When the American Studies Association joined the ranks of those supporting boycotts of the state of Israel, it probably never occurred to members of the group that someone might turn the tables on them. But they underestimated the ingenuity of pro-Israel activists and their friends in various state legislatures who decided that if the academic group wanted to play the boycott game, they ought to see how felt being on the other side of the table. Thus, legislators in New York, Maryland as well as some members of the U.S. House of Representatives have presented bills that would cut off or reduce funds for institutions of higher learning that used the money they get from the state to finance attendance at conferences sponsored by boycotters like the ASA or participated directly in boycott efforts.
But an interesting thing has happened on the way to passage of these common sense bills. As JTA reports, Jewish groups that are leaders in the effort to fight against the BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement against Israel are opposing them. Both the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee say such bills are a potential violation of academic freedom. Others, like the New York State United Teachers Union go further and make the argument that using the state money that goes to colleges to penalize institutions that are, albeit indirectly, supporting boycotters is an attack on freedom of speech. These protests led the New York legislature to shelve the original version of the bill and replace it with one that would essentially give schools a pass for subsidizing the ASA since it would allow them to use non-state money to support the boycott-related activity.
I don’t doubt the commitment of either ADL or the AJC to the fight against BDS and I understand their reluctance to associate themselves with any measure that would potentially limit the ability of academics to express themselves or to penalize schools for the activities of what might only be a few radicals on their faculties. But I believe they’re wrong to have weighed in on this issue this manner. The problem is not just that the opposition of the ADL and the AJC to these bills makes their passage extremely unlikely. But they are also wrong on the merits. Defunding those who aid boycotts is both legal and morally correct.
Both the federal government and states routinely put all sorts of conditions on any entity that takes their money. Some of those terms involve bureaucratic or legal obligations. But some are rooted in the basic concept that the state is under no obligation to fund activities that are immoral or discriminatory. Aiding BDS groups and those, like the ASA, who endorse and actively support Israel boycotts, fall into that latter category. Simply put, it is outrageous for schools or any institution to expect the taxpayers to stand by and let them use their hard-earned dollars to support activities that are inherently discriminatory.
Is this is a violation of academic freedom?
If the state were to mandate penalties for schools that taught courses that were deemed insufficiently supportive of Israel or requiring them to fire professors that were anti-Zionists, that would constitute unethical interference in academic activity. But no one is proposing that anti-Zionists be fired or that curricula be vetted for hostility to Israel in order for a school to be eligible for state money. What is at stake here is the question of whether schools will use their budgets to subsidize outside groups that support BDS or sponsor such activities on their own. Doing so would not restrict academic freedom but it would prevent the haters from being funded on backs of the taxpayers.
At the heart of this question is some confusion about the nature of the BDS movement. Reasonable people can differ on many issues including many of the elements of the Middle East conflict including borders, settlements and refugees. But the question of whether the one Jewish state in the world should be singled out for discriminatory treatment and marked for extinction is not just one more academic debate. It’s a matter of life and death as well as whether Jew-hatred should be treated as a matter of opinion.
Just as no one would question whether state funds should be used, even indirectly, to subsidize the Ku Klux Klan or any other racist group, neither should federal or state dollars go to institutions that are willing to underwrite the BDS movement and those that officially support its discriminatory policies.
Jewish groups like the ADL and the AJC are right to be cautious about bills that could be represented as unconscionable state interference with higher education or the freedom of academics to express their theories and beliefs. Part of being in a democracy means the obligation to tolerate opposing and even obnoxious or hateful views. But toleration of haters is not the same thing as a stance that deems such groups to be entitled as a matter of right to state money no matter what they do. Colleges and universities are forced to jump through innumerable hoops in order to get research grants or aid money of any kind. Asking them not to use their budgets to support a hate campaign against Israel is neither onerous nor a threat to academic freedom. Defunding the boycotters is not only legal and moral. It’s the right thing to do.