By Jeremi Suri, University of Texas at Austin
Universities are a public trust. Citizens give their precious dollars to these schools with the understanding that their scholars will study, educate, and innovate for the future. Academics have freedom to think, and they also have an obligation to use their research for the broader public good.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) affirmed this bargain in their landmark 1915 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom. The AAUP defined a university as “an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become a part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.”
Scholars jealously guard their academic freedom, and they are quick to condemn infringements by governments, businesses, donors, athletic boosters, and other groups. They are, however, slow to recognize the misuses of academic freedom within their own ranks. Too many scholars use their intellectual authority to encourage narrow-mindedness, shallow self-righteousness, and intolerance to different points of view. This is a problem on the political left as well as the right. It is, in truth, the greatest threat to freedom and creativity in the academy today.
The most distressing evidence for this observation comes from the American Studies Association (ASA), a group of about 5,000 scholars from across the United States (and a few other countries) who are devoted to “the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.” This is a worthy goal and the ASA has sponsored some of the most valuable scholarship on politics, environmental change, and civil rights since its founding in 1951. Unfortunately, the ASA has decided that it should now condemn the state of Israel, exclude Israeli institutions, and ostracize those scholars and students who come from Israel or feel some religious, cultural, or political association with Israel. The language of the ASA’s resolution for an “academic boycott of Israel,” passed by almost two-thirds of its voting members, is categorical, chilling, and a direct assault on freedom of inquiry.
The resolution blames Israel and the United States for a “devastating impact on the overall well-being, the exercise of political and human rights, the freedom of movement, and the educational opportunities of Palestinians.” Without attention to other actors, and without any recognition of alternative interpretations of evidence, it then asserts that “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.” These simplistic and controversial judgments, which would not stand up under serious peer review in this form, are used to justify excluding Israeli academic institutions from all relations with the ASA. The organization will continue to reach out to academic institutions in China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, but Israel is now beyond the pale.
Racism is all about unfair exclusions. This arbitrary separation of Israel from many other states with problematic human rights policies, to say the least, sends a message that somehow Israel is worse. It is creates a collective presumption of guilt hanging over all scholars who come from Israeli institutions, even if these scholars oppose the Israeli policies that the ASA condemns. Instead of listening, debating, and collaborating – as one would expect in a university setting – the ASA is condemning, excluding, and attacking.
Jewish scholars and those who study Jewish issues around the world will suffer the most from this resolution. The very word Israel has now become radioactive and young academics, in particular, will feel pressured to avoid any possible critique of what is now an official party line. For those of us who have studied the frustrating resilience of anti-Semitism, the pattern is all too familiar. Scholars at the ASA have, liked so many of their predecessors, used their authority and their freedom to make Jews suffer. The worst part is that the sponsors of this resolution knew this, and they obviously didn’t care.
The tragedy is that this intolerance undermines the public trust of universities and the claims of academic freedom. If scholars are simply advocates of passionate political positions, willing to exclude those who challenge their preferences, why should universities get special protection from other pressure groups in government and business? If scholars see fit to prosecute collective guilt in an entire set of peer institutions, why shouldn’t non-scholars in state legislatures do the same in their judgment of our own universities and their many failings?
The deepest hypocrisy comes from the fact that the sponsors of the ASA resolution condemn both the United States and Israel, but they only exclude the Israeli institutions from their organization. The sponsors continue to collect their paychecks and defend their own tenure in American universities. By their logic, why shouldn’t they boycott American universities too? Why are they comfortable asking Israeli scholars to sacrifice when they will not do the same? This kind of hypocrisy exposes a deep intellectual dishonesty.
As scholars and citizens who care deeply about preserving universities as open and free “intellectual experiment stations,” we have an obligation to condemn the damaging breach of public trust by the ASA. This is more than a dangerous precedent. It is an assault on the vibrant and creative intellectual life our society needs more than ever. All around us, we have a surplus of intolerance, partisanship, and narrow-mindedness. We need our universities to broaden our public discussion and inspire new connections among different groups. Those who cannot move past acts of national, religious, and ethnic exclusion do not deserve the academic freedom that they flaunt.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University’s Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author of five books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. In September 2011 he published a new book on the past and future of nation-building: Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama. Professor Suri’s research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America’s “Top Young Innovators” in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.