Much has been written here at COMMENTARY and elsewhere regarding the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement, its hypocrisy, and the anti-Semitic attitudes which too often seem to motivate some of its most vocal supporters.
That too many academics conflate scholarship with politics, and believe free speech trumps academic rigor is old news. There is nothing wrong nor intimidating about outsiders shining the limelight on professors who abuse their positions or on any scholarly ideas that those scholars put forth. After all, if professors’ research has been conducted with rigor, it will withstand criticism. But if it has not, then it should be subject to ridicule. Only in an Orwellian world is free speech synonymous with affirmation. And only to the immature or unprofessional must speech codes or stacked panels prevent disapproval.
Professors should be judged by their research and their teaching. University librarians should be held to another standard entirely. A university librarian’s purpose is to accumulate books, journals, and archival materials ranging the gambit of the field irrespective of their own personal politics, or the popular political directives of the day. Once they acquire those resources, a librarian should organize and ease access to it.
And yet, with this statement released by Middle Eastern Studies scholars and librarians endorsing the BDS call and seeking the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, librarians at some major universities are effectively embracing the notion that they will filter acquisitions according to their own political predilections. What librarians such as Mastan Ebtehaj at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University; Blair Kuntz at the University of Toronto; Mahmoud Omidsalar at California State University, Los Angeles; and Anais Salamon at McGill University are effectively saying is that they will not consider acquiring, cataloguing, or making available titles published by such Israeli scholarly presses such as Tel Aviv University Press, or the Truman Institute’s press. That may not literally be burning books, but how shameful it is for university librarians to do the figurative equivalent, filtering knowledge by whether or not they agree with the author or, as BDS demands, whether or not they like his or her nationality or that of the scholar’s publishing company. How ironic it is that librarians—those who should dedicate their professional life to protecting access to knowledge—have read so few of the history books they supposedly guard, for if they did, they might not be comfortable with past parallels to their present actions.
And while librarians might justify affixing their signatures to the statement cited above in being true to their political conscience or even free speech, they should recognize that free speech does not trump or excuse professional responsibility, any more than free speech would absolve a doctor who refused to touch an Israeli patient or who, because of their own personal beliefs, decided to treat cancer patients only with crystals and aromatherapy. Librarians should write what they want, sign what they want, and preach what they want. Professional competence and responsibility are not endlessly subjective. If a librarian at California State University—a state institution—for example, declares openly that he will not fulfill his duty, perhaps then the state should not entrust him with such responsibility. Under no circumstance do librarians who ban books embrace free speech.