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Academic Unfreedom

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Members of the American Studies Association voted last week to boycott a country until it “ceases to violate human rights and international law.” Which nation could it be? New York University’s Scholars at Risk Network offers a number of options, citing 10 countries in which scholars are either imprisoned or facing charges that could lead to imprisonment: Bahrain, Belarus, China, Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam.

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None of these places grabbed the ASA’s attention, however. The association announced it would now refuse “to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others).”

Did The Scrapbook—and the Scholars at Risk Network—miss some major news? Has Israel suddenly decided to follow the lead of, say, China, where in October Peking University fired an economist for, as a government-run newspaper put it, being an “extreme liberal” who advocates “freedom and democracy”?

Of course not. Some of the crimes of the sole functioning democracy in the Middle East, according to the ASA: “Israeli academic institutions function as a central part of a system that has denied Palestinians their basic rights,” and “Israeli universities have been a direct party to the annexation of Palestinian land. Armed soldiers patrol Israeli university campuses, and some have been trained at Israeli universities in techniques to suppress protesters.”

Some American academics, it’s clear, can’t distinguish between a country’s politicians and its professors. It’s as if they had voted to boycott themselves for the many crimes they complained of during the George W. Bush years—or for the “illegal” war Barack Obama waged in Libya.

“This is what the ASA is about,” University of Florida English professor Malini Johar Schueller told Inside Higher Ed. Fortunately—and perhaps surprisingly—it isn’t what all of academia is about. The American Association of University Professors, the leading organization in the profession in America, published an open letter before the vote urging ASA members to reject the resolution. The letter noted that the AAUP “opposes academic boycotts as violations of academic freedom” and “especially oppose[s] selective academic boycotts that entail an ideological litmus test.”

The ASA refused to post the missive on its website, but the AAUP’s common-sense message of free inquiry is being heard. Already two institutions, Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg, have left the ASA because of the boycott.

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