Why is the American elite scared of BDS?

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

ASA-logo-tiff-1-copySince the American Studies Association (ASA) voted overwhelmingly to boycott Israeli academic institutions in December, more than one hundred and fifty U.S. University Presidents have come out in support of Israel and condemned the ASA’s vote. Some of these administrators, such as the Presidents of IU and Kenyon College, have withdrawn their institutional membership from the ASA, and all of them have made their public pronouncements without any consultations with their faculty or elected university bodies.

More recently, bipartisan legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives titled “The Protect Academic Freedom Act” would, if passed, strip all federal funds from any institution of higher education that boycotts Israel.

The bill follows close by legislation put forward by the New York State and Maryland State legislatures that would punish individual academics for engaging in political boycotts. New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver in announcing the bill explained that the ASA boycott was a “blatant assault on the academic freedoms that New York and its students have come to hold dear.”

What the University Presidents and legislators also have in common in this joint enterprise is a total silence about Palestinian human rights and academic freedom, the basis of the ASA resolution. The ASA Resolution was premised in part on the well-documented fact that “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation, and Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.”

Supporting documentation for the resolution detailed how bombings, school closures, visa restriction, restricted movement in and out of Palestinian territories, and Israeli control of funding for Palestinian universities all significantly erode both human rights and academic freedom for Palestinian scholars.

Given the American state’s well-established “special relationship” to Israel, how can we best understand this ideological convergence between the heads of academic institutions and the US Government?

In this essay, we argue that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement has helped to expose the historical complicity not just of Israeli Universities with an illegal, militarized occupation, but of American Universities in the supportive exercise of U.S. military and political power in the Middle East. Specifically, we argue that the U.S. university since 9/11 and under neoliberalism has leaped to project American imperial power in the Middle East and across the world. The ASA Boycott has been confronted by this reality, and confronted it, head on. The success of the BDS movement against Israel does, however, present new opportunities for challenging this militarization not just of Israel’s occupation and U.S. universities, but the wider social arena under capitalism.
The open hostility of U.S. university administrators to BDS is in some ways part of a long tradition of U.S. universities serving as handmaiden to the interests of the American state. In June of 1940, a month after the Nazi conquest of France, Franklin Roosevelt established the National Defense Research Committee. Among those involved were Karl Compton, a physicist and President of MIT, James Conant of Harvard, Frank Jewett, an electrical engineer and President of the National Academy of Sciences, and Alfred Loomis, an investment banker. As Kathleen Williams notes, within one year, the NDRC was funding more than 6,000 chemists, mathematicians and engineers on research to benefit the war; by the end of World War II the number was 30,000.

The NDRC was one of the first points of convergence where University administrators enabled collaboration between institutions of learning and institutions of U.S. global power. During the Vietnam War, anti-war protestors rightly anointed MIT as the “Pentagon on the Charles,” and it is now well known that in the same period Columbia University was involved in relations with the Institute for Defense Analyses, a weapons research think tank.

This history sets a clear pattern in which U.S. University administrators are keen to become first responders to ideological objectives of the government. Yet in many ways, events since 9/11 in the U.S. most clearly index the militarized U.S. University, and best explain the blowback in higher education against the ASA Boycott vote.
After the twin towers fell, many of us who still had the temerity to teach about countries and peoples who alarmed the Pentagon were astonished at the fate of our fields and disciplines. The destiny of Title VI funding, in particular, revealed the deep trenches that were being dug between our campuses and the state department.

Title VI is a program of federal funding for ‘area studies’ (read non-US studies) in higher education. The origins of the program lie in the cold war as part of the US effort to combat the soviet ‘threat’. The program hoped to create, in the manner of nineteenth century academic societies, the willing colonial scholar who would follow in the wake of the merchant and the soldier and make distant lands intelligible and potentially invisible.

After 9/11, with one stroke of the pen, Congress increased Title VI funding by 26 per cent, or $20 million, the largest single-year increase in the program’s history, and the number of graduate students receiving government funded (FLAS) fellowships for the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia doubled from 200 to 400.

Universities were also retooled after 9/11 in specific ways to provide clear ideological direction to a new generation of students. More than 400 colleges and Universities established Homeland Security Programs, many receiving direct funding from the government. Duke University, whose President has condemned the ASA Boycott of Israeli Universities, offers a Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program; the Fellowship, according to its website, “fulfills the Senior Service Education (SSE) requirements for military officers and other U.S. national security professionals.”

It is politically of a piece, then, that militarization of the US university has accompanied a tightening of relations between Israel’s settler-colonial state and a U.S. state which provides it roughly two billion dollars a year in military assistance.

Since its inception, the US-Israel “special relationship” has meant the latter serving US economic and political interests in the Middle East. As Bashir Abu-Manneh puts it,

The dynamic of American Empire/Israeli colonialism is….circular: US support reinforces Israeli colonialism and occupation … leading to further indigenous resistance and to more US interventions in the region … The United States thus becomes both a necessary and sufficient condition for Israel’s colonial expansionism. Without it, Israel would be a pariah state.

This is the proper historical frame, we suggest, to understand the ASA boycott and US University administrators’ response. The resolution’s supporting documentation, for example, made note that at Cornell, whose President has also condemned the ASA Boycott, the University has entered into a partnership with Technion, the flagship institution of military weapons technology in Israel. The two have partnered to open a research and technology campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

What does Technion do? As reported by Electronic Intifada, it has a partnership with Elbit System, one of Israel’s largest private weapons manufacturers. Elbit built the drones that Israel used against civilians in criminal strikes in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09. Technion research also produced a remote-control function on the Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer used by the Israeli army to demolish Palestinian houses and farms.

It is in this context that we might further parse the American Studies Association boycott and the response of U.S. University administrators. The ASA vote was based in large part on what the ASA called the “complicity” of Israeli Universities with the illegal military occupation of Palestine. Some Israeli Universities are built on stolen Palestinian land, for example Tel Aviv University, which is constructed partly on the Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanis. Tel Aviv University is also by its own account “at the front line of the critical work to maintain Israel’s military and technological edge.” It hosts INSS, the Institute for National Security Studies, a research center and think tank which includes an “IDF Force Structure” unit and conducts research on subjects like “Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict” In December, 2007, TAU hosted a conference to assess the efficiency of weapons technologies used to kill more than 1,100 citizens in Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon.

Yet just weeks ago, as reported by the Jerusalem Post, Deans and Provosts from nine U.S. colleges and universities, including Smith, Brown and Bard, strolled the confiscated Palestinian grounds of Tel Aviv University in order to build academic partnerships with Israeli universities. Seven of the nine were representing a University that had just condemned the ASA Boycott. The American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, a key North American organization, dedicated to hasbara, or propaganda in support of Israel, organized the campus visits. The National Chair for Project Interchange is Robert Peckar, who in September 2011 wrote an essay opposing a Palestinian seat in the United Nations.

This view of University administrators as highly paid propagandists for U.S. state interests begins to provide a real sense of the academic ‘leaders’ in our time. Perhaps you see them as struggling professors in tweed grinding away at their Dickens or Donne. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in 2011, the 10 highest-paid private-college presidents cost their institutions an average of about $2.3-million each. Even during the period of economic crisis following 2008, while most students juggled multiple jobs to pay their tuition and student loans, the number of College Presidents making more than $1 million rose from 33 to 36. This means that increasingly under neoliberalism, and especially since 9/11, fortunes of the top administrative personnel of US universities have increasingly mirrored the fortunes of capital and U.S. imperial interests overseas. In American Universities today, “Study Abroad” means University Presidents casting an imperial eyeball across the globe as a means of expanding academic empires and U.S. influence in the world.

As historians of colonial India, it is also hard for us not to notice the recent fluid interchange between the top layers of US university administration and actual government administration. In nineteenth century India, a handful of British officials were endlessly circulated between military, civil and academic appointments. Let us note with some irony and much alarm similar trajectories for men like Lawrence Summers (Harvard/Clinton and Obama Administrations) Robert Gates (CIA/Texas A & M), and Mitch Daniels (Bush Administration/Purdue), and women such as Condoleezza Rice (Stanford/Obama Secretary of State).

Lawrence Summers
Lawrence Summers

Indeed the leading dramatis personae in the post 9/11 University have been men like Lawrence Summers, who served as the chief economist to the World Bank, was instrumental in dismantling the Glass-Steagall Act, and was rewarded for his services as President of Harvard and later as the Director of the White House United States National Economic Council under Obama. Summers appeared on the Charlie Rose television program just days before the ASA Boycott vote was announced to condemn it as “anti-semitic in effect, if not in intent.” As background, we might recall that Summers in 2002, on the first anniversary of 9/11, insinuated that anti-Israel groups on college campuses were being funded by terrorists. In an essay written in September, 2011 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Summers argued that 9/11 had allowed the U.S. and U.S. University a reprieve from a Vietnam generation of scholars and students calling for the demilitarization of the University. He wrote:

September 11 made such arguments seem less and less reasonable. Terrorists who killed American innocents in our most iconic city without provocation reintroduced the plausibility, the necessity, of greater moral clarity. In 2001, I argued that policy in every area must be debated vigorously, but respect for those who risk their lives for our freedom must be a basic value. Now, in 2011, we take such ideas for granted. Students urged that ROTC return to the Harvard campus. Applications to programs in public service have risen sharply. Interest in issues of international relations in general, and the Middle East in particular, has soared. And the number of students answering the military’s call has risen in kind.

While it would be shortsighted to use Lawrence Summers as a stand-in for all University administrators, it should also be clear that he represents a class of University and government officials trained in a post 9/11 world whose Islamophobic worldviews have achieved fearful symmetry in the wake of the American Studies Association boycott victory. Indeed people such as Summers who defend Zionism and attack BDS in the name of academic freedom ought to be able to explain why such ‘freedom’ only applies to the right to propagate for war and profits in our classrooms while even peaceful questioning of them causes the strong arm of the law to pay a visit to campus. Can we forget the vivid image of Sargent John Pike brutally pepper spraying UC Davis students for the ‘crime’ of protesting rising tuition fees due to state budget cuts? Or of the NYPD arresting CUNY students for protesting at a fundraiser being attended by David Petraeus? The CUNY students, interestingly, were charged with obstructing “governmental administration” while of course being repeatedly struck in the ribs by a fully armed police officer.

The same legal ‘authorities’, however, were not too quick to act when a student faced death-threats for teaching a course on Palestinian history. Snehal Shingavi, then a graduate student at UC Berkeley, was told by the FBI that they would not investigate his case since he had a history of being politically active on campus. Shingavi had in the past protested the ROTC recruitment programs at Berkeley. When asked to recount his experience with the state he told us:

Despite being at Berkeley, with its liberal reputation, I was reminded repeatedly that talking about Palestine, standing up for Muslim and Arab students, and opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not only made tongues wag with accusations of anti-Americanism, it also simultaneously brought the intense scrutiny of state agencies with respect to my activism and paradoxically the conscious neglect of the state when I received death threats.

And in case the connection between a militarized American University and a militarized Israeli occupation is not clear, let us also remember that Linda Katehi, the chancellor of UC Davis who had originally ordered Sargent Pike and his friends to clear the student protesters, in 2012 led a delegation of university officials to Israel through Project Interchange. During her visit Katehi, noted with enthusiasm her university’s support of the war-laboratory of Technion.

Reclaiming the University
But despite the arms and laws on their side, our university administrators and their allies should recognize that within their campus grows and develops a new generation who are refusing to be dictated to.

The growth of Student Justice for Palestine (SJP) chapters in US universities is one clear sign of this new intransigence. Since the second intifada of 1999, there has been a marked growth of SJP membership with around 130 groups now active on campuses. As university presidents line up to protect US imperial interests in the Middle East through Israel, several SJP chapters have come out in open defiance of their Presidents. SJP chapters at Tufts and Bowdoin released statements in defense of the ASA boycott resolution. Faculty and staff at Trinity College, Purdue University, Indiana University (Bloomington) and Indiana University (South Bend) have also protested the unilateral ‘freedom’ of administrators to speak for the entire campus.

It is imperative that this new, vital wave of protest against Zionism and its academic defenders continue. But we also need to broaden our aims. The same institutional players– be it a Mitch Daniels as Indiana governor or a Lawrence Summers at the World Bank—also lead the attack on the civil rights of Palestinians.

The BDS movement must continue to strategically orient itself to this reality. The power of the apartheid state does not lie in Tel Aviv alone; it is shaped and nurtured in American political circles and in the upper echelons of American Universities. The BDS campaign is a clear way of challenging precisely this conjuncture.

But such a movement that has the force to weaken the richest and most violent State on earth cannot be one of academics and students alone. Let us remind ourselves: one of the final blows to apartheid in South Africa was struck by striking workers in the South African labor movement. Solidarity campaigns for divestment was taken up by US labor unions –mining, auto and textile unions in the US invited their South African sisters and brothers to speak at educational tours across this country. Public employee unions in several cities, such as Chicago, New York and Detroit, voted to divest their members’ pension funds.

It is a credit to the BDS movement that it already has a history of reciprocal support on a variety of social justice issues. After all, one of the most striking slogans to come out of the Occupy movement was from the Palestinian BDS National Committee urging demonstrators to “Occupy Wall Street not Palestine!” Within Palestine, where BDS began, more than half dozen trade unions including the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), are counted as endorsers of the movement.

This widening of affiliation and solidarity from the campus to the street needs to become the norm if BDS is to have its greatest effect. The movement can remind us that an injury to one in Gaza is truly an injury to all.


Tithi Bhattacharya is Professor of Modern South Asian History at Purdue.

Bill V. Mullen is Professor of English and American Studies at Purdue. He is on the advisory board for USACBI (United States Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel).

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments “Kerry has been a pain in the ass. Normally, we manage to repulse peace missions long before they get as far as Kerry has. Now, playing for time means rolling out all the old canards and shibboleths, the naked clichés, that might have worked once but are simply embarrassing in this day and age. Things like “Israel needs the Jordan Valley for strategic depth,” or “we can’t negotiate while the other side incites,” or… Read more »

Isn’t it obvious? The elite are terrified of BDS because they have no way of controlling it. BDS is the epitome of grassroots activism. It’s about the ordinary man and woman in the street, or the supermarket, refusing to buy coriander made in Israel, and writing to Oxfam to complain about Scarlett Johansson. They don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do this, and because they’re not part of the bought and paid for media… Read more »

The ruling Elites are always scared when the non Elites start defying them.
Then the Elite power apparatus tries to squelch them.
The non Elites however arent showing any signs yet that they are willing to accept being squelched.
Damn the Elites, full steam ahead!
BDS the sobs.

In 2001, I argued that policy in every area must be debated vigorously, but respect for those who risk their lives for our freedom must be a basic value. The post-9/11 American state no longer stands for the freedom of Americans, and therefore it is no longer for the freedom of Americans that the members of the U.S. military now risk their lives. This retired naval officer says that with deep regret, but he has… Read more »

Obama can’t buy off BDS with the usual bromides.
It isn’t part of the Beltway game.