Vassar faculty say president’s statement against boycott sidesteps US responsibility to speak out against ‘gross injustice’

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Vassar College seal
Vassar College seal

Earlier today Adam posted a letter signed by 150 people affirming the power of boycott as an instrument of change and resisting efforts to curtail the Israel boycott movement in our country.

Here’s an important addition. At Vassar College, 40 faculty members have signed a letter with a similar message. The faculty take sharp exception to a January statement by the Vassar president and dean of faculty condemning the American Studies Association vote to boycott Israel last year. I am told that statement, “strongly” rejecting boycott as an infringement on academic freedom, was made without consulting the faculty.

The Vassar faculty statement is much longer than the nationwide letter and has a moral character. They cite the Montgomery bus boycott and boycott of South African apartheid and tip their caps to the new global movement (BDS or boycott, divestment, and sanctions) that is picking up steam. They say that the president and dean are sidestepping a responsibility to speak out against gross injustice. They are eloquent on such matters as the use of the labels anti-Semitic and self-hating to chill debate; Israel’s attacks on Palestinians’ academic freedom; and the issue of singling Israel out, when the U.S. bears such responsibility for the state of Palestinian human rights.

The faculty do not endorse the ASA boycott vote, but they are very positive about it: they say that it was the product of extensive deliberation and that non-violent boycotts have played a highly progressive role in the past. The 40 scholars who’ve signed this statement have shown courage in taking on their own administration (and I’d note that an old friend of mine, Don Foster, the literary scholar/sleuth, is among them).

The faculty posted their letter in the Vassar College newspaper:

A statement from members of the Vassar College faculty in response to condemnation of the American Studies Association resolution of December 4, 2013

February 28, 2014

As faculty committed to academic freedom for all people everywhere, we wish to voice our dissent from the public statement by Vassar College President Catharine Bond Hill and Dean of Faculty Jonathan Chenette on Jan. 2, 2014. The statement condemned the American Studies Association (ASA) resolution endorsing and honoring the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions until Israel’s government ends its systemic discrimination and human rights violations against Palestinians, respects the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, and fully complies with its associated obligations under international law.

We dissent because, rather than upholding the principle of academic freedom in its most expansive sense, their condemnatory statement could have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and opinions on our campus and across the broader society. In addition, their statement does not present a clear understanding of the resolution and therefore misrepresents the precise nature and purpose of the ASA statement. Furthermore, by not acknowledging the concrete realities which led to the ASA resolution, their statement sidesteps ethical questions about our responsibility for the plight of Palestinians and our obligations as scholars and human beings to speak out against gross injustice. Finally, it also obscures the effectiveness of non-violent boycotts in ending similar gross injustices.

Our colleagues in one of the oldest professional associations in the United States arrived at their decision after an extensive and open debate about the situation in Palestine/Israel. Rather than reflexively rushing to join the bandwagon of condemnation of the ASA, we have a responsibility to try to understand the different dimensions of the debate and the nuances in the resolution. The resolution did not call for the boycotting of individual scholars or termination of collaborations between Israeli and U.S. scholars and students. Nor did it call for the cessation of dialogue with these scholars; in fact the ASA is inviting Palestinian and Israeli scholars to its conference in November. What the resolution calls for is the boycott of Israeli academic institutions because they have been directly or indirectly complicit in the systematic maintenance of the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory as well as the continued domination and dispossession of Palestinians, and because they have not condemned discriminatory policies and practices against Palestinian scholars and students. Some Israeli scholars who are affiliated with these institutions in fact support the boycott.

We believe that a real threat to academic freedom lies in the recent frenzied campaign by journalists, universities, and lawmakers to censure or delegitimize the ASA. This campaign undermines academic freedom by labeling scholars anti-Semitic or self-hating, punishing and withholding institutional support for faculty members of the association, and pushing for punitive state legislation. Academic freedom protects faculty who wish to participate in thoughtful, ethical actions. It exists so that colleges and universities may stimulate rather than repress discussion of difficult and controversial subjects, including the current Israeli occupation and blockade of Palestinians and their land in violation of international law and the U.S. role in this process. We cannot ignore how the Israeli state systematically denies academic freedom and access to education for Palestinians. Such action has been thoroughly documented by organizations like the Institute of Middle East Understanding, B’tselem and Jewish Voice for Peace.

We are troubled by reports that academics and activists that work outside of Israel/Palestine are monitored and policed on their campuses and in other forums, particularly if their research is critical of Israeli policies. There have been countless examples of academics in the United States and abroad that have been unfairly harassed, targeted, and denigrated by the scare tactics of watchdog groups and alumni. This surveillance has resulted in the disruption of robust academic and intellectual processes, the creation of a climate of fear and silence, and, in some cases, the unjust destruction of one’s academic career. We want on our campuses, including here at Vassar, to have open, honest and principled discussion about the situation in Palestine/Israel, without the labeling, targeting, and harassing of faculty, students, administrators and staff who disagree with, or are opposed to Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

We cannot afford to be passive about the considerable violence and brutality that the Israeli state has inflicted and continues to inflict upon the Palestinian people and other minoritized populations, particularly as the United States financially, militarily and diplomatically supports the Israeli state, and thereby contributes to the ongoing occupation.  Even the ardent supporters of Israel cannot deny the ongoing systematic dispossession of Palestinians, the destruction of their homes and livelihood, the expansion of illegal settlements beyond the 1967 borders, and the general humiliation and hardship Palestinians must endure as walls, checkpoints, apartheid legislation, and control of movement deny Palestinians self-determination, freedom, and basic human rights. While Palestinians have been fighting for their freedom since their dispossession in 1948, the world has remained largely silent with regard to this humanitarian crisis.

Several critics of the resolution assert that this boycott unfairly targets Israel over other nation-states that abuse human rights. We certainly acknowledge that human rights abuses operate on many levels across the globe, including in the United States, and agree that if any institution or body wanted to boycott US academic institutions for their complicity in settler colonialism, illegal occupations and wars, or affiliation with unjust corporate entities, we would not condemn such resolutions, and, certainly, some of us would even support them. That said, we cannot be blind to the fact that there is a growing movement internationally to hold Israel accountable for its human rights abuses. Palestinian civil society–within the nation-state of Israel, in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, and in the Diaspora–along with many Jewish Israeli and non-Israeli allies, have called for this academic and cultural boycott as part of the larger campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

The ASA statement, far from limiting academic freedom, represents the fruits of a free and open discussion among academics who refuse to dismiss the internationally-recognized right of people under colonial and foreign occupation to resist their occupiers and assert their dignity. The non-violent boycott of institutions, businesses, and organizations that are complicit in the systematic oppression and dispossession of subordinated groups has a long history. Boycotts have highlighted the suffering of oppressed groups, and have been instrumental in shifting the consciousness of those that benefit from this oppression, culminating in the elimination of exploitative and discriminatory laws and policies. As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56, we cannot forget its seminal role in energizing the African-American-led campaign against desegregation and for Civil Rights in the United States. We cannot heap encomiums on Nelson Mandela following his death late last year, and then forget that he was a strong advocate of the boycott of academic, cultural and business institutions that supported Apartheid in South Africa–a boycott that many Vassar faculty and students supported in the 1980s by advocating for the College’s divestment from U.S. companies doing business there. Nor can we ignore that many icons of the anti-Apartheid struggle–such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu–support the BDS campaign today.

In the spirit of an expansive academic freedom, humanity, and good faith, we welcome honest and responsible engagement in discussions surrounding the role of academic boycotts in the attainment of justice and dignity for all people.

Barbara Olsen, Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies
Brian Godfrey, Professor of Geography
Candice Lowe Swift, Associate Professor of Anthropology
Carlos Alamo-Pastrana, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Colette Cann, Assistant Professor of Education
David Tavárez, Associate Professor of Anthropology
Diane Harriford, Professor of Sociology
Donald W. Foster, Professor of English
Dorothy Kim, Assistant Professor of English
Erin McCloskey, Assistant Professor of Education
Eugenio Giusti, Associate Professor of Italian
Eva Woods Peiró, Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies
Eve D’Ambra, Professor of Art on the Agnes Rindge Claflin Chair
Giovanna Borradori, Professor of Philosophy
Hiram Perez, Assistant Professor of English
Ismail Rashid, Professor of History
Jennifer Church, Professor of Philosophy
Joseph Nevins, Associate Professor of Geography
Joshua Schreier, Associate Professor of History
Julie Hughes, Assistant Professor of History
Katherine Hite, Professor of Political Science on the Frederick Ferris Thompson Chair
Keith Lindner, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Geography
Kirsten Menking, Associate Professor of Earth Science
Lawrence Mamiya, Professor of Religion and Africana Studies on the Mattie M. Paschall Davis and Norman H. Davis Chair
Lydia Murdoch, Associate Professor of History
Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Professor of Hispanic Studies on the Sarah Tod Fitz Randolph Distinguished Professor Chair
Maria Hantzopoulos, Assistant Professor of Education
Mario Cesareo, Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies
Michael Walsh, Associate Professor of Religion
Mita Choudhury, Professor of History
Quincy Mills, Associate Professor of History
Rebecca Edwards, Professor of History on the Eloise Ellery Chair
Samson O. Opondo, Assistant Professor of Political Science
Susan Hiner, Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies
Tarik Ahmed Elseewi, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Film
Thomas Ellman, Associate Professor of Computer Science
Timothy Koechlin, Senior Lecturer in International Studies and Urban Studies
Tyrone Simpson, Associate Professor of English and American Studies
Zachariah Mampilly, Associate Professor of Political Science

Janet Gray, Professor of Psychology

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Eloquent letter.

I’d just add that looking over the list is precisely why Bibi is delusional in thinking that you answer BDS by touting business deals.

The people who push this change are, by and large, people in the humanities and the liberal arts. They set the cultural forces in motion.
The business people are too busy with profit. They’ll deal with anyone, history has proven this time and again.

Many thanks to these faculty members.

This letter, which represents a relatively small percentage of Vassar faculty members, claims that “the world has remained largely silent with regard to [the Palestinian] humanitarian crisis. This is, quite simply, one of the most ridiculous claims I’ve ever read. There is no single issue that the international community has been louder on than this one. Israel is condemned regularly in the UNGA and the UNHRC. The Palestinians have an entire GA committee devoted to… Read more »

I think the position of the college president is normal since he is responsible for endowments from alumni. It is the safe position. The faculty has more freedom. I am not surprised that we have heard this same story already a few times.

I loved the last paragraph! My heart sang for joy at this great letter and the fact there are more and more signing on. A huge thank you to all faculty members…