No Boycott of Israeli Universities!

This morning the Los Angeles Times published my op-ed rejecting the American Studies Association’s resolution to boycott Israeli Universities. I am sharing it here.

Boycott of Israeli universities: A repugnant attack on academic freedom

Academic institutions should not be declared off-limits because of their national affiliation.

The American Studies Assn. recently passed a resolution that “endorses and … honor[s] the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The action was taken, the group explained, because “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation,” and because “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.”

But the boycott is a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.

The ASA has not gone on record against the universities in any other country in the world: not against those that enforce laws against homosexuality, not against those that have rejected freedom of speech, not against those that systematically restrict access to higher education by race, religion or gender. No, the ASA listens to civil society only when it speaks against Israel. As its scholarly president declared, “One has to start somewhere.” Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel. Really?

The 820-plus ASA members who voted for the resolution are sanctioning universities and their faculties because of their government’s policies. Many Israeli professors, like many other citizens, oppose the policies of the current government. But these schools have now run afoul of the ASA and are subject to boycott.

The ASA makes clear it thinks the United States enables the Israeli policies that it finds most objectionable. Did its leadership consider boycotting American universities too?

Not all those in academia agree with the ASA’s action, of course. Here’s what the American Assn. of University Professors, for example, has to say about the importance of unfettered interaction among scholars:

“Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has been committed to preserving and advancing the free exchange of ideas among academics irrespective of governmental policies and however unpalatable those policies may be viewed. We reject proposals that curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues, and we reaffirm the paramount importance of the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas.”

There is plenty of debate among Israeli scholars about the policies of their government, and there is plenty of debate among Israeli, Palestinian and other scholars about a reasonable path forward in the Middle East. As a citizen of the United States, I have supported efforts to develop new approaches to achieving peace in the Middle East. As a Jew, I have argued against the policies of the current Israeli government, many of which I find abhorrent.

Boycotts don’t serve these debates; they seek to cut them off by declaring certain academic institutions and their faculty off-limits. This tactic, in the words of Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor here at Wesleyan University, “is wrong in principle, politically impotent, intellectually dishonest and morally obtuse.”

As president of Wesleyan, and as a historian, I deplore this politically retrograde resolution of the American Studies Assn. Under the guise of phony progressivism, the group has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom. Others in academia should reject this call for an academic boycott.

15 thoughts on “No Boycott of Israeli Universities!

  1. I wonder if, in the name of free and open debate, will post a voice from Wesleyan that supports the boycott. Anyway, here is a debate on the issue that was on Democracy Now! if you’d like to learn a bit more than Michael Roth’s perspective:

    Interestingly, Roth does not address how to move forward in the Middle East…he only calls for open discussion, ignoring that discussion is really difficult when you’re starving and can’t leave the Gaza Strip. That is, there is some serious oppression going on and Roth is ignoring the way power is playing out in Israel/Palestine. I’m excited to see people trying to carve a path forward, as asked for by Palestinians, that will move this situation the direction of at least TRYING to end the oppression, rather than just the current direction of continued Israeli domination. Given the situation, it’s distasteful at the very least for Roth to say that the ASA is “sanctioning” anyone with a non-binding resolution.

    The boycott makes sense to me, as an American, Jew, and Wesleyan student. No one is saying that anyone should focus on Palestine at the expense of other struggles for social justice–we can do and think about more than one thing at once! No one stopped the civil rights struggle because of the American Indian struggle; no one stopped the struggle for independence in India because of South African apartheid. Each struggle ideally complements the others: more freedom for everyone! This is an intellectual cop-out by Roth when we have a chance to examine and address our own complicity in what’s going on. Not that it’s surprising he would do that, I just felt the need to say something here.

  2. Thank you President Roth!! As a proud member of the Wes class of ’84, a supporter of academic freedom, diversity of opinion, the State of Israel and common sense…I’m proud to see you among the first to stand up and oppose this hypocritical, politically-based and intellectually indefensible action. Go Wes!!

  3. Thank you. As a Williams alum, I went to the Williams website to look for their statement against this despicable action of the ASA. I did not see any statement from President Falk. I plan to forward this web page to him. I am a Professor at Northwestern in Chicago and am proud that our university leaders also stood up against this act of bigotry and discrimination. Your courage and support of academic freedoms is exemplary.

  4. Personally I do not believe that the ASA boycott of Israeli universities will have a significant impact on changing the policies of the Israeli government, perhaps it will change the way the Israeli intelligentsia view, and react to, the actions of their government. I think this boycott is justified for it is about time that U.S. intellectuals challenge the settler state of Israel which is funded by U.S. tax payer money and has been responsible for the dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people. I do not think that the issue is that the ASA is denying the Israeli intelligentsia resources and “academic freedom”. Instead the ASA trying to raise awareness on the Israeli intelligentsia by boycotting them in the hope that they will re-evaluate, and challenge, the apartheid policies that their government imposes on the people of Palestine. This action is not different from the academic and economic boycotts Wesleyan and other U.S. universities imposed on South African businesses and institutions to challenge the apartheid regime…… I may be mistaken but didn’t President Michael Roth participate in similar actions against South Africa. Perhaps President Roth has forgotten that those actions, thou small, had an impact in discrediting that apartheid regime eventually leading to its collapse. I stand by the boycott of Israeli universities and I stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine.

  5. President Roth’s piece follows the rhetoric of conservative Zionists like Abraham Foxman almost word for word. ( He says that many Israeli scholars oppose the occupation and should not be targeted. This is true. But the ASA resolution targets institutions; no individuals are being boycotted. ( These state institutions have played an important role—in their compliance with, and their practical support for the occupation.
    Roth questions the singling out of Israel. Why not North Korea, he asks. Is he suggesting that we can only address an injustice if we address all other injustices at the same time? No one at Wesleyan supports the repression in North Korea, nor does Washington. But President Roth is a defender of Israel, and Washington pays for the occupation. Because of these close ties, unlike with North Korea, the academic boycott can make a difference.
    President Roth supports instead, “efforts to develop new approaches to achieving peace in the Middle East.” In other words, he promotes complicity with the status quo. Talking for almost fifty years about “achieving peace” has provided a cover for building settlements, seizing land, and denying Palestinians their freedom—including their academic freedom.
    Roth is privileging the academic freedom of some over others. It’s time to provide academic freedom for ALL.

  6. As President Roth made clear, where one stands on Israeli government policies is not the primary issue in this case. What he (and I) object to is the idea of an academic boycott, which is indeed a violation of the principles of academic freedom.

    Academic freedom has certain peculiarities. From a legal perspective it is more like a privilege or license than a fundamental right, like those in the Bill of Rights. It is granted to certain kinds of institutions and individuals to enable them to pursue intellectual inquiry and the dissemination of ideas — which may sometimes be quite radical and antipathetic to society at large — without political interference.

    But like other freedoms, academic freedom is indivisible. You cannot withhold it from another individual or institution without making an assault on the principle of academic freedom itself. Having made itself party to an assault on the academic freedom of Israeli universities — even (as the boycott supporters claim) a “merely” symbolic one — the ASA will find that it can make no principled objection if, at some later time, a conservative or reactionary surge enlists it in some cause as dubious or repellent as Bush’s war in Iraq.

    If you want to bring pressure on the Israeli government to change its policies (as I do), write your Congressman and Senator (and President), join any one of the many organizations that work on the problem, from J Street to as far left as you care to go. The ASA is both useless for the purpose, and inappropriate.
    And JJ Mitchell — you need to work on your reading comprehension skills.

  7. Both President Roth and Richard Slotkin attempt to make a case that academic freedom is separate from politics. They argue that despite the Israel’s policies towards the people of the West Bank and Gaza, boycotting Israeli’s academic institutions is a “repugnant attack on academic freedom.”

    Richard Slotkin points out that academic freedom “is granted to certain kinds of institutions and individuals to enable them to pursue intellectual inquiry without political interference.” I would like to ask, Who grants academics their freedom?

    Unfortunately, from what I understand, it is the government and the university’s investors that grant academics their freedom. “Academic freedom” is only as free as the government enables it to be. That is, despite the “radical and antipathetic” ideas swirling around universities on a smaller, individual scale, universities as institutions are required to participate in the ideologies of their government and their funders in order to survive. (see response #6)

    One cannot separate academic freedom from politics because governments enable and administer the space in which academic thinking thrives. The ASA’s boycott against Israeli academic institutions is not an assault on the “principle of academic freedom itself,” as President Roth and Richard Slotkin argue. As the ASA says,

    “..all major Israeli universities are governmental institutions, benefitting directly and materially from those conditions…Haifa University and Hebrew University have special programs for military intelligence and training for the Shin Bet (the security service known for its torture techniques), and members of the military and Shin Bet serve on administrative boards of Israeli universities.
    (See more:

    The ASA’s decision to boycott Israeli’s academic institutions is a means of boycotting the State of Israel, its systems and institutions that contribute to the oppression of Palestinians, and to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people (students and academics). President Roth and Richard Slotkin – please stop making this into an assault on lofty principles of academic freedom – the freedom that you enjoy and benefit from because of your position within it. Palestinians have no freedom within Israeli’s academic institutions, so why would we want to participate in it?

  8. Kelly and others in support of the ASA boycott:

    Your point about Israel’s repressive policies and the collusion of its universities in those policies is well taken.

    However, the phrase “two wrongs do not make a right” comes to mind.


  9. President Roth: Thank you for your intelligent and rather brave (since there must be some other academics who agree with you) editorial. But I doubt that academic freedom is the issue with the ASA. The boycott simply further proves that Israel has been the easy kick-me candidate for a very long time, perhaps since it’s inception. Sadly, I don’t wonder why.

  10. I was so disappointed to read President Roth’s piece on this boycott from my perspective as an academic, a former president of an AAUP chapter, a political psychologist, a Palestinian-American, and the parent of a Wesleyan senior. Of course, it is not surprising that many college presidents are tripping over each other on their way to denouncing this boycott, but I had believed President Roth was a true progressive who was wiling to stand up against injustice even when it hit close to home. As others have already asked, were these presidents also opposed to the boycott of South Africa? I doubt it. As the biggest supporter of Israel, the US has a unique responsibility to hold it accountable for its actions. These types of responses to any action aimed at doing so are precisely the problem and the reason that this conflict is unlikely to ever be solved in a just and peaceful way. We are the one country that could actually do something to stop the oppression, and we are totally unwilling to do so. Such a shame.

  11. Due to Israeli apartheid, there is little freedom (academic or otherwise) for the colonized people of Palestine. Israel restricts the movement of Palestinians, strangles the education system, controls curriculum, harasses and tortures political activists and academics, and incarcerates mass numbers of youth/students. Despite this, Palestinians find a way to make their voices heard. The ASA boycott of Israel not only affirms an important task of American Studies academics – to stand with the marginalized, colonized, oppressed using concrete tactics in support of civil society – but hopefully encourages greater conversations with those same people, Palestinians who have been systematically excluded from many academic conversations.

    And, don’t worry, President Roth, about academic freedoms being impeded – those Israeli academics who truly stand against apartheid and in support of Palestinian human rights will still find a way to make their voices heard. They will join the BDS effort, speak out from within the belly of the beast, and amplify the voices of Palestinians fighting for their own freedoms.

    Robin Kelley takes Roth to task.

  12. The next round of Wesleyan faculty’s abuse of their affiliation with the University to attack academic freedom is reported in the Wall Street Journal, as self-described Marxist emeritus Prof. Richard Ohmann is instrumental in promoting a similar resolution through the Modern Language Association. Shame on him. It is not clear to me whether the University itself is a member of ASA, MLA, and similar academic associations, but if it is, President Roth’s worthy stance should be implemented by a disaffiliation from such groups.

  13. As a practicing Jew, a Wesleyan alum and a soon-to-be rabbi, I whole-heartedly support the ASA boycott as part of the BDS call for non-violent resistance to a very violent occupation of Palestine. I learned the value of listening to those most affected at Wesleyan. Through teachers and peers, I was able to come to greater consciousness about racism and political zionism and to understand the importance of taking leadership from Palestinians. President Roth, your words transgress the very education I received at your institution.

  14. In order to validate the previous claim that I made about President Michael Roth participating in a similar boycott/divestment campaign against an apartheid state, here is an article that talks about President Michael Roth’s involvement in the movement to divest from South Africa in the late 1970s . It is clear that President Michael Roth knows how these types of activism can have significant impacts. Likewise President Michael Roth does not seem to include Palestinian students–who are victims of laws that discriminate them and have had their ancestral lands stolen– to his notion of academic freedom. Indeed his post seems hypocritical coming from someone with a background in social activism.

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