those whose main objective is to suppress freedom of thought and expression.

I therefore call upon Judith Butler, Rashid Khalidi and other academic colleagues who support boycotting Israeli academia to recognize that any form of academic boycott should not be considered an acceptable means of political expression. I also call upon Jewish institutions and anyone else who seeks to prevent critics of Israel from voicing their views to desist. For Jews, this violates the spirit of plugta, the talmudic ethos of open debate.

For academic institutions everywhere, shutting off open discussion runs counter to the very foundations of academic life. The ethos of freedom of thought and expression is too valuable as a core principle to put it at risk -- particularly by academics and intellectuals, whose only power resides in our ideas.

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