A Supreme Court justice once said, in the context of the death penalty, that when a judge feels unable to apply a law because of his or her personal views, it’s time to resign and either launch a political campaign or lead a revolution. We might venture similar career advice for academics, many of whom, like federal judges, enjoy the remarkable luxury of life tenure, and are constrained in what they do and say largely by their own sense of propriety. In much the same way that judges must be careful to distinguish between what the law is and what they think it ought to be, academics have to keep on the right side of the often blurry line between teaching and political advocacy.
Sometimes the line isn’t all that blurry though.
Last Thursday, Brown’s Middle East Studies program held a “critical conversation” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This one was called “Permission to Speak: Boycott and the Politics of Solidarity,” and promoted a newly-published collection of essays supporting the boycott of Israeli universities — among other institutions — to protest injustices against Palestinians. (The book in question was actually being sold outside the event.) Perhaps I’m jaded, but it seems pointless to waste perfectly good column space debating whether Israel is diabolical enough to be boycotted. Rather than further swell that already abundant genre, instead I want to simply point out why — no matter one’s views on Israel — academic boycotts are, by their nature, a form of political activism that invariably corrupts education.
What makes academic boycotts so pernicious is that they establish one standard of pedagogy for teaching Israel, and another standard of pedagogy for teaching all other countries. Israel is, along with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, one of the Middle East’s four most politically influential countries. It is the region’s only non-Muslim state. It wields emotional and symbolic influence wildly disproportionate to its actual power — or perhaps it actually wields such disproportionate power because of its emotional and symbolic influence. It is simply impossible to properly instruct students on the history and politics of the Middle East while out-of-hand ignoring a major actor’s academic institutions. Universities are crucial to the development of a nation’s moral ethos and political strategy, often incubating ideas before they take root in media, government, and laws. If these institutions are made into lepers, how are students supposed to learn about Israel in the same way they learn about Egypt or Iran or Saudi Arabia?
Those who would join the boycott indulge in a rather dangerous solipsism, where the task of education is sacrificed for the moral gratification of this or that educator. This is not to say professors cannot have opinions, even ones that color their teaching. There’s a difference between presenting a perhaps slanted take on a particular topic and treating that topic as if it is not even worth the courtesy of equal analysis. No matter how valid institutionalized support for academic boycotts of Israel might be politically, it is a priori wrong educationally. This is not just some epistemological abstraction. Three years ago, Brown hosted an event with Adi Ophir, current director of the Minerva Center at Tel Aviv University and then-visiting professor at Brown. After his planned participation was criticized by a pro-Palestinian organization, the Middle East Studies program director at Brown, Beshara Doumani, withdrew from the event. It stands to reason that there have been similar incidents that have gone unreported. A link to an Israeli institution should not preclude entirely the possibility of discussion and debate when links to those of other countries do not. Of course, there are those who would say that the circumstances justify the selective treatment, but that’s an argument about politics — not pedagogy. In sum, academic boycotts philosophically undermine a liberal education and deprive students of the opportunity to consider all views equally and decide which they prefer.
It appears that four of nine “critical conversations” hosted by the Middle East Studies have been about Israel. But these conversations all featured panels that were about as sympathetic to Israel as the Texas parole board is to death-row inmates. Not one has included an individual who defends Israel with half the intensity of the median panelist who criticizes it. Not surprisingly, this isn’t an oversight. At one of the conversations, a student expressed concern that the panel was so lopsided. The director of the Middle East studies program replied that because his approach to the conflict is perhaps the academic consensus, he did not feel obliged to include views that diverged from it in his panel.
I don’t mean to suggest professors can’t personally endorse boycotts of Israel. They can. Just as democracies have no choice but to extend their liberties to people who would deny them to others, to avoid censorship universities must brook professors who, to end where we began, allow their teaching to be choked by political passion. But talking about what should happen to Israel without talking with Israeli schools is like deciding policy on abortion without consulting any women. When an entire program routinely puts on activities with people who advocate boycotts of Israel — and almost never sees fit to present a contrary view — the pro-boycott position effectively ossifies into an unofficial policy. And that’s when “critical conversations” become critical only in the sense that they criticize Israel.
Jared Samilow is a CAMERA Fellow at Brown University.
This article was originally published in the Brown Daily Herald.