Is Supporting Academic Boycotts of Israel Consistent with Administering an Academic Program?

No, such individuals are pledged to violate university policy, civil rights laws, and academic freedom.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

George Washington University last week announced that Ilana Feldman, currently vice dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs and professor of anthropology, history and international affairs, will be the interim dean of the Elliott School. Feldman is a supporter of the academic boycott of Israeli educational institutions, and not merely a passive one (e.g., merely signing a petition or some such). Feldman has been a member of the eight-person organizing collective of Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions. The "pledge" of supporters of the boycott was as follows: "We pledge not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel."

Feldman's appointment puts into stark relief something I have been thinking about for some time—is being a supporter of academic boycotts of Israel consistent with holding an administrative position such as being a dean?

I think the answer is no, for three reasons, with a caveat. The first reason is that almost all universities oppose academic boycotts of Israel. I am pretty sure that GW is among the institutions that have publicly taken that official position. If so, it should not be hiring faculty for administrative positions who have publicly dedicated themselves to the opposite position. For example, could one trust such a person to negotiate an exchange program that would benefit the university with Hebrew University? One would think not, given that she has pledged "not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions."

Second, there is the matter of universities' legal responsibilities. Universities are bound by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans them from engaging in discrimination based on race (which, for these purposes, includes "ethnicity") and national origin. A dean or other administrator who is pledged to something like the AAA boycott would be opposed to funding students and faculty who wish to attend a conference in Israel, might not give someone proper credit for publishing in an Israeli academic journal, and so on. Inevitably, such policies will have a wildly disproportionate discriminatory effect on people of Israeli national origin, and to a lesser but still significant effect on Jewish students. If I were a university general counsel, would I want to risk the potential liability? Nope.

Third, there is the issue of academic freedom. The Anthropologists' boycott organization makes clear that they are endorsing the broader goals of the BDS movement. The BDS movement's statement on academic boycotts claims to respect academic freedom, but then adds this:

While an individual's academic freedom should be fully and consistently respected in the context of academic boycotts, an individual academic, Israeli or otherwise, cannot be exempt from being subject to "common sense" boycotts (beyond the scope of the PACBI institutional boycott criteria) that conscientious citizens around the world may call for in response to what they widely perceive as egregious individual complicity in, responsibility for, or advocacy of violations of international law (such as direct or indirect involvement in the commission of war crimes or other grave human rights violations; incitement to violence; racial slurs; etc.).

This is quite problematic. First, some people take extreme views of what international law requires. For example, if one believes that international law requires an immediate implementation of the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, the criteria above would lead one to boycott just about everyone who is even vaguely sympathetic to Israel. Second, why should international law be sacrosanct? Some aspects of international law are questionable if not downright dumb, and why shouldn't an academic be permitted to argue that any particular government, including Israel's, should ignore international law when the law itself is dumb and the consequences of obeying it would be negative? An administrator pledged to the academic boycott is going to be an enemy of academic freedom.

Now for my caveat: I think BDS activists should be allowed to be administrators, but only if they publicly and contractually disavow any intention of adhering to BDS position while serving as adminstrators: no boycotting Israeli academic institutions, no discrimination against students or faculty who have ties to Israeli institutions or academic journals, and no boycott of people who purportedly advocate violations of international law. Academics who are unwilling to do this–i.e., unwilling to obey university policy, comply with civil rights law, and respect academic freedom—have no business serving in administrative positions. In other words, faculty should not be banned from being administrators because they have held a political position, i.e., support academic boycotts of Israel, but only if it would be reasonable to believe that they would not act on those beliefs as administrators. While a public and contractual disavowal of such actions would not guarantee that the administrator would not take them anyway, it would be sufficient to satisfy my concerns. The problem currently is that BDS supporters are being appointed to deanships, department chairmanships, and so on, without any inquiry by their universities as to whether they will implement academic boycott policies.

NEXT: Sen. Mitch McConnell Looks To Undermine Efforts to Protect Americans From Secret FBI Surveillance

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. How far would standards apply? E.g., someone who publicly opposed the PRC or Chinese Communist Party would make a similar public statement? It is a little puzzling that such a requirement would be imposed for political views. Would view hostile to the Russian regime require some pubic disavowal from anyone taking an academic administrative position? That someone holds a particular political view does not seem a sufficient reason to a special agreement to do one’s job.

    1. No one said anything about “political views,” or being “opposed” to Israel or any other government. This is about a pledge to boycott institutions and individuals. Just by sheer coincidence, having nothing to do with antisemitism, it turns out that the only country subject to an organized academic boycott is Israel. But the principles I stated above would equally apply to someone pledged to an academic boycott re China, Russia, etc. They do not apply to someone who has merely expressed hostility to any government or its policies.

      1. A caveat David — you need to make a distinction between the CCP’s “Confucius Institute” programs and everything else because the “Confucius Institute” programs are little more than CCP propaganda and even the CCP admits it. Here is the left-of-center Politico on them: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/01/16/how-china-infiltrated-us-classrooms-216327

      2. I don’t find this altogether convincing.

        What sort of academic rises to a high position in a totalitarian regime ? Indeed what sort of academic gets a slot as an academic in a totalitarian regime ? The concept of “academic” exchange with institutions in a totalitarian regime, and individuals working within them, strikes me as rather doubtful.

        Academic exchange with China seems to involve a large element of IP theft, and bribery of university staff to push propaganda, so it’s not necessarily the pure academic exchange that exists in utopia.

        The idea that Israeli academics are under the thumb of the Israeli government is highly fanciful, but I don’t think we can assume as we move past a democracy famous for the cantankerosity of its domestic political disputes, towards thugocracies and beyond, that all “academics” are academics rather than apparatchiks.

        1. Not engaging in a blanket boycott of, say, Chinese academics or academic institutions does not mean that you can’t objectively assess the academic merit of particular individuals or programs and act accordingly.

        2. “What sort of academic rises to a high position in a totalitarian regime ?”

          Ilana Feldman

        3. “Academic exchange with China seems to involve a large element of IP theft, and bribery of university staff to push propaganda, so it’s not necessarily the pure academic exchange that exists in utopia.”

          The Chinese totalitarian regime managed to generate a substantial economic surplus, which the educational institutions around the world coveted. Even the ones in the free parts of the world. And “IP theft” is only a thing if you believe that IP is actually property. As anyone who ever used Napster or Limewire might dispute.

      3. “No one said anything about “political views,” or being “opposed” to Israel or any other government. This is about a pledge to boycott institutions and individuals.”

        You want to make sure the people who are planning to boycott institutions and individuals but aren’t “opposed” to them get a fair hearing, presumably.

  2. “That someone holds a particular political view does not seem a sufficient reason to a special agreement to do one’s job.”

    Are you familiar with what happened to Larry Sommers at Harvard?

    1. I’m familiar with Larry Summers experience as university president there. What point would you make about it?

  3. During Apartheid, would it be ok for someone supporting a boycott of South Africa to be a dean?

    1. What’s the difference between boycotting apartheid South Africa and boycotting the United States of AmeriKKKa?

      /sarc

    2. (1) Was university policy to the contrary? (2) Was there a significant possibility of legal liability for the university if hired such a dean? (3) Did the call for an academic boycott of South Africa include calling for a boycott of people who allegedly defend violations of international law?

      If the answer to all of those was yes, and by “supporting” you mean “personally pledged to an academic boycott,” then the answer is no.

      1. Professor…a question. Is there any difference at all between the boycotts of South Africa over apartheid and BDS today with Israel over their ‘palestinian’ problem, in your analysis above?

        Would you end up with the same conclusion?

        I am not being facetious, I am trying to see if there is any real difference between the two?

        1. There is of course in my opinion a significant moral difference. But that’s not relevant to the questions of adhering to university policy, subjecting the university to legal liability, and protecting academic freedom. Morally speaking, Ilana Feldman should be tossed out of polite society for supporting an antisemitic movement. But we don’t punish or reward academics for having morally repugnant viewpoints.

          1. But we don’t punish or reward academics for having morally repugnant viewpoints.

            Yes, we do. We absolutely do.

            1. “Yes, we do. We absolutely do.”

              Cue one of the Rev’s diatribes about 4th-tier religious right-wing academic institutions.

          2. I agree = Morally speaking, Ilana Feldman should be tossed out of polite society for supporting an antisemitic movement.

            She will not make my Hanukkah card list. 🙂

        2. “is any real difference between the two?”

          One was capable of producing change.

      2. ” (2) Was there a significant possibility of legal liability for the university if hired such a dean?”

        Not if considered objectively, no.

    3. If you think Apartheid South Africa was equivalent to modern Israel, you are an anti-semite.

      I’d have a teeny bit of respect for BDS idiots if they extended their BDS to every Muslim country, because not a single one of them is anywhere near as democratic as Israel. It’s easy to find fault with a lot of the Israeli government’s actions, just as with any government; but no matter how you slice and dice the Israeli government’s actions, no matter how biased your selection of faults, they are not 1% as evil as the Muslim governments. How many of them are actual democracies? If you include Iran in that number, you are gullible beyond belief when it comes to justifying your anti-semitsm.

      1. “I’d have a teeny bit of respect for BDS idiots if they extended their BDS to every Muslim country, because not a single one of them is anywhere near as democratic as Israel.”

        But some of them have oil. Demanding boycott and disinvestment of the oil-bearing countries requires decreasing use of oil, which is too much of an ask for some folks. Why did God have to put OUR oil under THEIR sand?

    4. How about now? Whites are getting murdered in South Africa just for being white. That’s worse than apartheid. I want the sanctions back in place as they were during the Botha administration!

  4. “…is being a supporter of academic boycotts of Israel consistent with holding an administrative position such as being a dean?”

    Soon it will be a job requirement to boycott Israel.

    1. “Soon it will be a job requirement to boycott Israel.”

      At places like UMass Amherst, where Hamas was running security in the Grad Dorm, I’d argue that it already is.

      1. Always love story time with Dr. Ed.

        1. Oh, that was mild to some of the stuff that has happened out there!

          Louis Farrakhan spoke *twice*, Tony Martin and a third antisemite whose name I forget all have spoken out there — paid for by mandatory student fees and the profit from dorm washing machines.

          The Graduate _ Voice_ newspaper, funded by a mandatory fee that all graduate students were required to pay, turned into such an antisemitic diatribe that UMass was forced to hire a administrator to deal with it. Google “Hussain Ibish”….

          There’s more — much more….

          1. Dr. Ed, just a reminder that opposition to the government of Israel is not categorically antisemitism. A substantial portion of the population of Israel opposes their own government, and labeling them as “antisemites” is just foolishness.

  5. “Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.”[emphasis added] See: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/rights/guid/ocr/raceoverview.html

    Israel is a nation, academic institutions are artificial persons, and those originating in Israel have a “national origin” of Israeli.

    QED if GWU wishes to continue receiving Federal Funding (including having its students eligible for student loans), it is prohibited from hiring an administrator whose stated policy is to discriminate against persons based on said persons’ “national origin.”

    Let me be clear here — I’m talking about discrimination against the Israeli universities themselves, and not just against their faculty, staff & students. I don’t believe that Title VI specifies “natural” persons, and as Mitt Romney famously reminded us “corporations are people too.” Hence Tel Aviv University is a “person” whom Dean Feldman states an intent to discriminate against on the basis of its national origin.

    Now I don’t have a whole lot of faith in OCR, but I’d like to know what the professors think of this. Why wouldn’t an artificial person also have a “national origin”?

    1. ” if GWU wishes to continue receiving Federal Funding (including having its students eligible for student loans), it is prohibited from hiring an administrator whose stated policy is to discriminate against persons based on said persons’ ‘national origin.'”

      I don’t believe this is true. The policy of individuals does not necessarily transfer to the organization. If there was a law that prevented GWU (or anyone else) from stating a policy, it would be void, because Congress is Constitutionally precluded from making any such law.

  6. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were enough “self-critical” Israeli academics to help make propaganda against Israel at an international conference. This is, of course, an hypothesis, but fortunately the BDSM people don’t have the sophistication and nuance to exploit any such vulnerabilities.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were enough “self-critical” Israeli academics to help make propaganda against Israel at an international conference.

      I don’t see why you sneer at Israeli academics who oppose their government policies, and talk about them making “propaganda.”

      There is legitimate political opposition within Israel – as there is in democracies. To accuse those who hold thse views of being “self-critical,” – I suppose you meant to call them “self-hating Jews” – is insulting and inappropriate.

      1. “I suppose you meant to call them ‘self-hating Jews'”

        Thank you for telling me what I think – what would I do without you?

        I don’t know the situation in Israeli academia, but if it’s like American academia, there would be professors who talk about the Israeli government the way American academics talk about Trump.

        I’m not suggesting that they’d attend a BDSM conference if they were given a special exemption from a boycott – they might have too much patriotism and professional pride to do that. But a non-BDSM conference with a bunch of one-sided discussions of Israeli policy – I can see that just as I can see (say) American professors attending a conference in Europe about “right-wing extremism in the USA in the age of Trump” or whatever.

        My point is the boycotters *don’t* seem to want to use these self-critical Israelis because I think the BDSM people are even more extreme than even naive Israeli professors.

        1. They are not “self-critical,” which sounds like a derogatory description, if not “self-hating” then like someone dragged in front of a “reeducation” tribunal.

          What they are is citizens of a democracy who disagree with the policies of their government. And no matter how wonderful you think those policies are they have every right to criticize, not themselves, but their government, about which, I’ll guess, they are better-informed than you are.

          1. I’m making a guess about the attitudes of some academics – by all means, if I guessed wrong let me know, but don’t, in your indignation, overdo your summary of what I said.

            If Israel has the equivalent of various left-wing American academics – which was my speculation – then yes, that would mean they’re hypercritical of their country and fairly naive about their country’s foes.

            If, on the other hand, Israel has been spared this particular type of professor, I’ll be the first to apologize to the professoriate for my unfounded speculation.

          2. Sure they do. And if they’re hypocrites, we have every right to laugh.

        2. “I don’t know the situation in Israeli academia, but if it’s like American academia, there would be professors who talk about the Israeli government the way American academics talk about Trump.”

          Right-wing policies aren’t popular with people who are smart and/or educated. What an indictment of the smart people.

        3. “Thank you for telling me what I think – what would I do without you?”

          You’d spend a good deal of time and effort spouting gibberish and nonsense, based on the existing sample of your creative efforts.

    2. ” the BDSM people don’t have the sophistication and nuance to exploit any such vulnerabilities.”

      As a guess, the majority of “BDSM people” have no strong opinions on Israel, including the ones are actually in Israel when they’re practicing BDSM..

  7. “‘common sense’ boycotts”

    Translated from BDSMese into normal speech, “common sense” means “pernicious nonsense.”

  8. For me, Israel is kind of like President Trump. I may not like everything they do, but I’m highly skeptical of the apoplectic rage of their enemies, I’m inclined to suspect that the rage is out of proportion to reality and is based on double standards and even worse agendas.

    1. Trump is a bully. Nothing to get excited about.

      1. Can you name a single politician who is not a bully?

        1. Trump is a human wrecking ball, among other things.

          1. Can you name a single politician who is not a human wrecking ball, among other things?

            Or even answer the first question?

            1. “Can you name a single politician who is not a human wrecking ball, among other things?”

              The dead ones.

          2. And this is bad why?

            DC needs a much bigger dose of wrecking ball therapy than Trump has yet given them. I want a Congress that will let him fire bureaucrats in droves, abolish their jobs, and salt the fucking earth.

        2. My own representative is Adam Kinzinger, and his media appearances have all be professional and respectful.

    2. “For me, Israel is kind of like President Trump. I may not like everything they do, but I’m highly skeptical of the apoplectic rage of their enemies”

      Israel has faced opposition since its founding, and some of the opposition was beyond reason. Apologists take this fact and use it to justify anything and everything Israel has done, whether or not it’s objectively related. Neither side is entirely rational, and neither side wants to hear about how irrational they’re being.

  9. In my view, academic boycotts are different than economic boycotts, in that the academic boycott is much closer to targeting individuals. Professor Bernstein has valid concerns, in this respect. If the administrator were required to sign some policy requirement protecting against such discrimination (which would apply to all countries, not just Israel), that sounds like a good remedy. It would be somewhat similar to an administrator who is against SSM being required to certify they will not discriminate against LGBT people or their marital status.

  10. You are forgetting to apply to correct test. It is a simple one step process:

    1. Does this help forward the liberal agenda?

    Yes = nothing else matters

    No = make answer Yes

  11. If you want to boycott with your own resources, fine. If you want to boycott with your institution’s resources, you should expect your institution to have something to say about that.

    1. Unless you are a leftist. Then the concept of “own resources” includes anything which you can exercise control or authority over regardless of personal property type interpretations of ownership.

      1. “Unless you are a leftist. Then the concept of “own resources” includes anything which you can exercise control or authority over”

        Under what rationale are you limiting this concept to leftists only. The “religious right” has been coopting government power to advance their religious opinions for approximately forever, ever since Jesus expressly declined to use divine power to evict the Romans.

  12. Arguing that “academic freedom” requires restrictions on the freedom of academics? Wow.

  13. This is a really shocking attack on academic freedom, by someone who is an administrator of a program devoted to intellectual freedom. Does that mean Bernstein should be fired from his administrative position? By his logic, yes. Fortunately, he is completely wrong. Bernstein’s chain of guilt by association is pretty awful reasoning: 1) Feldman supports the Anthropologists’ position. 2) The Anthropologists’ position supports the goals of the BDS movement. 3) A statement by the BDS movement says it supports academic freedom, but Bernstein thinks it doesn’t. That’s an extremely weak argument to try to ban someone from an administrative position. Universities can punish administrators for failing to do their jobs, but they can’t presume that they will fail to do their jobs based on their political beliefs.

    1. Which part of the pledge that she not only signed, but co-sponsored, did you miss: “We pledge not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.”

      1. That’s a very disturbing argument, since you’re assuming that anyone who makes a personal pledge or commitment will therefore impose that pledge on the institution they work for. If a religious person made a pledge to promote their religious values, would you demand that they be banned from all leadership positions on the assumption that a dean would use their role to impose their religion on everyone?

  14. What’s wrong a BDS of the 53 Islamic supremacist Apartheid nations that oppress Women, Gays, Trans, Christians, Minorities and Journalists??

  15. Feldman, huh.
    Progressive Jewish Agenda; Every minority group but the Jewish ones.
    Progressive Muslim Agenda; Islam.

  16. The statement Ms. Feldman is a clear call for the ethnic cleansing half a million Jews to create an ethnically homogeneous state of Palestine. It also calls for the ethnic cleansing of millions of Jews within Israel, to restore the millions of Palestinian refugees to their original homes. It advocates a superior standing for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel beyond the equal legal rights they currently enjoy.

    There is no way to view this other than explicit anti-Semitism.

    Will Ms. Feldman be able to judge differently an Israeli from an Israeli institution? The rationale for the boycott is complicity with the occupation, declared unconditional support for the Israeli military, and intimate connection to military, security, and political establishments. Any Israeli who has served in the IDF will have been complicit, supported, and connected to all these institutions.

    The document goes on to list prior boycotts. Missing from the list is an equivalent blanket boycott of :

    Iran
    China
    Venezuela
    Apartheid South Africa
    USSR and other Eastern Bloc Countries
    North Korea
    It misses a litany of other states with despicable governments.

    Ms. Feldman advocates not only an anti-Semitic policy but also what would be considered the war crime of ethnic cleansing. The eviction of millions of Jews from where they live cannot be called anything but ethnic cleansing. In the past, advocates of ethnic cleansing have also used terms like restoration of national rights as rationals for ethnic cleansing.

    1. Minor correction. First sentence should read. The statements endorsed by Ms. Feldman are …

      I would also like to recategorize the form of anti Semitism as implicit. The intent is inferred by the statements she endorsed by looking at the only obvious way to reach the stated goal.

    2. Quick correction. The anti-Semitism expressed in the statements endorsed by Ms. Feldman is not explicit, but implicit. It takes understanding what the only possible final solution would be to the statements endorsed to understand the meaning.

    3. “The eviction of millions of Jews from where they live cannot be called anything but ethnic cleansing.”

      The thing is, the Jews evicted the prior occupants from where THEY lived. If, as you say, that can’t be called anything but ethnic cleansing, then it’s ethnic cleansing.

      Ideally, good people would oppose ethnic cleansing by anybody.

Please to post comments