UC faculty must have right to boycott Israeli academic partnerships

A desk with a poster reading "We support Palestine" and a book on the history of Palestine
Olivia Staser/Staff

On Feb. 5, the U.S. Senate passed the Combating BDS bill, which offers federal protection to states for punishing companies and institutions that engage in boycotts of Israel. If it passes in the House, the legislation will send a chilling message to public universities — the bastions of our open society. In the eyes of civil liberties advocates, the bill is a flagrant violation of free speech rights. The right to boycott is a fundamental freedom and has been used as a venerable tactic for fighting oppression, from the boycott of British products that resulted in the Boston Tea Party to the boycott of South Africa that helped dissolve apartheid. Indeed, the U.S. government boycotts other states all the time, under the name of sanctions.

UC Berkeley faculty members have quite rightly taken the UC administration to task for a recent statement, signed by all the system’s chancellors, that condemns Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS. The statement was issued in the name of protecting academic freedom when, in our own view, the only freedom under threat is the bedrock right of faculty and students to engage in political speech. The campaign to suppress the BDS movement on campuses trades cynically on the fallacy that individuals are targeted by the boycott, when, in fact, BDS principles apply only to Israeli state-funded institutions.

In truth, the chancellors’ position is shared by almost every university president in the country, including our own at New York University. There is a well-founded fear among academic leaders and politicians of being smeared as anti-Semitic and of losing donors. Groups such as Canary Mission and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law organize to bully, silence and even criminalize the ever-growing chorus of voices on campuses speaking up for Palestinian rights. The pro-Israeli cause — to promote apartheid policies at all costs — is collapsing in the court of public opinion, especially among young American Jews. So its backers have resorted to “lawfare” — frivolous but damaging lawsuits against defenders of human rights in Palestine. These assaults on First Amendment rights have been supplemented by forms of public defamation and by threats to the job security and personal safety of critics of Israeli policies. Teachers and professors have lost their jobs because of their support for BDS.

Why is it disturbing for us to see an administration at UC Berkeley so much at odds with faculty and student opinion? For one thing, we expect UC Berkeley administrators to act as stewards of the legacy of the Free Speech Movement. They are abdicating that role by failing to support the right of community members to boycott Israel. Indeed, UC Berkeley was widely criticized by students, faculty and alumni in the course of a similar face-off over another country’s racially abhorrent policies in the mid-1980s, when the administration opposed the student push for divestment in South Africa. The resulting conflict convulsed the campus for almost two years and ended with a significant victory for faculty and students of conscience. In the annals of the anti-apartheid movement, Berkeley is remembered as a landmark struggle. Indeed, on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s death, a university chancellor praised it as “one of Berkeley’s finest moments,” neglecting to recall, however, the harshly punitive measures — fines, arrests and threats of suspension — rolled out by the administration in response to student and faculty advocacy of a just cause. Is this history about to be replayed? In taking an unyielding stand against the right to boycott and the call to withdraw from Israel-related divestments, the administration seems to have forgotten the lesson it might have learned.

In common with other colleges, the UC system operates study abroad programs at Israeli universities. The drive by Israeli authorities to increase study abroad is widely seen as a campaign to promote Brand Israel internationally. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and allied Zionist organizations have made a concerted effort to sign up high-profile American varsity names, including UC Berkeley. Unfortunately, we feel that the chancellor’s anti-boycott stance is likely to deter faculty and students who want to choose noncooperation in accord with the BDS principles outlined in the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s study abroad in Israel boycott campaign. The existence of these programs seems like a clear violation of the UC’s own prohibitions of racial discrimination and profiling on the basis of religion, nationality or political speech. Israel customarily denies entry to persons of Palestinian descent, and a recent amendment to the Citizenship and Entry into Israel  would block members of organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine from entering the country. Any branch of the university where equal access cannot be guaranteed should be suspended until the restrictions are removed. We need to boycott such programs in order to uphold the integrity of the university’s principles of ethical conduct.

The fight to preserve Israel’s apartheid policies is losing ground rapidly on American campuses. This is well-known to the apologists for the 52-year-old military occupation, the lawless land grabs of the West Bank settlements and the brutal suppression and incarceration of Palestinian anti-colonial dissidents. Their only recourse is to step up external pressure on university leaders and publicly smear professors and students through Canary Mission and other online attack sites. These are the tactics of desperation, and they deserve to be exposed and fully rebutted. As the UC increasingly relies on private donors, it is crucial that they resist this kind of external pressure. If and when equal civil and political rights are achieved for all residents and returnees in the historical lands of Palestine, BDS advocates on campuses such as UC Berkeley will once again be honored for having played a key role in ending the Middle East’s version of apartheid.

Andrew Ross is a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU and the author of many books, including the forthcoming “Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel”. John King is an NYU associate adjunct professor at NYU School of Professional Studies. They are both members of the organizing collective of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.