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Brown Rejects Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

Warns that it politicizes the “robust exchange of ideas”


President Robert A. Brown has rejected a scholarly group’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions, saying that he is “disappointed and concerned” that the American Studies Association (ASA) would support the move.

“Research, teaching, and scholarship flourish through robust exchange of ideas, across borders and among institutions in different parts of the world,” Brown writes. “Universities and their faculties can often transcend even profound political differences. It is ill-advised to make academic institutions the instrument with which to promote a political agenda by attempting to isolate students and scholars.

“Boston University cannot support this boycott,” the president concludes.

The ASA, a small scholarly group, endorsed the boycott earlier this month in response to the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territory. The boycott bars cooperation with Israeli institutions, but not with individual scholars. The New York Times has reported that scholars on both sides of the debate foresee little practical effect. The ASA is only the third American academic association to support the boycott, which has drawn fire from both the country’s largest scholars group, the American Association of University Professors, and some pundits. The Association for Asian American Studies backed the boycott in April.

Brown issued his statement after alumni and others affiliated with the University emailed him to learn if BU had a position on the boycott. Some referred to a statement by the Anti-Defamation League, an advocacy group battling anti-Semitism, which condemned the boycott.

In a letter to those who’d contacted him, Brown says BU’s American and New England Studies Program is an institutional member of the ASA, and he hopes there would be “a serious discussion” about the boycott within the program.

“We are not prepared to suggest (implicitly or explicitly) to faculty members who hold individual memberships (some of which are funded out of professional funds allocated to individual faculty members) how they should vote,” Brown says in his letter. “That would lead us onto a slippery slope.”

Brown adds, “For my part, I am somewhat cautious about following a boycott with a boycott. I’d rather see thoughtful discourse and engagement. I take the point that the ASA boycott is pernicious and a rather direct attack on academic freedom and scholarly interactions across borders. With my formal statement, I have registered that objection. At the same time, we must be careful about reactions that have the effect of further limiting much-needed dialogue.”

Also rejecting the boycott: the Association of American Universities (AAU), an elite research consortium to which BU belongs. “Any such boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general,” the group’s executive committee says in a statement.

Rich Barlow, Senior Writer, BU Today, Bostonia, Boston University
Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

32 Comments on Brown Rejects Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions

  • Ibraheem Samirah on 12.23.2013 at 6:00 am

    Consider the ‘other side’s’ argument: “The boycott responds to the call of Palestinian academics. They do not have academic freedom. Israeli authorities deny them and their students the right to travel within Palestine and between Gaza and the West Bank or Israel or anywhere else. Israel has closed universities in acts of collective punishment. It has denied freedom of movement to students and to Fulbright scholars who cannot take up their scholarships in the United States. It has prevented academics from leaving the country; and if they leave, it has prevented them from returning.” Furthermore, consider a single sample of the full counter argument here: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2013/12/asa-boycott-israelpalestineacademia.html

    • Benji on 12.23.2013 at 10:43 am

      I think you have little knowledge of how Israel has in fact increased opportunities for Palestinians and Arabs alike. I encourage you to read this article. Israel has always been a land of free speech like our U.S.A. Boycotting the academic institutions within Israel is completely hypocritical if you have any respect for education.


      • Unbiased Student on 12.23.2013 at 1:29 pm

        So when Vivien Thomas became a surgical technician in the 1940s, there was no more African-American discrimination? Open your eyes.

  • Ed K. on 12.23.2013 at 6:51 am

    Bravo professor Brown. Spoken like a true leader. Thank you for deciding to wisely avoid the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Let them go boycott real human attrocity happening in Sudan, Syria, Suadi Arabia, Yemen and the list goes on.

    • Jc on 12.24.2013 at 3:25 pm

      Well said Ed.

    • Peter on 01.02.2014 at 11:40 am

      Bravo professor Brown!

  • Anonymous on 12.23.2013 at 8:26 am

    With all respect to Brown, he is on the wrong side of history. Literally the entire world except the United States (and that is shifting) recognized the illegality, brutality, and barbarism of the Zionist occupation of the Palestinian people. Not supporting a boycott of Israeli goods and academic institutions (not individual scholars) is an immoral act. To do nothing in the face of violence towards another is itself a form of violence. I hope Brown reconsiders his position.

    • Anonymous on 12.23.2013 at 9:49 am

      100% disagree.

      Even the US doesnt agree with the Israeli occupation of the west bank, but this boycott is counterproductive and so unbelievably foolish. How is boycotting their academic institutions “moral?” Even Mahmoud Abbas disagrees with it – HOW DOES THIS BOYCOTT FURTHER MOVE THESE TWO SIDES TOWARDS PEACE?!

      Not to compare tragedy with tragedy, but why the f*ck is the ASA not boycotting Syria???? Again, what israel is doing in the west bank is not okay but by no means are they gassing civilians to death!

      Brown is absolutely correct. He didnt pick a side regarding Israel v. Palestine… He picked a side regarding boycott academics vs. not boycotting academics. And he DEFINITElY chose the correct side

      • anonymous on 12.23.2013 at 10:15 am

        Just because you print a response in all caps doesn’t make your “argument” any better. Also, your premise is incorrect: only one side needs to move toward peace. And it’s not the people being maimed by white phosphorous, corralled behind barbed wire fences.

        • Anonymous on 12.24.2013 at 5:39 pm

          I would say it’s not the group who gets missiles thrown at it regularly, or the one trying to bargain with elected terrorists who aim at destroying it. But that’s just rationality speaking.

      • Patrick on 12.23.2013 at 10:49 am

        The boycott moves toward peace in the same way similar boycotts ended apartheid. At the beginning of the SA divestment movement, boycotts were pretty ineffective too. It takes time to ramp these things up.

        Take a look at literature from the 1980s, and you’ll see your rhetoric used by supporters of apartheid and their liberal allies who provide cover by throwing up a cloak of “balance” and “both sides have good points.”

        The “other countries are worse!” argument is a classic apartheid apologia. It’s never been very convincing, then or now. If I beat up someone, should I get a lesser punishment simply because there are others out there murdering people?

        BU, a university that constantly holds up MLK Jr. as an alumni, should be ashamed to support and invest in companies that profit from apartheid.

        • anonymous on 12.23.2013 at 4:53 pm

          I’d claim that boycotts of any sort are generally ineffectual, but academic boycotts have the additional issue of also being immoral. The question is, what is to be gained from the ASA’s boycott? I doubt the Israeli government will reply, “oh, the ASA doesn’t like our policies in the West Bank? In that case we must withdraw”. Instead, liberal Zionist groups, leftist parties within Israel, and moderates all over will refrain from talking about Israel’s misdeeds while instead bashing the boycott.
          People claiming “xxx is worse than Israel, why does the ASA boycott them and not Israel?” are missing the point. There are no justified academic boycotts; no human rights record should interfere with the free flow of ideas. The ASA could have easily made a point by releasing a statement denouncing the occupation without also harming academic freedom. Unfortunately for the ASA, it will no longer be able to partner with Israeli institutions that reject the occupation, despite the fact that the movement is strong within Israel (credit that to Israel’s thriving democracy).
          Finally, the commenters on this page have seemed to take a very absolutist stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole. This is a contentious, multifaceted issue, pitting legitimate natural rights against each other. Israel has a right to a secure, defensible state, and Palestine also has a right to its own secure, defensible state. The apartheid analogy is an oversimplification. South Africa was creating laws dividing people on account of race, with intent of maintaining a permanent, second-class status for blacks. Israel has had 6 consecutive governments which have supported the peace process. It would be silly to try to integrate the West Bank and Israel if the eventual intent is to create two states.
          So, this debate is overcomplicate and oversimplified at the same time. The boycott has nothing to do with the merits of the conflict, it is wrong on its own logic. And the occupation is a much more complicated issue than commenters are letting on. I hope that this leads to dialogue among passionate individuals, of all opinions; a trend toward boycotts will without a doubt harm that dialogue.

  • Don on 12.23.2013 at 9:32 am

    Thank you President Brown. What a joke the ASA is.

  • hossein on 12.23.2013 at 10:30 am

    calling Israel a “Jewish state” is not on firm grounds. it fortifies a subtle trick played by Zionists that labels anyone apposing the Israeli occupation a foe of the “Jewish state” and Jews. one can abhor the illegal occupation yet respect Jews and Judaism. the mere fact that Jews live in an occupied land does not make a secular state a “Jewish state” as living 150 million Muslims in Indonesia does not make it an Islamic state.

    • Mike on 12.27.2013 at 1:59 am

      It is not an illegal occupation. I disagree with Israel’s settlement policies but just like the Palestinians deserve a homeland so do the Jews. G-d, why can’t we just live together in a secular state without being at each others throats. It is ridiculous.

  • astekeli on 12.23.2013 at 10:55 am

    I disagree with Professor Brown. Rather than stifling academic debate, the boycott brings to the fore the human rights violations of Israel. Many in the Israeli and American Jewish academic community also support the boycott as a way of drawing attention to their own government’s brutality and silence of the academic establishment. I reject the claim that academic communities should shy away from being engaged in these debates. I also find it shameful that BU Today quotes ADL, which is among the most staunch distributors of hate speech in this country. If there’s a disservice to the fight against anti-semitism, ADL embodies all of that. I would have expected the paper to be more nuanced.

  • unknown1 on 12.23.2013 at 3:39 pm

    What gives Brown the right to speak on behalf of the entire university, especially on such a serious political issue that has nothing to do with BU? And why was this article published? Some asked where he stood on this issue. Brown could answer directly to those people if he has an opinion. BU as an institution shouldn’t have an opinion on such a serious political issue. Brown says in this article, “It is ill-advised to make academic institutions the instrument with which to promote a political agenda…” So what is this article doing?

  • Just another BU parent on 12.23.2013 at 4:53 pm

    I felt the two paragraphs in President Brown’s letter which addresses the relationship between the American & New England Studies Program and the ASA sound like as a veiled threat. This is, it would be unfortunate if the American & New England Studies Program a lightning rod for expressing the administration’s displeasure with the ASA.

  • Anonymous on 12.23.2013 at 5:04 pm

    It is incorrect for Bob to say that a political agenda instead of a humans rights agenda is being promoted by the boycott.

  • Anonymous on 12.23.2013 at 7:39 pm

    Let’s get everything clear here ladies and gentleman. There is no apartheid in Israel. Arabs and other types of people thrive in Israel and have graduated at the top of schools, are represented in government, win reality shows (ex look who won The Voice Israel and who is Miss Israel). There is no apartheid. The security barrier that everyone calls a “wall” is on the border of the west bank between that and Israel and protect Israeli citizens from terror attacks. You can not call Israel or the wall causing an apartheid because the two areas are separate entities. A boycott is counter productive, causes more obstacles towards peace, and is ineffective. Why boycott Israeli institutions when scholars there have academic freedom compared to those in parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, and many other places. Those who disagree need to look up REAL sources and get their facts straight because the comments here are sickening.

    • Anyounomous on 12.31.2013 at 6:38 pm

      and where are your “REAL sources”???

  • Pamela on 12.23.2013 at 9:03 pm

    Thank you, President Brown.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 12.23.2013 at 9:18 pm

    Bravo President Brown.

  • Memek on 12.24.2013 at 7:35 am

    Thank you President Brown for seeing through all the rhetoric, and shunning this hollow boycott.. I agree that academic discourse is the only pathway to peace. And, to equate Israel with Apartheid is an insult to those in South Africa who endured true racial discrimination.


  • J on 12.24.2013 at 10:16 am

    There is only one reason to boycott academic universities in Israel — anti-semitism. The universities do not set government policy. The universities do not subjugate the arab community. In fact, the universities are some of the staunchest supporters of equal rights and the establishment of a fair two state solution.

    If you want to boycott products made from settlements, that is perfectly acceptable as it is disputed land. If you want to boycott ideas from the holy land, you are simply an anti-semite.

    • C on 01.08.2014 at 9:15 am

      Again, the reason for boycott is to end human rights violations.

      Apart from typical finger-pointing and convenient labeling, I’m yet to read a single believable comment with any credible sources that refutes or at least truly challenges the issue of human rights violations by the Israelis.

  • Jc on 12.24.2013 at 3:24 pm

    Well done President Brown. Thank you for doing the right thing.

  • AF on 12.24.2013 at 5:37 pm

    Brown: “the ASA boycott is pernicious and a rather direct attack on academic freedom and scholarly interactions across borders.”
    Does he also worry so much about the freedom of academia in several other countries that are under sanctions and different restrictions by US government? Or maybe not, because he doesn’t have that much ongoing business with them?!

  • Professor Jeff Coulter on 12.26.2013 at 5:46 pm

    Dear Colleagues:

    Although I abhor Israeli Government policies against my families in Lebanon and the West Bank, I agree with my President of BU. We need to open communications and speak freely. Closing down speech, even when an opponent wants to try to do this, is not an acceptable reply. Let our enemies close down freedom of speech. We never will.

    Jeff Coulter
    CAS – Boston University.

  • BAlbaesq on 12.27.2013 at 11:39 pm

    Thank you President Brown. But “condemning” or “rejecting” the ASA boycott is insufficient. BU must cancell it’s membership in that group as did Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburgh.

  • Peter on 01.02.2014 at 11:48 am

    Thank you President Brown! I appreciate you going on record to express your very lucid argument in rejecting the ASA boycott.

  • JJ on 01.12.2014 at 9:20 am

    Thank you President Brown!

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