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Open Letter to Trinity College President and Dean

[Trinity College Logo.] [Trinity College Logo.]

[The following open letter was issued by the below signatories, all of whom are faculty at Trinity College and are writing in response to recent statement by the college's president and dean vis-a-vis the American Studies Association's recent decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions in accordance with the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Other college presidents who have come out openly against the ASA include Boston University, Brown University, Cornell University, Dickinson College, Duke University, George Washington University, Hamilton College, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, New York University, Princeton University, Smith College, Stanford University, Tufts University, Tulane University, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, University of Chicago, University of Connecticut, University of Kansas, University of Maryland - Baltimore County and College Park, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, University of Texas-Austin, USC, Washington University, Willamette University, and Yale University.

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has called on university presidents to publicly drop all support of the ASA. The Conference has hosted these public rejections on its website in an attempt to place pressure upon the ASA.]


James F. Jones, Jr., President, Trinity College.
Thomas Mitzel, Dean, Trinity College.
 

January 2014
 

Dear President Jones and Dean Mitzel,

We received your letter by accident. It was sent to one of us after it was sent off to the American Studies Association (ASA). No announcement was made to the faculty prior to the letter going out, and so no discussion was permitted. The letter–which is below–condemns the ASA for its resolution on Israel. It is also found on the website of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as part of a campaign by that body to undermine the ASA.

Many of us who are signing this letter are members of the ASA, proudly so, and several of us voted on behalf of that resolution that you chose to condemn in your letter. We believe that your letter is wrong-headed for several reasons. Some of these are detailed below:

(1) Your letter is singularly uninformed:

One of the tired mantras of the Anti-Defamation League is to say that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” This is a factually challenged statement. You seem to neglect at least two countries–Lebanon and Turkey–that are formal democracies. In the region, as well, there are monarchical democracies such as Kuwait and Morocco, with Jordan not far behind. 

The use of this statement reveals how little effort was used to write this important position taken by the President and Dean of Trinity College. Or else you are of the view taken by Princeton’s doyen of Orientalism Bernard Lewis, that Arabs are somehow not capable of democracy–and that even where there is electoral democracy, this is simply a mirage. As an antidote to this view, we recommend Larbi Sadiki’s The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (2004) and the volume Democracy in the Arab World edited by Ibrahim Elbadawi and Samir Makdisi (2011).

Democracy should not be reduced entirely to elections. It has to be seen in a wider context. For instance, the Israeli system has disenfranchised the totality of occupied Palestinians and has reduced the democratic rights of Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel (in other words, Palestinians who live in Israel and hold its passport have lesser rights in practice). We recommend for your reading the reports from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and from B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. If you are interested in these issues, we strongly recommend you read the new UN report, Report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories (13 November 2013).  This has to be part of any discussion of “democracy in the Middle East.” At the same time, in the context of the Arab Spring, as vibrant attempts to create political democracy continue across the Middle East, your comment sounds tone deaf.

(2) Your letter is intellectually lazy:

The debate over the ASA’s resolution began in 2007, and was heightened over the past six months. The discussion about boycotts and academic freedom took center stage in the debate. The level of intellectual conversation on these themes was sophisticated and of great interest. Your letter avoids the fine-grained conversation and returns to clichéd denunciations. We would encourage you to read at least a few of the essays that offer the case for the ASA position and show that academic freedom is not violated. The best debate was held in the American Association of University Professor’s journal, Journal of Academic Freedom, vol. 4 (2013), edited by Ashley Dawson; to us Princeton historian Joan Scott’s essay, “Changing My Mind About the Boycott” is a good place to begin. But the debate is an old one. The philosopher Judith Butler offered a scrupulous analysis of the idea of academic freedom and the boycott strategy in 2006 (“Israel-Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom” Radical Philosophy, vol. 135 (January-February 2006) It would have been a useful gesture to have read up on the debate and engaged it with some authority. As it is, your letter returns to the first utterance when the campaign for an academic boycott was proposed by Palestinian and Israeli scholars in 2005–there is no engagement with the long debate as it has unfolded over the past decade.

What is doubly disappointing is that you had a front-row seat a few years ago when Vijay Prashad’s appointment to lead an institution at the college was attacked by the ADL and faculty on campus–at that time Vijay had engaged President Jones in a discussion about academic boycotts in his role as member of the advisory board for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. On your faculty you have several people–Raymond Baker, a former Dean, and Johnny Williams, for instance–who have worked concertedly on issues of justice for Palestinians. None of this seems to have in any way troubled the tired language of your letter. At the very least, there might have been recognition that this is a long-standing discussion and not an impetuous decision by the ASA as you suggest. It behoves intellectual leaders who speak for academic freedom to at the very least take the ideas seriously. That is what the ASA did, which is why it hosted a long period of debate and discussion.

(3) Your letter ignores the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians:

In her essay mentioned above, Judith Butler lays out a broad understanding of academic freedom:

a. The new formulation of an academic-freedom argument that insists that academic freedom requires and consists in the workable material infrastructure of educational institutions and the ability to travel without impediment and without harassment to educational sites; by linking academic freedom to the right to be free from violent threats and arbitrary detentions and delays, one would effectively be saying that the very idea of academic freedom makes no sense and its exercise is foreclosed by the conditions of Occupation. This would be a way of affirming that academic freedom is essentially linked with other kinds of protections and rights and cannot be separated out from them.

b. When academic freedom becomes a question of abstract right alone, we miss the opportunity to consider how academic freedom debates more generally–and here I would include both pro- and anti-boycott debates–deflect from the broader political problem of how to address the destruction of infrastructure, civil society, cultural and intellectual life under the conditions of the Occupation. As much as rights, considered as universal, have to be imagined transculturally and transpolitically, they also bring with their assertion certain geopolitical presuppositions, if not geopolitical imaginaries, that may not be at all appropriate for the situation at hand.
 

Your letter notes that Trinity participates in the very important Rescue Scholar program–the program that funds scholars from parts of the world who feel threatened in their workplaces or whose political views deny them academic work. This is a laudable effort, and as you know many of us have been major supporters of it.

A study of the academic situation in Occupied Palestinian lands might have you reconsider your smug statement that “it is inconceivable to us that we would ever be welcoming a Rescue Scholar fleeing Israel for political reasons.” As a warm up to understand the situation of academic freedom in Israel, we recommend you read Ilan Pappé’s Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel (2010). Ilan used to teach at the University of Haifa, in the city of his birth in 1954, but was hounded out in 2007 when the President of his college called for his removal based on his support of the academic boycott campaign–a campaign that is illegal according to Israeli law (so much for academic freedom, by the way). Ilan now teaches, virtually as a Rescue Scholar, at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

If matters are hard for Israeli academics who wish to put their views against the Occupation on record, matters are worse for Palestinians and those who teach in Palestinian universities. Once more we recommend that you read a few of the publically available reports:

  1. Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, “Obstacle Course: Students Denied Exit from Gaza,” July 2009.
  2. Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, “Students from Gaza: Disregarded Victims of Israel’s Siege of the Gaza Strip. A Report on Israel’s Prevention of Gazan Students from Studying at the West Bank Universities,” July 2010.
  3. The materials amassed by the Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University, a college that has been under siege for the past decade (http://right2edu.birzeit.edu/).
  4. Ruhan Nagra, Academia Undermined: Israeli Restrictions on Foreign National Academics in Palestinian Higher Education Institutions, May 2013.

Your silence on this deep attack on the rights of Palestinians to an education indicates that the principle that motivates your letter is not academic freedom. If it were, you would certainly have expressed your concern about the violation of the academic freedom of an entire population since at least 1967. What principle you are upholding is up to you to establish. An indication might come from your failed attempt to suborn the American Studies faculty at Trinity to break their institutional linkage to the ASA; having failed with the faculty, you ignored them and claimed to speak as if there is not a rich seam of disagreement on our campus on this issue.

Your letter does not surprise us. In 2007, without a discussion in the faculty, President Jones signed on to an American Jewish Committee advertisement in the New York Times with the inflammatory tag line, “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!” We suspect it says a great deal about the state of US academia and its democratic traditions that presidents can speak for a college or university without the minimal courtesy of consultation of the faculty, staff, students and alumni. The signing of the 2007 letter to the Times, this letter–these are political acts by a college administration that are disguised as acts of high principle.

That you have written this letter shows that the resolution of the ASA has had some effect–it has forced a conversation about the denial of the rights to full education of our Palestinian colleagues, about the impunity granted to Israeli institutions by the complicity in the US as well as the active financial, military and diplomatic support by the US government for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. That your letter does not seriously engage any of the issues–even academic freedom still less the actual occupation–is a sign of the lack of seriousness on your part. We look forward to a more robust discussion. As it is, you did not speak in our name–also members of the Trinity College community–when you wrote this ill-advised letter to the ASA President.

Sincerely,

1.     Andrea Dyrness, Associate Professor of Educational Studies.

2.     Anne Lambright, Associate Professor of Language and Culture Studies.

3.     Dario Euraque, Professor of History and International Studies.

4.     Davarian L. Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies.

5.     David Cruz-Uribe, Professor of Mathematics.

6.     Drew Hyland, Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy.

7.     Garth A. Myers, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Urban International Studies.

8.     Gary Reger, Hobart Professor of Classical Languages.

9.     Janet Bauer, Associate Professor of International Studies.

10.   Jeffrey Bayliss, Charles A. Dana Research Associate Professor of History.

11.   Johnny E. Williams, Associate Professor of Sociology.

12.   Luis Figueroa, Associate Professor of History.

13.   Maurice Wade, Professor of Philosophy.

14.  Paul Lauter, Allan K. & Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Literature and past president of the American Studies Association (1998).

15.  Raymond William Baker, College Professor of International Politics and Chair, Middle East Studies Program.

16.  Robert J. Corber, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in American Institutions and Values.

17.  Seth Sanders, Associate Professor of Religious Studies.

18.  Stephen M. Valocchi, Professor of Sociology.

19.  Thomas Harrington, Associate Professor of Language and Culture Studies.

20.  Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian Studies and Professor of International Studies.

21.  Zayde Antrim, Charles A. Dana Research Associate Professor of History and International Studies and Director, International Studies Program.

[This is a slightly revised version of the letter originally published on December 27, 2013]


 

THE MESSAGE SHOULD READ RENOUNCING, NOT ANNOUNCING.

James F. Jones, Jr.
President and Trinity College Professor in the Humanities

Office of the President
Trinity College
300 Summit Street
Hartford, Connecticut 06106

(telephone) 860-297-2086, 2087
(fax) 860-297-5359

From: Jones Jr., James F.
Sent: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:49 AM
To: 'asastaff@theasa.net'
Cc: Mitzel, Thomas M; Keating, Mary Jo M.; Holland, Jenny N.; Jacklin, Michele J.
Subject: ASA boycott of Israel
Importance: High

To The Immediate Attention of the President of the American Studies Association:

Our Dean of the Faculty, Thomas Mitzel, and I wish to go on record announcing the boycott of Israel on the part of the ASA.  Trinity once years back was an institutional member (we were then advertizing for an open position), and apparently some members of our faculty are individual members.  Were we still an institutional member, we would not be any longer after the misguided and unprincipled announcement of the boycott of the only democracy in the Middle East.  The Dean and I oppose academic boycotts in general because they can so easily encroach upon academic freedom.  In this strange case, why the ASA would propose an academic boycott of Israel and not, for example, of Syria, the Sudan, North Korea, China, Iran, Iraq, or Russia escapes rational thought.  Trinity has participated in the Rescue Scholar program since its inception; we have welcomed scholars from some of the most repressive countries on the planet, and it is inconceivable to us that we would ever be welcoming a Rescue Scholar fleeing Israel for political reasons.

As President of the ASA, you have tarnished a once distinguished association.

James F. Jones, Jr.
President and Trinity College Professor in the Humanities

Office of the President
Trinity College
300 Summit Street
Hartford, Connecticut 06106

(telephone) 860-297-2086, 2087
(fax) 860-297-5359

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