The Volokh Conspiracy

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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.


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.