The chancellors of leading US universities, including MIT, the University of Chicago, and all ten campuses of the University of California, have clarified that they are opposed to any academic boycott, in particular to one against Israel. Their comments followed an appeal from the Association of University Heads of Israel (VERA), which was intended to prevent the final adoption of the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) resolution to boycott Israel.
Last November, the AAA approved a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. There were some 1, 300 voting members, of which approximately 30 are Israeli.
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Currently, the resolution is being voted on by the AAA’s more than 12, 000 members (anthropologists from across the globe), and a final decision is to be taken at the end of the month. If the resolution is adopted, this will be the largest academic organization to boycott Israel. This would be considered a substantial accomplishment for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement and other organizations working to promote an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.
VERA has not been silent since this resolution was initially accepted five months ago. They put together a forum to fight threats of an academic boycott, intended to prevent the resolution’s final adoption. Recently, VERA’s chairman, Prof. Peretz Lavie, sent a letter to the chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, Dr. Gene Block, seeking to prevent the boycott.
Lavie wrote that as the AAA is a large organization, the committee is concerned that a final adoption of the boycott would lead to other organizations following suit. He asked Block to publish a statement saying that a boycott on Israeli academic institutions is an insult to academic values. According to Lavie, such a public statement released before the vote could lead the AAA to reconsider.
Following Lavie’s request, Block went to the University of California’s president, Janet Napolitano. As a result thereof, all ten chancellors of the University of California system signed a letter dated April 19 expressing their concern for the AAA’s proposed boycott. The letter’s signatories “urge(d) Association members to consider the boycott’s potentially harmful impacts and oppose this resolution.” They explained their logic: “The University of California believes that an academic boycott is an inappropriate response to a foreign policy issue and one that threatens academic freedom and sets a damaging precedent for academia.”
The Association of American Universities (AAU) had previously released a statement opposing any academic boycott. Its outgoing president, Dr. Hunter Rawlings, recently reminded the university heads of his organization of this stance. MIT President Dr. Rafael Reif wrote a reply to the AAA debate in which he noted Rawlings’s statement. Reif added that, as a member of the AAU’s leadership, he supported that and opposed the current boycott resolution. The AAU has 60 American member research universities, including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford, and two Canadian universities, McGill and the University of Toronto.
A similar letter to Lavie’s was sent by the president of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Prof. Rivka Carmi, to the president of the University of Chicago, Dr. Robert Zimmer. In reply, Zimmer released a statement: “The University of Chicago will not divest from companies for doing business in Israel and opposes academic boycotts aimed at specific nations, including Israel. The University is restating its policy to address questions regarding its institutional position.”
The statement continued, “The University has from its founding held as its highest value the free and open pursuit of knowledge. Faculty and students must be free to pursue their research and education around the world, and to form collaborations both inside and outside the academy, encouraging engagement with the widest spectrum of views. For this reason, the University continues to strongly oppose boycotts of academic institutions or scholars in any region of the world, including recent actions to boycott Israeli institutions.”
Lavie explained, “We will not enter an ‘academic ghetto’ as the BDS movement hopes. I hope that the declarations of the American university presidents will affect the stances of the members of the American Anthropological Association.”
Meanwhile, noted Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, released a statement entitled “Against Selective Demonization, ” in which he also opposed the AAA resolution. He wrote, “The current Israeli government does things that many of us deplore. But are their policies really so atrocious, so beyond the pale of acceptable behavior of nation-states, that they call for a unique symbolic statement that abrogates personal fairness and academic freedom? It helps to put the Israel-Palestine conflict in global and historical perspective—something that anthropologists, of all people, might be expected to do.”