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On boycotts of Israeli academic institutions

Robert Birgeneau, professor of physics, former chancellor | December 3, 2015

By George Breslauer and Robert Birgeneau

Last month the American Anthropology Association (AAA), at its annual meeting, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. In coming months, that resolution will be put to a ballot vote of the entire membership of the association, which numbers some 15,000 anthropologists.

We urge UC Berkeley’s anthropologists to campaign against this resolution and to resist the idea of an academic boycott. We have two main reasons for this call: (1) the double standard implicit in the resolution; and (2) the impact of such boycotts on the purposes and credibility of academia.

First, the double standard: We find such an institutional initiative against Israel disturbing, when extensive slaughters are taking place elsewhere in the Middle East, causing deaths and casualties literally thousands of times greater than the casualties among Palestinians at the hands of Israelis. Surely, all Muslim lives matter.

Second, we consider academic boycotts by universities or their departments, as instruments of political pressure on foreign-policy issues, to be inappropriate and potentially damaging to the academic enterprise. We consider them threats to the fundamental norms of academia and to the delicate balance that maintains the external and internal legitimacy and credibility of scholarship produced, and teaching conducted, within academia. Following the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, some scholars may consider “engaged scholarship” to be a “martial art.” We consider engaged scholarship to be an important, to-be-valued contribution — but only when there is good reason to believe that authors respect standards of evidence, or admit when they are instead expressing an opinion or preference.

Technically, the AAA boycott applies only to Israeli academic institutions not individual scholars; we consider this distinction to be disingenuous at best. We, the faculty at Berkeley, are the University of California at Berkeley and we cannot be separated from our university. The same applies to our colleagues in Israel.

Presumably, academic boycotts may also drag departments and universities into legal proceedings over whether they violate academic freedom, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and/or the charters of the universities themselves. Some legal scholars have recently written that such boycotts would be deemed illegal under current law (see piece in The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 1, 2015, by Eugene Kontorovich and Steven Davidoff Solomon).

However, we are also concerned about the impact on the fabric of our institution. Would fear of defying a passionate majority violate the First Amendment rights, and academic freedom, of faculty and students alike? Would dissenting or ambivalent assistant professors, associate professors, graduate students, and undergrads feel free to express contrary opinions, to collaborate with an Israeli scholar, or to invite that scholar to a conference at Berkeley? Would Israeli applicants for graduate study at Berkeley, however qualified they might be, be denied admission by the department — and might such a practice lead to abrogation of the department’s right to control graduate admissions?

The net result of such overt bias against Israel and Israeli academics, even if it does not result in “proceedings,” could well be to further an impression on campus that the discipline and department are not to be taken seriously, that the “political” has submerged the “scientific.” Some people will respond that all social-science scholarship is political to one degree or another. We agree, but the matter of “degree” is all-important, becoming a difference in kind when it crosses a line. The AAA vote has more than crossed that line, threatening the delicate balance that allows academia to function well as an evidence- and logic-based arbiter of public discourse about social issues.

Readers may be surprised to learn that we decry Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies and support a two-state solution. Whether boycotts of any sort will change current Israeli policy remains to be seen. That said, we are not willing to risk the corruption of academia in order to test the proposition. We urge our Berkeley anthropology colleagues to campaign against the AAA resolution.

  • George Breslauer is Professor of the Graduate School and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, Emeritus at UC Berkeley
  • Robert Birgeneau is the Silverman Professor of Physics, Materials Science & Engineering and Public Policy