University of California must allow faculty to boycott Israel in academia

Faculty waving Palestinian flags with sign "we support Palestine" in front of Sather Gate
Chi Park/Staff

On Dec. 13, the 10 UC chancellors took the unusual step of signing a collective statement that opposed the “academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions and/or individual scholars” as being a “direct and serious” threat to academic freedom. When some faculty members expressed concerns that such a high-level collective statement would have a chilling effect on campus speech and discourage faculty members from taking public positions on an issue that is well within the purview of their academic freedom, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ responded by defending her own academic freedom to speak out on important issues. We would not want to deny her that right, but we do have some unanswered questions about the collective statement:
How does Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS — the movement to boycott, divest and sanction the Israeli state for its occupation of Palestine — pose a “direct and serious threat to academic freedom”? Like the South African anti-apartheid boycott and divestment movement of the 1980s, BDS targets state-funded Israeli institutions and Israeli commercial activities. It does not try to prevent anyone from saying anything or attempt to sanction or thwart individuals for their political positions.

Why did the 10 chancellors make a statement against BDS and BDS alone? Why no mention of the attacks on students and professors by such organizations as the Canary Mission and the David Horowitz Freedom Center? These organizations have targeted and continue to target and often defame UC scholars and students for advocating for justice in Palestine or offering courses that submit Israeli policy to critical analysis. These blacklists, in effect, thwart academic careers, not only academic speech. According to one report, in the last year, there were 289 known incidents of suppression of U.S.-based Palestinian advocacy.

Moreover, if the chancellors are worried about threats to academic freedom in this policy domain, why no mention in the statement of the Israeli state’s routine violation of the academic freedom of Palestinian students and faculty members on the West Bank?

If the chancellor does not believe that the joint declaration would “have a chilling effect on the debate and discourse … on this campus,” then how to explain The Daily Californian soliciting and then shutting down a BDS perspective on the chancellors’ statement? A chancellor’s personal statement of views is very different from a joint statement by the 10 UC chancellors — the latter veers closer to a UC position than personal opinion. Is such a position, unexplained or defended, an effective way of promoting discussion on a complex political issue worthy of protected and open debate?

How and why did the chancellors come to make a joint statement on this particular issue? Was there direct or indirect pressure on the chancellors to make this statement? Soon after the collective statement was issued, 101 organizations of the Academic Engagement Network defending Israeli policy wrote a thank-you letter to the 10 chancellors. Perhaps these organizations never asked the UC chancellors for such a statement; perhaps the motivation for the statement was spontaneous and autonomous. But the possibility of external pressure looms larger as the university relies more heavily on private donors. In any case, the lack of transparency in the reasons for this unusual joint statement calls into question the invocation of academic freedom. As Christ knows well from having to deal with invasions by right-wing provocateurs wearing its mantle, academic freedom is already being twisted for too many other inappropriate purposes in our time.

Finally, we know a number of faculty members who support this very letter but feared to put their name to it. What does that say about the already existing chilled climate for speech that the chancellors’ letter has exacerbated?

Michael Burawoy is a Sociology professor, Paul Fine is an Integrative Biology associate professor, Gillian Hart professor emerita and professor of Geography, Lyn Hejinian is an English professor, Celeste Langan is an English, Christine Rosen is a Business professor, Leslie Salzinger is a Gender and Women’s Studies professor and James Vernon is a History professor at UC Berkeley.