Napolitano and Dirks among officials opposing academic boycott of Israeli institutions

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Citing a threat to academic freedom, UC President Janet Napolitano and UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks have joined a chorus of officials from universities across the nation in opposing an academic boycott of Israeli institutions by the American Studies Association.

The American Studies Association boycott, which was passed in a popular vote by its members in December, prevents the association from engaging in formal collaborations with Israeli institutions and scholars serving as their representatives or ambassadors.

Proponents of the boycott highlight the situation of Palestinian students living in Israel and the Palestinian territories as an affront to academic freedom.

“Palestinian scholars and students in Palestine and Israel don’t have academic freedom granted to them, and so in this way, the academic boycott really is an attempt to defend academic freedom for people whose rights are systematically being taken away from them academically, culturally and socially as well,” said senior Taliah Mirmalek, a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at UC Berkeley.

However, presidents and chancellors from private and public universities in the nation, including the chancellors from all UC campuses except for UC Merced, fear that the boycotts will hinder the exchange of ideas by limiting academic freedom.

Separate statements from Dirks and Napolitano, released in December, follow a larger trend taking place across American universities concerning the validity of academic boycotts by scholarly associations.

In a short statement denouncing the boycott, Dirks called the decision by ASA members regrettable.

“Any limit on the open exchange of knowledge and ideas stands in direct opposition to the scholarly values and goals we uphold as an institution,” Dirks wrote.

Napolitano echoed Dirks’ sentiments in her own written statement to the public.

“An academic boycott goes against the spirit of the University of California, which has long championed open dialogue and collaboration with international scholars,” Napolitano said in the statement.

Yet the president of the ASA, associate professor Curtis Marez of UC San Diego, says arguments such as Dirks’ fail to explain exactly how the ASA boycott violates academic freedom because it is directed at institutions, not individuals, and does not limit routine exchanges and collaborations between Israelis and Americans.

“The ASA has no legislative power over its members and so it is up to the conscience of individuals to decide if and how they will honor the boycott,” Marez said in an email. “If an ASA member wanted to travel to a conference sponsored by an Israeli institution, the ASA wouldn’t prevent them.”

The opposition to the boycott by university officials comes after the Association of American Universities released a statement condemning the boycott by the ASA and similar boycotts by the Association for Asian American Studies and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.

Despite the relatively small size of these three organizations, the ASA being the largest with a membership of nearly 5,000, AAU Vice President for Public Affairs Barry Toiv said the executive committee was “concerned, and remain concerned, that this expands to other and larger organizations.”

UC Berkeley associate professor of architecture Andrew Shanken, who is a member of the ASA but opposes the boycott, alluded to the irony of limiting the academic freedom of one group to draw attention to the hardships of another.

“The idea of a symbolic boycott of Israeli scholars to shine light on the plight of Palestinian scholars follows a tortured logic to which I cannot subscribe,” Shanken said. “If we wish to draw attention to the plight of Palestinian scholars, let’s spend energy doing just that, rather than recapitulating the very dynamic the boycotters aim to undermine.”

Mirmalek said she believes this line of reasoning to be “delusional,” however.

“In the history of boycotts in general, like if you look to South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement at the Cal campus, there was a lot of similar rhetoric thrown back at the boycott,” Mirmalek said.

Some also say that the boycotts do not only affect academics in America, but also hinder the Israeli-Palestinian peace process currently being facilitated by the U.S. in the Middle East.

“These boycotts had the potential or have the potential to hurt the relationship between America and Israel that John Kerry is currently trying to build in his efforts toward a two-state solution,” said former co-chair of J Street U at Berkeley Elon Rov.

Last week, the 30,000-member Modern Language Association passed a resolution through its delegate committee condemning Israel for the denial of entry to U.S. scholars invited to teach or perform research at Palestinian universities in the West Bank. The convention also hosted a controversial session among its members on the subject of Israel, Palestine and boycotts.

Chase Schweitzer covers higher education. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ChaseSchweitz.

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