Jewish Studies director says statement is result of pressure from extreme, right-wing organization
The chancellors of all 10 UC campuses wrote and signed a statement which effectively condemned an “academic boycott of Israeli academics and/or individual scholars.” The statement was released as a response to an increasing number of college instructors who have participated in the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), a movement dedicated to various boycotts against Israel and Israeli products.
In a statement sent to The California Aggie, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May said he signed the letter alongside the other UC chancellors because of a shared belief in “open intellectual exchange.”
“The free and unfettered flow of ideas among scholars of all backgrounds are essential elements of the academic enterprise that lead to net societal improvement and should not be infringed upon,” May said via email.
According to the AMCHA Initiative, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization “dedicated to combating anti-Semitism” at U.S. universities, the UC is the first university system to issue a statement of condemnation against academic boycotts of Israel. The UC’s statement also comes as the result of a letter written by the initiative and signed by over 100 organizations.
“College instructors have recently begun attempting [… to] prevent their students from studying in and about Israel,” an email from the initiative stated. “Earlier this fall, two University of Michigan faculty refused letters of recommendation to Michigan students applying to Israel study abroad programs, and Pitzer College faculty attempted to shut down Pitzer’s Israel study abroad program altogether.”
The Sacramento Regional Coalition for Palestinian Rights has authored an objection to the statement — sent via email to The California Aggie — which claims that “Israeli academic institutions are an integral part of the Israeli regime’s brutal military occupation of Palestine.”
By “partnering” with Israeli institutions, the group claims the UC is “complicit in perpetuating an illegal occupation and abusive apartheid system.”
“You have lent your names to a letter that in effect promotes injustice, human rights abuses, and violations of international law,” the statement from the Sacramento Regional Coalition for Palestinian Rights stated. “When Israel ends its occupation and system of apartheid and obeys international law, the boycott will end. As guardians of academic freedom, you should work to hasten that day.”
David Biale, a professor and the director of the Jewish Studies program at UC Davis, said he is personally opposed to boycotts which target Israeli academics “who may themselves be opposing their government’s policies.”
“[It] seems to me very counterproductive and also […] violates the idea of academic freedom — the ability of scholars and students to study where they want, to express whatever views they want to express,” Biale said. “Academic freedom is a very high value in the academy, and I think that this is a kind of violation of the academic freedom of Israeli scholars and students.”
Biale’s reasoning is in line with what the UC chancellors expressed in their collective letter, which states that an academic boycott of Israel “poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of [UC] students and faculty.”
While Biale said he is against academic boycotts which target Israel or any other country, he finds it troublesome that the chancellors released this statement in the wake of pressure from what he says are “fairly extreme right-wing” organizations.
“To me, it’s a little bit suspect that the organization called for this and the chancellors jumped onto it and signed it,” he said. “You have to wonder what kind of pressures there were, whether they were able to organize certain donors of the university to bring them to doing this.”
Biale also said he views the statement as incomplete because it doesn’t acknowledge that the Israeli government itself has used similar tactics against scholars and students that it disagrees with.
“There’s a Columbia law professor named Katherine Frank, who went to Israel with the director of a human rights organization, and they were bringing a group of human rights lawyers to meet with Israeli and Palestinian human rights lawyers, and they were deported,” Biale said. “They weren’t going to create a demonstration or anything, so it was a violation, in a way, of academic freedom.”
He also mentioned the case of Lara Alqasem, an American woman of Palestinian descent who was accepted to a master’s degree program at the Hebrew University in Israel. The Israeli government refused to admit Alqasem, and she was detained until the Israeli Supreme Court intervened and required the government to admit her.
“These are both cases where Israel itself has violated academic freedom for its own political purposes,” Biale said. “I would’ve liked the chancellors to have noted that and said that they don’t agree with it either, that our students and faculty members have the right to go to Israel no matter what their political opinions are, and to engage in teaching, study, interaction with their colleagues there.”
According to Biale, the BDS movement is one of several movements stemming from an impasse between the Israeli and Palestinian governing bodies.
“In the context of this impasse, supporters of the two sides in the United States are increasingly reaching for various tactics that they think might at least keep the thing in front of the public eye, if not work,” Biale said. “Academic boycotts are one avenue that Palestinian supporters have used with, frankly, pretty minor success.”
Biale said, however, that the boycotts have been a significant way for individuals and organizations who are pro-Israel to gain the upper hand.
“People on the pro-Israel side […] have used their very considerable political leverage — major donors — to pressure not only the UC chancellors, but there’s a bill in front of the U.S. Senate right now, and there have been a whole bunch of state legislatures that have passed resolutions against an academic boycott,” Biale said.
Parker Spadaro, a third-year political science major and member of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at UC Davis, criticized the statement by the UC chancellors and defended the BDS movement, labeling it as nonviolent and “a really great tool to combat disagreements with positions on the state of Israel.”
“This statement from the chancellors prioritizes abstract rights, like academic rights, but ignores other rights like freedom of speech or the civil rights of Palestinians in Israel,” Spadaro said.
With regard to the BDS movement, Biale said boycotting is an expression of free speech and an individual — and perhaps even a professional organization — cannot be penalized for engaging in a boycott. Spadaro, however, referred to instances of enforced restrictions against the BDS movement, all of which continue to remain legally questionable and mentioned the Republican-backed Senate bill intended to support Israel, which has been blocked by Democrats until the government reopens.
Biale believes that there should be a place for all political views on campus without interference from organizations outside of campus.
“I think the students should have a space to be able to debate these issues,” Biale said. “The debate can be ferocious, that’s okay, as long as it’s just words. There should be organizations where students can find their place according to whatever their beliefs are.”
The student group Aggies for Israel did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.
Written by: Sabrina Habchi — firstname.lastname@example.org