Mrak Hall at UC Davis (Photo/flickr-Peter Alfred Hess CC BY 2.0)
Mrak Hall at UC Davis (Photo/flickr-Peter Alfred Hess CC BY 2.0)

Boycotts against Israel are real threat at UCs

All University of California professors who care about academic freedom, free speech and the academic welfare of their students should have heartily applauded the UC chancellors in December when they issued a bold statement strongly condemning the academic boycott of Israel and acknowledging that it “poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty.”

The applause should have been loudest and longest from the directors of UC’s seven Jewish studies programs, since no academic unit at the university would be more negatively affected by an academic boycott of Israel than the ones they direct.

Hebrew-language and Israel-related courses, talks and symposia about Israel, and research pertaining to Israel undertaken by faculty and students — activities central to the mission of Jewish studies — all would be seriously harmed by the implementation of academic BDS, which calls for ending Israel study abroad programs (popular among U.S. students), canceling student-organized events about Israel on campus, and refusing collaborations with Israeli scholars, among others.

UC Jewish studies program directors must know that the implementation of academic BDS is not an idle threat at UC. Disturbingly, hundreds of faculty members have expressed public support for academic BDS, and six are leaders in the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).

COUNTERPOINT: Academic boycott of Israel is bad, but don’t ignore the facts on the ground

At UC Davis, for instance, dozens of faculty members have signed statements, petitions or letters supporting an academic boycott of Israel. Alarmingly, several of them serve as heads of their academic units, including the current chairs of the departments of English, religious studies, cultural studies, Asian American studies and the sociocultural wing of anthropology. Sunaina Maira, professor of Asian American studies and Middle Eastern/South Asian studies at UC Davis, is an academic boycott leader and USACBI founder. In her 2018 book “Boycott! The Academy and Justice for Palestine,” Maira champions the academic boycott.

In addition, in concert with 10 other academic boycott leaders, Maira recently issued a statement in solidarity with a University of Michigan professor who, in compliance with academic BDS, refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student wanting to study in Israel. Maira and her fellow boycott leaders affirmed that they “do not write letters of recommendations in support of student participation in Israel study abroad programs. We also call on our colleagues to … refuse to participate in Study Abroad in Israel programs by taking the pledge to boycott.”

Surprisingly, instead of commending the UC chancellors for their forthright statement protecting the academic rights of students and faculty on campuses, professor David Biale, head of UC Davis’ Jewish studies program, criticized them.

In a recent article in the UC Davis student newspaper, Biale is quoted as saying that the chancellors’ one-paragraph statement should have included a condemnation of the Israeli government. And while Biale acknowledged his own personal opposition to a boycott that targets Israeli scholars “who may themselves be opposing their government’s policies,” he did not address the direct harm academic BDS causes U.S. students and faculty who simply want to learn about Israel.

Even more surprising is that instead of taking to task his own boycotting colleagues for privileging their personal political vendettas against Israel above the academic rights of UC Davis students and faculty, Biale directed his ire at 101 religious, civil rights, faculty and student organizations. These diverse groups —including the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, B’nai B’rith International, Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization, the Zionist arms of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements, WoMen For All and the Academic Engagement Network — sent a letter to hundreds of university presidents and chancellors across the country, making them aware that the implementation of an academic boycott of Israel tramples on the academic rights of students and faculty on their own campuses, and asking them to condemn academic BDS in the strongest possible terms.

Biale, however, asserted that these groups exerted undue influence on the UC chancellors and pressured them into issuing their statement opposing academic BDS. “You have to wonder what kind of pressures there were,” Biale was quoted, “whether [the groups] were able to organize certain donors of the university to bring them to doing this.”

What brought the UC chancellors to “doing this” was their understanding that academic BDS violates the free speech and academic freedom of UC students and faculty members, and their moral courage to speak out about it.

The chancellors understand that academic BDS shuts down dialogue, impedes educational opportunities and violates student and faculty rights. It is the opposite of the debate, discourse and scholarship so critical to academia. And they understand that while any professor can hold any view on the Israeli government and its policies, supporting actions that violate the rights of students and faculty, in the name of political activism, is reprehensible. The chancellors’ bold statement is worthy of a standing ovation.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is a co-founder of the Amcha Initiative, a nonprofit that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses. She was a lecturer in Hebrew at UC Santa Cruz from 1996 to 2016.