Columbia boycotts Israel?

Several hundred Middle East scholars have put out a letter pledging to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education. The organized association of Middle Eastern studies has rejected boycotts in the past, and is likely to do so again if the issue even gets tabled at the next convention. So the boycott of Israel in Middle Eastern studies is being organized along the lines of a personal pledge by individual scholars.

Israeli institutions of higher education (including, presumably, the one over which I preside, Shalem College in Jerusalem), are deemed by these scholars to be “complicit in violating Palestinian rights.” The signatories thus pledge “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” The pledge will remain in effect until these institutions call on Israel to end the Gaza “siege,” evacuate all territory “occupied” in 1967, and “promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.” In other words, it’s a boycott until Israel dies.

I looked down the list of signatories, and mostly saw the usual suspects. Columbia, of course, is heavily represented. The boycotters include such tenured Columbia radicals as Rashid Khalidi, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Hamid Dabashi, Gil Anidjar, Mahmood Mamdani, George Saliba, Brinkley Messick, Timothy Mitchell, and Wael Hallaq. In fact, no university has more senior faculty boycotters signed on this letter than Columbia.

But one name in particular caught my eye: Lila Abu-Lughod, professor of anthropology. I remembered that she had become director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute a few years back. Why is that significant? The Institute she directs is a Title VI U.S. Department of Education-supported National Resource Center (NRC) for the Middle East. An NRC is supposed to “maintain linkages with overseas institutions of higher education and other organizations that may contribute to the teaching and research of the Center.”

The question I now have is whether this (taxpayer-subsidized) academic unit of Columbia is boycotting Israeli academe? Or are we to believe that Professor Abu-Lughod is only boycotting Israeli institutions personally, but is prepared to cooperate with them officially? Columbia should issue a clarification, and give a public account of the overseas institutional linkages the Institute does have, so that we can see whether a de facto boycott of Israel is in place at Columbia. You can even pose the question yourself, to Columbia’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, right here.

Boycotting Israel at NYU?

The habitual academic petition-signers against Israel are out in force, in a letter to Hebrew University president Menachem Magidor. They charge that Israel “makes it difficult or impossible for Palestinian teachers and students to reach their universities,” and that Israeli troops are responsible for “harassment, arrests, random shootings and assaults” on Palestinian campuses. The occupation itself, they write, “disrupts the necessary framework for any successful educational structure.” The signatories of the letter call themselves “defenders of Palestinian academic freedom and supporters of the academic boycott against Israel.” And they ask “the Israeli academic leadership where it stands on the issue of current Israeli policy, and to share with us what Israeli academic institutions are doing to challenge the behavior of your government.” (For more, see this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Now I don’t speak for anyone else, but I know where I would lay the blame for the plight of Palestinian academic institutions. (By the way, there wasn’t even one such institution in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and every one of them was established under the Israeli occupation.) I would lay the blame on the Palestinian Authority for choosing war, and on the violent militias that use campuses as recruitment stations for terrorists.

Nevertheless, Israeli academics have never boycotted Palestinian professors, even in the worst days of terror. To the contrary: if you’re organizing a conference in Israel, it’s almost obligatory to have a Palestinian professor on the podium. Free exchange is what academic freedom means, and Israeli universities have done an admirable job of upholding it in trying times. In contrast, the academic boycott against Israel is itself a gross violation of academic freedom, because it explicitly imposes a political litmus test on Israeli scholars. It’s radical-style McCarthyism.

Among the American signatories, there are a handful of Middle East academics. Only one stands out: Professor Zachary Lockman, who identifies himself as director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University. He stands out because he’s the only signatory with any academic clout. In fact, not only did he become director of NYU’s Middle East center last fall. His center simultaneously became a self-standing Title VI National Resource Center for the Middle East. Its activities enjoy a federal subsidy of around $400,000 a year.

Now that Lockman has announced himself as a “supporter of the academic boycott against Israel,” the question for New York University and the U.S. Department of Education is a simple one. Is it Lockman’s intention to implement the boycott that he supports, in the National Resource Center that he administers? If the answer is yes, then New York University’s provost should insist he step down. It’s unthinkable that a comprehensive center for Middle Eastern studies would boycott Israeli academics. (Tell the provost yourself if you agree.) And it’s unthinkable that the U.S. government would subsidize such a center. If Lockman is going to walk the boycott walk at the Kevorkian Center, its federal subsidy should be revoked immediately.

Now it may be that Lockman supports the boycott only in principle, and has no intention of acting on his principle. But having signed the petition as the director of the Kevorkian Center, and not simply as an NYU professor (which would have sufficed for identification purposes), he has to clarify that point. Specifically, he must reassure New York University and the U.S. Department of Education that no boycott, in any form whatsoever, open or tacit, will be implemented at the Kevorkian Center. Anything less than an explicit reassurance will leave a cloud of suspicion hanging over the place.

When I was a center director, in the 1990s, I was careful to stay clear of political controversy, so as not to drag my colleagues down my own alley. Professor Lockman seems to feel no comparable obligation. His colleagues might ask themselves whether they can afford this sort of academic “leadership.” They should affirm that Lockman doesn’t speak for them or the Kevorkian Center, whose name he has deliberately put on a political statement. If they feel otherwise, they should announce that as well. (Professor Timothy Mitchell, previous director, also signed the boycott letter.) So Lockman wants to know where every academic in Israel stands? Let’s first find out where every member and affiliate of the Kevorkian Center stands.

Update: I’m pleased to report that Professor Lockman has clarified his position to the provost of NYU, repudiating the boycott. “Neither I nor NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, which I direct, advocate or implement such a boycott,” Lockman writes in a letter dated April 2. And he adds:

I signed the letter as a supporter of academic freedom for Palestinian scholars and academic institutions, not as a supporter of a boycott against Israel. However, the wording of the letter was such that it could have led people to construe my support for the defense of the academic freedom of Palestinians as an endorsement of a boycott of Israeli scholars and academic institutions, which is not the case. In reality, neither the Kevorkian Center, nor I as an individual, advocates or practices a boycott of Israeli scholars or academic institutions. In fact, the Center regularly hosts visiting scholars and professors from Israel and maintains ongoing relations with Israeli academic institutions, and issues related to Israel are part of the Center’s program.

NYU provost David McLaughlin has accepted Lockman’s assurances. The boycott letter that Lockman signed, McLaughlin adds, “was poorly constructed, its wording inadequately precise, and so his signing of it unclear as to his intentions.” Actually, I thought it was pretty straightforward. And as Lockman says he signed the letter via the Internet, I wonder how he failed to notice that the web address of the letter is www.academicboycott.org, and the title of the webpage is “Boycott Israeli Academic and Research Institutions: Open Letter.” That’s not exactly subtle. Even so, I will not dispute the assurances he’s now given.

The main thing, however, is that the provost has added his own assurances:

The University’s position on calls for a boycott is clear. It stands firm against any such boycott, which by its very nature runs counter to the essence of the University, and to the values to which New York University in particular is committed. Our view is that the University is a space that encourages open, free and continuous dialogue free from fear of recrimination.

That’s an important statement by the university’s leading academic official, it binds the entire university, and I’m delighted to have elicited it.

If there is a lesson here, it is that academics, who make their livelihood by the crafting of written and spoken words, should be discriminating in what they sign. I’ll continue to keep a sharp eye on the doings of the Kevorkian Center and its director. But from my point of view, Lockman has done the right thing. I hope the other signatories will follow suit.

Further update: Lockman obfuscates: Professor Lockman now writes a letter to the New York Sun, which ran the above Sandstorm entry on April 1. He reaffirms that he does not support a boycott of Israeli academics (NYU’s provost, in a letter to the newspaper, says the same), but Lockman then makes this claim:

The open letter never calls for or endorses a boycott. To label me as a supporter of a boycott of Israeli scholars and academic institutions, Mr. Kramer therefore has to seize on a single phrase in the letter—”we the undersigned, defenders of Palestinian academic freedom and supporters of the academic boycott”—and twist it into the false allegation that I endorse such a boycott. I am in fact a defender of Palestinian academic freedom (and of everyone else’s academic freedom, including Israelis’) but not a supporter of an academic boycott, and I signed this letter based on the understanding that it is possible to be one but not the other.

It certainly is possible to be one but not the other, but that’s not the point of the letter Lockman signed. I remind him again that the website that published the open letter is at www.academicboycott.org, and the webpage is entitled “Boycott Israeli Academic and Research Institutions: Open Letter.” The letter also takes the form of a challenge to Israeli academics who have organized against the boycott, and ends thus: “We are prepared to join you and other parties in public debate of the academic boycott of your institutions at any time and in any neutral venue.” What’s the point of signing such a challenge to opponents of the boycott, if your own position is also opposed to the boycott?

In fact, the drafters and promotors of the open letter are Lawrence Davidson and Mona Baker, the leading advocates of the academic boycott in the United States and the United Kingdom. When the London Guardian ran a story on the open letter on March 25, it had no doubt as to its meaning. Under the headline “Academic boycott of Israel gathers momentum,” its correspondent wrote: “Leading advocates of an academic boycott of Israel have stepped up their campaign calling for an ‘outing’ of Israeli universities which support their government’s policy on the occupied territories.” Professor Lockman’s failure to see the obvious difference between the position he now professes and that of the open letter, even after it has been pointed out to him, leaves his judgment in question.

But beyond the test of common sense, it’s fairly simple to determine whether I am twisting the letter’s intent, or Professor Lockman is twisting it. If Professor Lockman is right, then among his 450 fellow signatories, there must be others who oppose the boycott. I call upon them to come forward. If there aren’t at least a few dozen signatories who read the letter as Professor Lockman did, then it would seem that he’s the one with the problem of reading comprehension—one shared neither by me nor by the hundreds of his co-signatories who understood exactly what they were signing.

Another update: Lockman scolded. The Washington Square News, NYU’s campus newspaper, has run a story and editorial on Lockman’s signing of the boycott-Israel “open letter.” Lockman, in yet another lapse of professorial judgment, dismisses the controversy as “a bunch of crap.” He also admits he has no idea who drafted the letter he signed, or to whom it was intended. It’s pretty damning stuff, and the accompanying editorial scolds him: “It is clear that [Lockman] did not put enough effort into weighing the possible meanings of the letter before attaching his—and NYU’s—name to it. In the future, it would be very wise for NYU professors to seriously consider the ramifications of any academic petition they sign.”