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Hijacking American Academia

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An American academic organization is poised to begin sweeping a respected segment of American academia into the dustbin of intellectual and moral irrelevancy.

At its annual meeting this week, the 30,000-member Modern Language Association will hold a session aimed at strategizing how to mount academic boycotts against Israel, and will consider a resolution critical of Israel for the violation of academic rights while ignoring the immensely greater violations of academic rights, as well as far more basic and universal rights, in dozens of countries around the world. This could well presage a future MLA resolution to boycott Israeli universities.

If the MLA were the first academic body to take a stand against Israel, that act would be of limited consequence. But three others, hijacked by political activists, have already voted to boycott Israeli universities during the past year. If the MLA -- a far larger and more important organization than any of the others -- sets out on a similar path, it will deeply damage the claim academia has to intellectual and moral leadership in America.

Last April the Association for Asian Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities. In December, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association announced its boycott. And the next day the American Studies Association said that its members had voted to boycott as well.

The boycott effort has been led by the "Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions" movement. Spearheaded by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, it has sought to enlist the world's academic organizations to label Israel an "apartheid state."

In parts of academia, this movement has a receptive audience. Many academics in the humanities and social sciences are partial to theories and ideologies, such as post-colonialism, that incline them to see the world as having been ravaged by Western imperialist powers, in which the weak have been victimized by the strong. In their eyes, the worst current offender is the United States. And, the BDS activists insist, another is Israel -- which, they argue, victimizes Palestinians through occupation and the violation of their human rights.

This movement has had enormous success in Europe, and is beginning to have it in America.

This isn't a harmless, quixotic enterprise. Academics have immense influence through their public actions and pronouncements and on the students who ultimately become the politicians, journalists, writers and other artists who will define their country's political and cultural agendas in the future.

But boycotting Israeli academic institutions not only trashes the sacrosanct academic principle of the free exchange of ideas. It's also hypocritical and wrong. Most egregiously, it targets Israel to the exclusion of countries with immeasurably worse human-rights records.

What about targeting China, which long ago occupied Tibet, imported Chinese settlers into it, and has set up a system that the Dalai Lama has called "Chinese apartheid"? Chinese officials put their own dissidents in "black prisons" and psychiatric hospitals, fire academics, and hound journalists and artists who dissent from the party line.

What about targeting Saudi Arabia? It disenfranchises its women, forbids political parties, punishes homosexuality and sharply restricts freedom of movement, expression and religion.

What about targeting the many other countries that carry out human-rights violations enormously greater and graver than Israel's -- Russia and Iran, for example -- but are utterly ignored by these academic organizations that, hijacked by the BDS movement, focus only, and obsessively, on Israel.

And what about targeting American universities? After all, they take money from the U.S. government, which some academics have excoriated for human-rights violations and other evils. In fact, many members of the boycotting societies take federal funds for their salaries and work. Why don't they boycott themselves?

They should listen to Sari Nusseibeh, the President of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, who said in response to earlier British efforts to boycott Israeli academics: "If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we've had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals."

They should listen to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who said, during Nelson Mandela's funeral, that Palestinians "do not support the boycott of Israel" -- a statement that drew the ire of one of the founders of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti who, along with other BDS activists, will hold the boycott strategy session this week at the MLA meeting.

And they should listen to Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia University who, in response to a British academic union's vote in support of the anti-Israel boycotters, said that the union "should add Columbia to its boycott list, for we do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish."

In the three weeks since the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities, the presidents of at least 125 American universities have rejected the boycott, and five have withdrawn their institutional memberships from that group. This backlash has provoked a vigorous and widespread counter-backlash from pro-boycott faculty. There are over 4,000 universities and in America. It's urgent that many more academic leaders speak out quickly and forcefully against this betrayal of the values that for so long have sustained higher education in this country -- and against the politicization of the academic enterprise.

If they do, one hopes that the leaders and members of the Modern Language Association who will be meeting this week, and other academics in other associations, will listen. The integrity of American academia will depend on it.

An earlier and shorter version of this post appeared as an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 7, 2014.