Radically Principled Vs. Compromisingly Political Reactions To The Academic Anti-Israeli Boycott: "Welcome To The Fight"

September 2007

At end of the classic film, "Casablanca", when Rick finally decides to abandon his neutrality with regard to the Nazi and Vichy regimes, the resistance fighter Victor Laszlo says, "Welcome to the fight." Victor's words seem apt as the academic anti-Israeli boycott, that abuse of academic freedom, continues. Anti-Semitism and other dark impulses may likely motivate the boycott. Whatever the motives for the boycott may be, however, the boycott threatens the central mission of any genuine university. That mission is the search for truth through the conflict of ideas. For academics, then, a phrase from the theme song of Casablanca is also relevant: "The fundamental things apply."

Opposition to the boycott, indeed, is incumbent on all who value a free society, in which freedom of speech is a central tenet. This tenet was recently formulated by Nathan Sharansky, who distinguished between free and "fear" or totalitarian societies. He noted that in a free society, even the most outrageous opinions can be publicly stated without fear of criminal punishment.

For those who believe in a free society, then, academic freedom on campus and freedom of speech off campus should be closely related. In particular, non-academics should not make the mistake of treating academic freedom as merely an "ivory tower" issue. Another mistake is to minimize the boycott on the grounds that it merely places Israeli professors in a sort of academic Coventry. The essence of academic freedom is, as I have argued, the right of all members of the academic community (students and faculty) to be evaluated solely on their academic performance, and not at all on their politics, religion, or citizenship. The boycott denies this right, and is therefore properly labeled an abuse of academic freedom. Those who are not direct victims of this abuse (in this instance those who do not hold Israeli citizenship or are not Jews) should not treat the boycott with indifference, or worse still, join, even in a partial way, those who threaten academic freedom. Like justice, freedom is indivisible.

The fight against the boycott's challenge to academic freedom should be what I call "radically principled" rather than "compromisingly political.” By principled I mean that it should focus on the general principle of academic freedom, rather than on those groups that are the most direct victims of the boycott. It should be radical: it should brook no compromise with the boycotters. Rather, it should treat their proposals with the contempt they deserve. It is also inconsistent with such contempt to try to negotiate with the boycotters by such moves as attempting to defend Israel's behavior in hopes of mitigating the boycott's effects.

When, in 2002, a group of British sub-professorial academics (the British Association of University Teachers-BAUT) began the boycott movement, there were some immediate radically principled condemnations from some academic organizations like the Canadian Society for Academic Freedom and scholarship (SAFS), the National Association of Scholars, and the American Association of University Professors. They all had in common their opposition to the boycott as an unjustifiable attack on academic freedom, without any reference to the behavior of the Israeli government. For example, the SAFS statement referred to the boycott as an act of "academic cannibalism."

In stark contrast to these condemnations of the boycott was the silence from some "ivory towers" like the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). This large organization represents all Canadian university teachers, is actually a union, because all Canadian academics must belong to it. This contrasts with voluntary associations like the Faculty Association at the University of Toronto. CAUT also has a permanent standing committee on academic freedom, but as I noted several months after the initial boycott, CAUT, in contrast to the much smaller voluntary Canadian organization, SAFS, continued in its compromisingly political silence, preferring to avoid this "controversial" issue. In other words, when it comes to protecting academic freedom, CAUT talked the talk, but did not even crawl the walk.

However, even specifically anti-boycott organizations like the International Academic Freedom Board (IAB) of Bar-Ilan University engaged in some tactics that were compromisingly political rather than radically principled. So, for example, IAB sent a letter to the BAUT's executive that defended Israel's policies and also noted that individuals who had been fired from editorial positions on the grounds of the boycott were

in fact doves rather than hawks as regards Israel's foreign policy. This sort of tactic implicitly grants the boycott movement an academic legitimacy that it does not possess. It is like negotiating with cannibals about whom they should or should not eat.

The 2002 BAUT boycott motion did not achieve majority support, and most organizations appeared to be satisfied with this result, with some even congratulating themselves as having "succeeded" in "gently persuading" British academics by "democratic" means to vote against formal boycott. There was little by way of outright condemnation of the very concept of academic boycotts, so it is not surprising that in 2007, a BAUT-like organization began to promote a new version of the boycott. This British academic body, composed of sub-professorial teaching staff, was aware of prior anti-boycott opposition, and hence came up with a more "moderate" version according to which it was up to its local organizations to decide whether or not they wished to proceed with the boycott which the organization's executive was recommending. This is like leaving the question of cannibalism to the decision of local villages.

This time, many academic organizations are taking radically principled public stands against the boycott, by focusing on the issue of academic freedom (for a recent and constantly updated site on this issue, see Moreover, some prominent non-academic organizations like the British House of Lord have condemned the 2007 version of the boycott, apparently recognizing the connection between academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Still, most individual academics remain silent, and the CAUT continues to refuse to interfere in what its president, James Turk, still calls merely a "controversial" issue that needs "unfettered discussion" and on which CAUT has no policy. For the CAUT, apparently, cannibalism should not be condemned as long as no Canadians are eaten, and as long as local village councils are free to decide whether to eat, and whom to eat.