UN-American Studies Print E-mail

JJPost, Jan. 3, 2014

Perhaps the most odious aspect of the decision of the association of American Studies (ASA) to boycott Israeli universities is its name.

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American studies? “American” connotes a society and a culture in which free speech is enshrined not only in the First Amendment to the Constitution, but also in the idea of academic freedom – described by the US Supreme Court as a “special niche” of the First Amendment.

What is this special niche? It is a special privilege – the boundaries of which are disputed – given to academic scholars to express their individual views and to be free from the constraint of obeying, within the bounds of this privilege, the dictates of their employer or anyone else. Above all, academic freedom is based two ideas: that this freedom is earned through academic discussion which, as distinct from politics, is based on what the American Association of University Professors calls a “balanced view” – i.e. an attempt “to present all aspects of a subject matter that professional standards would require to be presented.”

In their search for truth, academics are therefore expected to enter into dialogue with their colleagues even when they are seen as adversaries.

Secondly, academic freedom is founded upon the idea of diversity. No one expressed this idea better chief justice Earl Warren (of schools’ desegregation fame) who, in a landmark decision said: “No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any straitjacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our nation… Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes.”

This attitude accords with the American view of personal autonomy and an almost instinctive rejection of collective intellectual action.

The boycott diktat issued by the ASA contradicts all these American values: It replaces academic balance with a one-sided political statement. This statement is not supported by any fact-finding, relying instead on other people’s views, including the rantings of Richard Falk, a notorious anti-Israel demagogue. The leaders of the association could of course rely on pro-boycott statements by Israeli academics – in fact among the academic supporters of the ASA boycott are a number of Israeli professors – but these represent a minuscule fragment of tenured scandalists whose claim to fame is not academic contribution, but hate-speech against the country which accords them the widest possible scope of academic freedom.

In short, the ASA boycott resembles more the old agitprop tactics of the Bolshevik regime than C.J. Warren’s dictum: It imposes an anti-Israel straight jacket on its members and it denies the very core of academic freedom – i.e., the right of its members to argue and debate academic issues with Israeli colleagues.

David Greenberg, in The New Republic (December 19) likens the ASA leadership to high school delinquents who “spray swastikas on a Long Island high school wall.” But high school delinquents can be educated to become tolerant adults; there is no such hope for the obstinate, bigoted academics who passed the boycott resolution.

Indeed – and this is my modest proposal – there is one more decision which these academics should make: to change their name slightly and call themselves the Association for Un-American Studies.

Prof. Amnon Rubinstein is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a former education minister and member of Knesset, and recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law. His forthcoming book, written with Isaac Pasha, deals with academic freedom.

The writer is a former education minister


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