Israeli boycott raises questions of academic freedom


Resolutions passed by major professional academic associations calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions have brought a generation spanning crisis from across the globe to the center of several U.S. campuses, as academics and administrators split over the issue and call into question the role universities play in solving social and political problems.

A resolution passed last month by the American Studies Association (ASA), a professional association of about 4,0000 American Studies scholars and academics, sparked the debate, calling for an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

According to the ASA website, the boycott is intended to be a response to “Palestinian civil society” as part of the larger Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which uses nonviolent tactics to try to exert financial pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory and better its treatment of Palestinian civilians.

“Israeli academic institutions function as a central part of a system that has denied Palestinians their basic rights,” the ASA website said. “Palestinian students face ongoing discrimination, including the suppression of Palestinian cultural events, and there is sanctioning and ongoing surveillance of Palestinian students and faculty who protest Israeli policies. Israeli universities have been a direct party to the annexation of Palestinian land. Armed soldiers patrol Israeli university campuses, and some have been trained at Israeli universities in techniques to suppress protestors.”

Earlier this month, the Modern Language Association , a 30,000 member-body that annually meets to discuss issues in higher education and revise the rules for scholarly writing, voted to condemn Israel for prohibiting some scholars from entering the West Bank and Gaza to work with Palestinian universities.

But the stances taken on the Middle Eastern crisis have caused a rift among public and private universities across the U.S.

While proponents of the boycott include academics at prominent universities, such as Stanford, Yale, New York University, UT Austin, UC Berkley and Northwestern, more than 80 university presidents — including USF President Judy Genshaft — the Association of American Universities and the Association of American University Professors have expressed strong sentiments against the boycott.

“The boycott recently proposed by the is antithetical to the core values of academic freedom and the open exchange of knowledge and ideas across institutions of higher education,” a statement issued from Genshaft’s office earlier this month read.


But not all at USF were happy with Genshaft’s stance.

Students for Justice in Palestine , a student organization that has been working to bring the BDS movement to USF since last year, issued a statement on its website.

“As students at USF, we are disappointed that she has ignored the student voice and the plight of the Palestinian people,” the statement reads. “…It is surprising that Genshaft would take a radical decision in favor of sponsors of racial segregation. Genshaft should have consulted USF students, staff and faculty before she made a statement on behalf of USF … We call upon Genshaft to retract her statement and stand in solidarity with academic freedom and equality.”

During the last Student Government election cycle, the group petitioned to have questions placed on the ballot asking students if they supported “boycotting, divesting and sanctioning corporations affiliated with human rights violations by replacing them with ethical alternatives.”

The group called for USF to divest, or withdraw investments, from three corporations: Strass Group Ltd., Wellington Small Cap Value and Hewlett Packard, companies they stated were “affiliated with the oppression, occupation and apartheid of the Palestinian people.”

Strauss Group Ltd., which co-owns Sabra hummus, a food product sold in some locations on campus but not in dining halls and is contracted via Aramark Dining services, provides financial support and supplies to the Golani Brigades, an infantry brigade in the Israel Defense Forces that has participated in most of Israel’s wars and operations since the beginning of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and has been boycotted by activist groups from Princeton, the UC Berkley and DePaul University, according to a 2010 article from the New York Times.

Hewlett Packard — which produces many of the computers used and sold on campus — is a primary contractor for security services used at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Ariel, according to the information provided on the SG ballots last year, and Wellington Small Cap Value, which as of September 2012 had $9 million in investments from USF, is owned by Wellington Management which also owns Rapiscan Systems and Terex — companies that manufacture products used for security scanning and to build a wall separating Israel from the Palestinian West Bank.

The questions were discounted from the ballot with an apology sent to students from SG after inconsistencies with Florida statutes 104.31 and 110.233, which outline prohibited political activity including attempts to “directly or indirectly coerce or attempt to coerce, command and advise any such officer or employee as to where he or she might purchase commodities or to interfere in any other way with the personal right of said officer or employee” were found.

But SJP is now working on a new petition, launched Monday.

“We ask that USF, out of respect for international law, and in consistency with U.S. and local law, stop investing in corporations that are continuously and knowingly complicit in severe human rights violations,” the petition reads. “We ask our university to be on the right side of history.”

The group is targeting the Board of Trustees with three requests: to create a committee made up of staff, faculty and students to publish quarterly reports of the university’s investments with the goal of educating the USF community on how its endowment funds are invested, create a policy that ensures endowment funds are invested in a “socially just manner, with regard to human rights and environmental welfare” and “declare divestment from corporations directly complicit in human rights violations against the Palestinian people, at such time and in such manner as the Trustees determine.”

The petition will continue until Feb. 14.


But the BDS approach is one that some at the university call “absolutely antithetical” to the tenets of higher education.

The week of Genshaft’s condemnation of the boycott, USF Provost Ralph Wilcox joined eight other university provosts — seven from private universities including Brown University and Rice University and one other public university, the University of Louisville — on a trip to Israel to strengthen the relationship between Israeli and American universities. The trip was an all-expenses covered weeklong trip sponsored by Project Interchange, a project of the American Jewish Committee that states on its website it brings together opinion leaders to “experience Israeli society, connect with their Israeli counterparts and learn about Israel’s extensive contributions in their fields.”

The trip had been in the planning long before the boycott occurred, Wilcox said, but recent events — including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the region to facilitate peace talks and the passing of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, further complicated the backdrop of the visit, where he said he and others met with “opinion leaders and political leaders” including the president of the Palestinian authority, who he said had some “fascinating and candid” conversations with the group as a former university professor.

But going into the trip, Wilcox said “there was an immense sense of skeptism.”

Ultimately, he said, the trip was taken to gain a “deeper understanding of Israel and its neighbors — a better appreciation of the root cause of the conflict and determine the feasibility of future collaborative solutions.”

“We also had an agenda to build on existing partnerships with Israeli universities and to explore new opportunities for collaboration with Israeli scholars and industry,” Wilcox said.

Currently, USF already has several “fruitful” partnerships and collaborations with universities in Tel Aviv and Haifa, including students who are abroad as well as researchers collaborating.

The ASA boycott states that collaboration between scholars on an in level would not be affected in the interest of academic freedom, but that institutional partnerships would be discouraged.

Wilcox said, while he understands some of the concerns brought up by the ASA, the boycotting approach is the opposite of what USF seeks to do in the area.

“I don’t think in the academy of higher education that boycotting, or isolating scholars or communication between scholars and institution, is a reasonable or useful approach,” he said. “In my mind it’s absolutely antithetical to what we consider to be a fundamental tenet of academic freedom in higher education. … We need more dialogue, if anything. Choking the channels of global communication runs in the wrong direction and is not what we do best in higher education.”

If anything, he said, communication should expand.

“First and foremost, as Chief Academic Officer, I will seek to advocate and look to advance opportunities for students and faculty to maintain and strengthen relationships with scholars around the world, regardless of location or political efforts to stifle those opportunities,” he said. “I do recognize there are countries that are off limits today to American citizens and scholars and I think that’s unfortunate. We’re going to continue to advocate to open up some of those borders, because if we simply rely on the representations of others rather than seeing and understanding it first hand, our understanding of the conditions in those locations are likely to be grossly flawed.”


Daniel Belgrad, an American Studies professor at USF and the chair of the department of humanities and cultural studies, said while he understood the impetus of the boycott and didn’t think it was a violation of academic freedom, he thought it was misguided.

“The idea of punishing academics and intellectuals for the actions of their government is kind of a disconnect, I think,” he said. “I think the ASA tried to solve this problem by making a distinction between academics and intellectuals on the one hand and their academic institutions on the other, because it’s true that academic institutions are part of a social power structure, as seats of higher learning.”

The tradition of universities as agents of change in social and political conflicts has a long history, he said, one that was perhaps best demonstrated in the 1960s New Left era, when students and their professors protested against their universities for their complicity in the military industrial complex and the Vietnam war.

When Belgrad was in college, he said he remembered being part of a movement in which students were encouraging universities to exert financial pressures on companies that supported the apartheid in South Africa — a movement that the Academic and Community Activism community of the ASA that drafted the resolution said the boycott was loosely based on.

But South Africa then isn’t Israel now, and the divestment movement then isn’t the boycott now, he said, and ultimately the outcome of this boycott will likely have more of a symbolic effect than a practical one.

“I think the ASA is following in their footsteps in a certain way, saying we want to hold the Israeli establishment responsible for its treatment of the Palestinians and in that guise, we want to hold Israeli academic institutions responsible in their complicity for what their state is doing,” he said. “But it’s kind of a chain of logic that has weaknesses in it.”

The question it raises, he said, is what responsibility academia should have in solving global crises.

“I think university professors are moral leaders in society,” he said. “I think they should have some sense of their role as moral leaders the way religious or political leaders do and they should take that role seriously, but then the question is how to interpret that.”

“For some people like me, it’s very much about … trying to get the story right — to help students understand the truth and nuances and allow people to draw their own conclusions,” he said. “I don’t really see my social and political responsibility to be taking public stands on topical political issues. But there are people … that do feel — and I think it’s the legacy of the New Left — that they should stand up and be heard about something topical and political.”

But though he said this was likely not their intent, the side effect of the boycott has done more to bring attention to the ASA than actual solutions in the Middle East.

“I think some of it is driven by their sense of professional conscience and their conviction of what it means to be a scholar in their field, but I think part of it is the current climate in this country toward academia,” he said. “You’re constantly being asked to show how you’re relevant — you know, ‘If you’re not creating jobs in Florida then why are we investing in your salary?’ Some of the impetus of this boycott may have come from feeling that pressure to show that we’re not just ivory tower intellectuals — that we’re making a difference in something that matters in a very topical way.

“I think we have to come back to understanding that there are a lot of valuable kinds of social and intellectual work that you can’t cash in at the end of the week. That’s the kind of work we do — engaged in that slower and deeper cultivation of people’s understanding of themselves and the world they live in,” he said. “But if that understanding led someone to take a political stance — vis-a-vis the Israeli and Palestinian conflict — that would be out of the purview of what a department or program would do, I think. They’re coming to their own sense of where their education leads them.”