Saturday, February 8, 2014

ASA Boycott of Israeli academics is unprincipled nonsense

(The following was an editorial I wrote for the JHU Newsletter. It was published in print on January 30th, 2014).

Late last year, the American Studies Association voted to boycott the scholarly works of Israeli academic institutions, by a margin of 66.05% in favor to 30.5% opposed. The ASA boycott was meant as a protest to the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, but has drawn fierce backlash from many in the higher education community. In the aftermath of the decision, Johns Hopkins University was one of the first institutions to publicly denounce the boycott, releasing a public statement with their reasoning to Hopkins students via email just before Christmas. Since then, over 200 additional universities have publicly rejected the boycott as well.

The Editorial Board also rebukes the ASA for its misguided and unethical boycott, and commends the university for taking a stand against it. The political situation in Israel and Palestine is a complicated matter upon which Editorial Board members, like the members of the Hopkins community, have diverse and varied opinions. But those opinions are irrelevant to the principle that academic censorship ought never be enacted as punishment for the political policies of one’s government. Whatever offenses Israel has committed against the Palestinians will be in no way ameliorated by restricting Israeli intellectuals from exchanging their ideas and publishing their research.

Also irrelevant is the Hopkins Students for Justice in Palestine’s argument, in favor of the boycott, that "Israeli educational institutions are not innocent of their government's policies." The Board solemnly recalls that the United States government has also pursued policies in recent years that continue to draw outrage in the international community. In fact, some of these policies – most famously, drone warfare – are directly supported by research done at this very university; many argue Hopkins has some of the blood on its hands. But to hold each and every single professor affiliated with Johns Hopkins accountable for this research, and to ignore the mammoth quantity of scholarly work produced at JHU and all its affiliates, due solely to disagreement – however ardent – with these policies would be a ridiculous affront to the integrity of any serious publication.

One of the primary guiding principles of objective, professional, self-respecting academic journals is to publish works based on the academic merit of their content, without permitting the political opinions of those researchers authoring a study to influence their admittance decisions. Adopting a formal policy to silence those academics of a particular race, religion or political opinion would be viewed as unthinkable in almost any other setting. How much worse, then, is it for the ASA to adopt a policy silencing academics not based on their own behavior, but that of the nation in which they happen to reside, or the university for which they happen to work? As this week’s FIRE report displayed, Hopkins has its own free speech problems, but the Board is very pleased it’s on the right side of this free speech issue.

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