Scientists Take a Stand Against Academic Boycotts of Israel How can scholars reconcile opposition to the Trump travel ban with blacklists aimed at the Jewish state? By Ruth R. Wisse
More than 100 Boston-area researchers in health care and life sciences released a statement April 13 in defense of “the liberal ideals which have shaped our democracy” and in support of “the free flow of ideas and information” that is central to their work. Why affirm something so obvious? To stop academic blacklisting by the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, which targets Israeli universities and scholars.
Attempts to isolate Israel and its educational institutions aren’t new. In 1945 the Arab League declared that all Arab institutions and individuals must “refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Zionist products of manufactured goods.” The original boycott soon extended to entities that traded with Israel. This did great economic and political damage until the U.S. Congress in 1977 prohibited American companies from cooperating with it, as some were doing. Only U.S. prohibition of the prohibition had the force to guarantee free international trade.
In 2002, a group of professors from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were among the first academics to advocate divesting from Israel. Two years later the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel was founded with the explicit purpose of isolating Israeli academics and institutions. Its goal was to deny Israeli scholars access to scholarly conferences, journals and employment opportunities. The boycott also includes keeping unwelcome speakers and information from campus to maintain Israel as the permanent object of blame.
The campaign’s efforts paid off in the U.S., where the American Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association approved boycotts in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Academic associations that have so far voted such resolutions down—the American Anthropological Association, Modern Language Association and American Historical Association—introduce new ones every year. Only through a concerted effort by school administration can universities remain free spaces. Jewish students should not be expected to bear the full brunt of attack by those who import the Arab-Muslim war against Israel into the American campus.
Researchers in science and medicine have a special interest in opposing a boycott that tries to destroy the benefits of shared ideas and knowledge. Although people in the sciences do not normally issue collective political statements, signatories of the recent letter cite the collaboration of Israeli scientists in lifesaving treatments as reason enough to protest the blacklist. Their statement condemns boycotts that contravene core democratic values and threaten “the free flow of information and ideas,” which functions as “the lifeblood of the academic world.”
The Boston group’s aim is similar to those of recent academic protests against President Trump’s temporary travel ban. A friend-of-the-court brief filed by 17 universities affirms that students from the six suspect countries could have much to contribute by “making scientific discoveries, starting businesses, and creating works of literature and art that redound to the benefit of others” far beyond university campuses.
If universities are willing to fight the government’s travel ban against students from Muslim-majority countries, why are members of their faculties fighting to prevent exchange with academic counterparts in the Jewish homeland? American academics ought to entertain pluralistic and multicultural perspectives and refrain from cutting themselves off from those with whom they disagree. Universities cannot pretend to be protecting the free flow of information while their faculty members try to prevent interaction with the most dynamic academic center in the Middle East.
The restrictions the Trump administration placed on potentially hostile immigrants were intended to prevent attacks on America’s liberal democratic way of life. Meantime, the goal of the BDS campaign is to attack the freest democracy in the Middle East. Not coincidentally, Iran and Syria, two countries singled out by the travel ban, are also dedicated to the destruction of Israel. The repressive tactics of BDS proponents resemble the strategy and destructive aims of those who threaten the U.S.
Perhaps the academics who signed the statement in defense of liberal ideals can help stop the aggression against Israel in academia, a place that, in their words, promotes “the dialogue and cooperation essential to advancing knowledge, solving problems, and promoting understanding.” The rest of the academic community and all who benefit from its labors would be grateful.
Ms. Wisse, a former professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of “Jews and Power” (Schocken, 2007).
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