Members of the American Studies Association who voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions probably viewed themselves as a vanguard whose efforts to isolate Israel would be embraced across academia. That’s not what happened. Instead, many institutions of higher learning withdrew their memberships from the ASA. Dozens of others condemned the ASA boycott as a selective assault on the free exchange of ideas, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell, University of Chicago, Northwestern University, University of Maryland, and New York University.
Here in New Jersey, Rutgers University has also rejected the ASA boycott. “While Rutgers affirms the right of faculty, students, and associations to express their own political and intellectual viewpoints,” wrote Rutgers president Dr. Robert Barchi, “we believe that academic boycotts fundamentally violate the principles of academic freedom and the free exchange of knowledge and ideas.” (See article.)
The first part of the sentence is as important as the second. Despite what critics of Israel and its supporters say, universities are not trying to suppress criticism of Israel or quash any side in the Middle East debate. However, when academics attack fellow academics and hold them accountable for policies carried out by their governments, that is an assault not only on Israel but on the very notion of higher education.
Thanking Barchi for his statement, leaders of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations wrote, “Lending your voice and the prestige of Rutgers University in safeguarding the value of academic freedom sends the correct message that scholarly exchange is a benefit to all when unfettered and afforded equitable respect.”
Rutgers and other universities are defending the true essence of a university: to foster dialogue and develop solutions to problems through the exchange, not the suppression, of research and conversation.