On 10 May 2013, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a “Statement on Academic Boycotts” which states, not for the first time, its “opposition to academic boycotts as a matter of principle.” The statement was issued in response to two recent victories for the movement for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel: physicist Stephen Hawking’s recent announcement that he would not attend a major conference in Israel, and the Association for Asian American Studies’ (AAAS) adoption of a resolution at their national conference in April to endorse the academic boycott. As the momentum for the academic boycott of Israel builds globally, the AAUP seems to be desperately trying to stem the tide. Of course, the AAUP`s statement is nothing new and shows the organization to be as incoherent and ill-informed on the academic and cultural boycott of Israel as it has proven to be since 2006. In that year, it succumbed to outside pressure and withdrew support for an AAUP-sponsored conference on academic boycott at the Rockefeller Conference Center in Bellagio—thus effectively engaging in censorship.
In the first place, the recent AAUP statement is factually misleading. The academic boycott is not merely being "advocated by some pro-Palestinian groups," nor did Stephen Hawking make his decision based on the call of "pro-Palestinian groups." He did so, according to his own statement, in response to the appeal of Palestinian scholars— just as the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) has responded to the call of over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations that have endorsed the Palestinian call for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. What the AAUP seeks to disguise by its framing of the issue is that the academic boycott has never been the work of some small pressure groups in the United States, but represents a global movement that is seeking a non-violent means to end the systematic dispossession of and discrimination against the Palestinian people. In this respect, it resembles the boycott movement against South Africa`s apartheid regime, which the AAUP in fact supported, with the difference that whereas that movement did call for individual boycotts of South African scholars, cultural workers, and sports persons, PACBI`s call is specifically and exclusively institutional.
The AAUP`s statement furthermore falsely implies that the boycott is directed at the opinions or beliefs of Israeli and other academics. It is not. It is directed at the ongoing practices of the Israeli state and of its institutions. Part of Israel`s systematic dispossession of and discrimination against the Palestinians includes restrictions on freedom of movement that grossly violate academic freedom, interfere with the access of students and faculty to their institutions, prevent scholars from taking up fellowships abroad or attending conferences; school closures whose duration prevents a regular academic life from being pursued; the deliberate destruction of academic and educational institutions; and the establishment of a network of discriminatory regulations that prevent Palestinians in Israel from having equal access to higher education there. That is merely a partial list of violations of academic freedom that are so pervasive as to amount to what some scholars have named "scholasticide" and which form part of a larger system that can only be understood as aimed at preventing the reproduction and survival of Palestinian intellectual life and culture. Israeli institutions of higher education not only have remained silent on these issues; they participate daily in shaping the infrastructure of occupation within which this discriminatory system operates and, by their own maintenance of discriminatory regimes, further that system.
Academic freedom is indeed a universal right. But the AAUP`s position makes an exception for Palestinians, suggesting that, so long as Israel and its supporters maintain a loud and prominent voice that demonizes all criticism of and practical opposition to that state`s policies, Palestinian rights, and the means that Palestinians have overwhelmingly advocated to defend and secure them, can be safely disregarded. This flies in the face of the long recognized notion that parties responsible for the persistent and ongoing breach of universally recognized norms of conduct should face the sanction of their peers.
In effect, AAUP`s position on academic boycott succeeds in making nonsense of any claim that an organization of academics could have any practical impact on an issue that concerns us most closely: namely, the protection of rights to academic freedom. Individual expressions of distaste for governmental policies—policies protected and abetted by successive US administrations and by the US Congress—may be honorable but are surely ineffective unless they are articulated within the context of an organized social movement. Only a powerful and moral civil society movement can challenge the blockade on change that occurs when governments collude in the denial of rights. In the 1980s the name of that collusion was "constructive engagement" with apartheid, and it took the international divestment movement to break it. That campaign necessarily involved not merely the boycott of oranges from the Cape, but a more powerful and effective sports and cultural boycott. The academic boycott of Israel is the equivalent of that sports and cultural boycott, affecting Israel precisely through those institutions in which it feels most pride and through which it proclaims its closest bonds to the western democracies it pretends to emulate. In the present time, US academics can and should exercise their legitimate influence by organizing and subscribing to the institutional academic boycott of Israel. It is not only morally imperative; it is consistent with the fundamental principle that academic freedom is a universal right. Or, in the language of other unions, "an injury to one is an injury to all." To refuse to engage is to suggest that, for whatever reasons, Palestinian scholars do not belong in the community of scholarship nor, by extension, in the full community of human beings.
The latter is not a position worthy of the AAUP as an organization that purports to defend academic freedom as a universal principle.
[This article was written in response to the AAUP on behalf of US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boyoctt of Israel (USACBI).]