Professors who advocate on behalf of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement often invoke academic freedom. That’s understandable; those who honor the boycott seek, among other things, to shut down faculty and student exchange programs with Israeli universities. They thereby impede the free exchange of ideas. So, they have to have something to say when groups like the American Association of University Professors argue that the academic boycott BDS practices is “inimical to the principle of academic freedom.”
What BDS supporters argue, however, is that Israel violates academic freedom. That’s a hard case to make since the country’s colleges and universities are centers of dissent. So BDS advocates make much of Israel’s treatment of universities in the West Bank and Gaza. Their complaints aren’t groundless, though they tend to omit Israel’s legitimate security concerns about universities in which Hamas competes in student government elections. As Cary Nelson puts it in his excellent Israel Denial, “Palestinian campuses . . . are not quite the same kind of institutions as, say, the University of Kansas.”
In any case, the New York Times Magazine this week reminds us, indirectly, that BDS advocates don’t care about academic freedom when it isn’t useful to them as a shield against criticism or a bludgeon with which to clobber Israel.
Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s government, the Times explains, has engaged in a large scale purge of academics. Thousands have been fired. Some have been jailed. Freedom House reports that “academics and students [in Turkey] continued to be prosecuted for expressing critical views of the government or for peaceful political action in 2018.” Moreover, “government and university administrations now routinely intervene to prevent academics from researching sensitive topics.” In short, academic freedom doesn’t exist in Turkey, and its universities are, insofar as the purge has been successful, vehicles for political indoctrination.
Another thing about Turkey, though: it’s a great place to hold an International Conference on Palestine. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this April’s conference, but the speakers listed on the roster included well-known BDS advocates like Ali Abunimah, editor of the Electronic Intifada, Rabab Abdulhadi of San Francisco State University, Joseph Massad of Columbia University, and Ilan Pappé of the University of Exeter. The roster also included BDS advocates who are not as well known here, such as Farid Esack, Chairperson of BDS-South Africa, and Frank Barat, former coordinator of a self-appointed anti-Israel “tribunal.”
About the only thing the BDS National Committee seems to dislike in Erdogan’s repressive government is its incomplete rejection of Israel. But BDS advocates don’t mind taking advantage of his hospitality, perhaps because he whispers sweet nothings like, “whoever is on the side of Israel, let everyone know that we are against them.”
The indifference of BDS advocates to the academic freedom they pretend to cherish when it suits them is nothing new. But their championship-level hypocrisy continues to impress.