Three weeks after I began my freshman year at Wesleyan University, the Second Palestinian Intifada broke out, and for the next four years our campus saw a flurry of student-led actions and activities highlighting Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights. We held film screenings, round-table discussions, created mock-checkpoints in front of the student center during lunch, and wrote articles for the school newspaper. We read the names of Palestinians killed in the Intifada aloud, invited an Israeli refusenik to speak about why he refused to complete his service in the IDF, raised money for Palestinian hospitals, and created installation art pieces related to the Occupation. In response, not unexpectedly, came organized activities that sought to stymie the burgeoning awareness of Palestinian realities, and re-establish Israel’s security and unquestionable right as the only paradigms around which a discussion could be held about Israel/Palestine.
While the constant back and forth between pro-Palestinian rights student activism and pro-Zionist activism could at times be frustrating and tedious, I was always glad to be in an environment where critical analysis and discussion was encouraged and really did bloom. This commitment to critical analysis of the world around us, so as to better understand how to create a more fair and just world, is perhaps the value that most drew me to Wesleyan. It is reflected in the courses faculty offer and the groups students form. Indeed, Wesleyan’s mission statement asserts that its education is “characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism.” In my experience there, this proved true. It also lived up to its goal of building “a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”
It is exactly because Wesleyan strives to, and often does, fulfill and live up to these ideals and goals, that President Michael Roth’s cursory denunciation of the ASA’s recent resolution supporting the Palestinian BDS call is so shocking and disappointing. Roth claims that the BDS movement is a “repugnant attack on academic freedom.” Contrary to Roth’s assertion, the BDS movement and the ASA resolution are not attacks on academic freedom. Rather, they are efforts to support academic freedom by seeking to support the rights of Palestinian scholars, students, and academics to pursue education and research; they supports scholars’ rights to intellectual freedom without fear of repression, retribution, or violence; they support the right of people everywhere to political dissent; they supports the rights of people everywhere to critically research and publicly speak about Israel-Palestine. However, going against the mission statement of the university of which he is President, Roth’s response reflects a type of thinking which is intellectually craven, stale, and trite. His response is not reflective, original, or critical. Were his arguments presented in a paper at Wesleyan, that paper would, quite frankly, get a C. President Roth is not obligated to support the BDS movement or the ASA resolution—however, when writing a public response in his capacity as the President of a university which values critical analysis, social justice, and analytical thinking, his response should reflect those values. His cursory response was dismissive and shallow, as it did not address any point raised in the ASA’s resolution statement. As one current Wesleyan student put it: “It is like he hadn’t done the proper reading.”
Fortunately, and in the spirit of free debate and critical thinking, Roth’s denunciation has not gone unanswered by the Wesleyan community. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley (Wesleyan parent ‘12) penned an eloquent, fact-based, intellectually robust, point-by-point response to Roth’s claims. Outraged Wesleyan alumni wrote a petition criticizing Roth’s response to the ASA resolution, and calling him out on his hypocritical attack on the BDS movement when he was an active supporter of the South African anti-Apartheid boycott movement decades ago. Over 140 alumni have signed the petition so far (it is an open document, if you are a Wesleyan alumni you may still sign). As the BDS movement continues to grow stronger, I hope the Wesleyan community will continue to engage in critical thinking about rights, freedom, resistance, and solidarity—with the support of their President in their exercise of intellectual freedom and political dissent.