The Academic Boycott : American success vs. French censorship

|Michael Harris |Tribunes

Last month’s murders at Charlie Hebdo have revealed a paradox in French attitudes to freedom of expression. On the one hand, French public pronouncements display a rhetorical attachment to unlimited freedom of speech as one of the foundations of the Republic ; on the other hand, it is still impossible even to debate the merits of the academic boycott of Israel on practically any French university campus. Freedom of speech is more deeply rooted in the United States, perhaps especially at universities. It is still possible to punish an individual academic who says things that some influential members of the university community don’t want to hear, as last year’s withdrawal of Steven Salaita’s position at the University of Illinois demonstrated. But it’s not possible to impose such punishment because of the content of the speech — for a state institution like the University of Illinois, it would probably be unconstitutional. Salaita was instead sanctioned for being rude and therefore unprofessorial. When several New York state legislators threatened in 2013 to withhold funds from Brooklyn College for hosting a debate with Omar Barghouti and BDS supporter Judith Butler, they were immediately condemned by the university president and disavowed by then mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, both of whom were on record for their hostility to BDS, on free speech grounds. Just last month, the Chancellor of the University of California of Santa Cruz stood by his choice of long-term activist and BDS supporter Angela Davis to present the annual speech on Martin Luther King Day — entitled "Racism, Militarism, Poverty : From Ferguson to Palestine” — in the face of vocal opposition on the part of a national pro-Zionist organization. A resolution presented at last December’s meeting of the American Anthropological Association, calling for the organization to go on record in opposition to the academic boycott, only received 52 out of 700 votes. That, in the United States, is the least that can be expected.

Sustained by this tradition of free expression, the BDS movement continues to grow on American campuses, much to the consternation of its opponents. The Association for Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association both voted to support the academic boycott in the winter of 2013-2014. Some 1000 anthropologists have signed pro-boycott petitions, while only 400 signed an anti-boycott statement. Another pro-BDS statement was recently signed by 29 professors at Stanford University, with nearly all disciplines represented. The statement on the home page of USACBI, the US Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, now lists 1234 academic supporters.

It is too soon to call BDS a majority position, of course, and even mild resolutions critical of Israeli treatment of Palestinians have been voted down at recent annual meetings of the (very large) American Historical Association and the (even larger) Modern Language Association. However, in contrast to the situation in France, in the United States the academic boycott is considered a legitimate option. Its campus opponents attempt to discredit BDS through (more or less) reasoned debate, not by using administrative measures, as in France, to make debate impossible.

Thus the most vocal BDS opponents published a book last November entitled The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel. This follows on a surprisingly strong pro-BDS issue in late 2013 in the Journal of Academic Freedom, published by the American Association of University Professors, which in turn followed the publication in 2012 of The Case for Sanctions against Israel, edited by BDS leader Omar Barghouti and Canadian activist Naomi Klein, a collection of essays mainly by academics.

Students are also deeply involved in BDS, especially in supporting university divestment from corporations contributing to human rights violations in Israel. Student governments at six of the nine campuses of the University of California where the Free Speech Movement was born in 1964 — have passed resolutions "calling on the UC Regents to divest endowment and pension funds from companies such as Raytheon, Hewlett-Packard, Caterpillar, and Cemex." In December 2014, UC graduate students affiliated with the United Auto Workers local 2865 voted by a margin of 65% to 35% to join the BDS movement — the first major union in the US to do so.

There are now boycott and divestment initiatives on major campuses across the country and in a growing number of professional associations — too many to name. And of course there are growing movements in opposition as well ; for example the Academic Advisory Council of "The Third Narrative," which describes itself as an initiative of "Liberal Zionism," has attracted a number of supporters of Israel. What I have found most striking is how quickly BDS became part of the university landscape, making it increasingly difficult for Third Narrative advisors to maintain their leftist credentials.

As is often the case, artists are in the forefront, including artists with academic credentials. Last summer the BDS Arts Coalition obtained the signatures of such long-time art-world activists as Martha Rosler, Lucy Lippard, and Ariella Azoulay, as well as academics including Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, and David Graeber, on a petition calling for participants to withdraw from a traveling exhibition that had touched down at the Technion. This year the New School in New York is hosting a 6-part series entitled Assuming Boycott : Resistance, Agency and Cultural Production — basically a philosophical how-to series for artists and allied academics who are ready to "assume" the cultural boycott.

How can it be explained that BDS is making inroads at US universities that are inconceivable in France, when 100% of US senators and an overwhelming majority of members of the House of Representatives voted last summer to support Israel’s Protective Edge war against Gaza ? Apart from the more consistent commitment of Americans to freedom of expression, I can think of a few obvious reasons :

  1. Boycotts, and civil disobedience more generally, hold a place of honor in American history. The original Boston Tea Party, whose name was recently hijacked by the right-wing Tea Party movement, was a symbolic act of great importance in the early creation of national consciousness. Henry David Thoreau theorized civil disobedience as a means of pacifist opposition to government-sponsored injustice at a time when hundreds of Americans were breaking the law to bring up to thousands of slaves to freedom in the North. In the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights Movement practiced civil disobedience during the most famous and sustained boycotts of American history. The anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s included a full academic boycott, initiatives on a great many campuses to divest from South Africa, and culminated with the imposition of sanctions by the US Congress. The grape and lettuce boycotts of the 1970s were instrumental in winning organizing rights for migrant farm workers in California and elsewhere. In contrast, boycotts have never been a favored tactic for mass movements in France.
  2. Jewish Americans are highly visible in the leadership of the BDS movement. The group Jewish Voice for Peace has been a consistent and extremely effective supporter of the Palestinian movement, and of BDS in particular. So has the UJFP. But the membership of JVP is much larger. Although BDS is accused of anti-semitism in the US, as it is in France and elsewhere, the visibility of organizations like JVP, and of journalist resources like Mondoweiss, makes such a claim much less credible.
  3. Palestinians are also highly visible in the leadership of the BDS movement. To the considerable number of Americans of Palestinian origin one can add the large population of Palestinian students from Israel and Palestine as well as the diaspora, for whom the United States is the preferred overseas destination for university studies.
  4. And minority rights organizations have increasingly taken the lead in supporting BDS. It’s no accident that Angela Davis included Palestine, along with the police violence in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere, in her speech honoring the memory of Martin Luther King. Minority communities under attack in the United States have no trouble seeing their predicament and the repeated attacks on Gaza as manifestations of a common injustice. Recent demonstrations protesting the failure to prosecute the police murders of Michael Brown (in Ferguson) and Eric Garner (in New York City) regularly included signs drawing the parallel with Gaza.

Analyzing the context of the popular reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks may provide clues as to the variable geometry of freedom of speech in France.

  1. The attacks hit home. The French were attacked — not a distant and foreign people that share little cultural consonance with France. Is it perhaps that the French do not feel concerned by world events that they think do not affect their lives directly ?
  2. During the Nazi occupation of France, many Frenchmen helped the deportation of jews to concentration camps. A dark chapter in its national memory makes the country suspicious of any debate or criticism that can vaguely be construed as anti-semitism just as the anti-BDS movements would like it to be.
  3. The French, even the French left, is not yet ready to accept leadership associated too closely with minority communities. Indeed, the very existence of these communities is either denied or stigmatized as a social problem that needs to be overcome by integration to the supposed values of the Republic. Contrast that with the situation in the United States, where nearly all the most significant popular movements of the post-war period — from the Civil Rights movement to today’s protests against police violence — have been characterized by minority leadership.

In spite of these weaknesses, there is no doubt that French public awareness of the Palestinian plight predates by many decades the sensitivity in the United States, which has only taken root in recent years. One can hope that the Charlie Hebdo murders will serve as a reminder of the need to defend freedom of expression, even — especially — to say what the powerful don’t want to hear.

Michael Harris is Professor at University Paris-Diderot and Secretary of AURDIP. He is the author of Mathematics without Apologies : Portrait of a Problematic Vocation published by Princeton University Press.

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