How BDS Is Undermining Academic Freedom

In pursuit of openly political ends, some professors risk destroying the principles and safeguards that for over a century have protected the freedom of their colleagues.

A BDS protest in New York in April 2018. Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

A BDS protest in New York in April 2018. Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

April 18 2018
About the author

Jonathan Marks is professor and chair of politics at Ursinus College. A contributor to the Commentary blog, he has also written on higher education for InsideHigherEd, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) was officially launched in 2005 in a statement whose author was identified as “Palestinian civil society.” Among the statement’s demands were these: that Israel end “its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” dismantle the West Bank security wall built during the second intifada, recognize the “rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,” and promote the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. To compel Israel’s submission to these demands, it called for “broad boycotts” and “divestment initiatives” akin to those levied against apartheid-era South Africa.

Thirteen years later, the movement has yet to convince most governments, companies, churches, artists, or universities to treat Israel as a pariah state. But even unsuccessful campaigns can make a great deal of noise and incite querulous debate—in this case, over Israel’s fundamental right to be considered a legitimate member of the family of nations. Today, almost three decades after the United Nations rescinded its notorious 1975 resolution equating Zionism and racism, some people, in some precincts, are still more than half-convinced that the UN had it right in the first place.

Preeminent among those precincts is American higher education. Colleges, universities, and scholarly associations have been prime targets for the BDS campaign because, even in the face of declining public respect for what they do, they still retain intellectual and moral clout. In higher education, small activist groups can with relative ease gain disproportionate power in, for example, student governments (to which most students pay little attention) and scholarly associations (to which most scholars are but marginally attached). And so, every year, student groups at many universities stage an “Israeli Apartheid Week.” Every year, with equal predictability, student governments pass resolutions denouncing the state of Israel as if Middle East policy were as much their business as the homecoming dance, and some scholarly associations debate the desirability of boycotting Israel as if the issue were as pressing as membership dues.

How much harm does any of this do to Israel? Inside Israel, virtually none. Outside Israel, however, to the degree that numbers of uninformed American college students have been led to conclude that the anti-Zionists have a point, harm has indeed been done. All the more so on the left, where the proposition that Zionism equals racism is becoming something of a purity test.

Moreover, even putting all this aside, there is the harm done to universities themselves, whose vulnerability to BDS is a sign of their own parlous health. For BDS is not just a fight between Zionists and anti-Zionists; it is part of a larger fight in which some professors, in pursuit of openly political ends, have risked destroying the principles and the safeguards that for over a century have protected the freedom of their colleagues and the independence of their institutions. For evidence, we need look no farther than to the efforts by some academic promoters of the BDS “cause” to turn the universities themselves into political weapons. To see how this works, let’s begin with a small but telling incident.


On April 20, 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) became the first academic group in the United States to endorse BDS, thereby spurring its members to discourage study-abroad programs and other partnerships with Israeli academic institutions and to forswear attendance at conferences sponsored by those institutions. Only a handful of other scholarly groups have followed the AAAS into an open call for boycott; most notable was the American Studies Association, which, for its trouble, earned the public disapproval of some 250 college and university presidents. But the push to win over bigger groups, like the American Historical Association, is serious and ongoing.

It is striking enough that a scholarly association with no claim to expertise on the Middle East should have adopted a boycott resolution aimed at that region of the world. It’s still more striking that the vote was unanimous—passing without even a single abstention, let alone a “no.” Granted, the AAAS is small, but it isn’t tiny; its overall membership is undoubtedly higher than the 700 who turned up for the Seattle conference where the vote took place.

Did the unanimity of the vote reflect unanimity within AAAS as a whole? In May 2013, seeking an answer to that question, I wrote an open letter in InsideHigherEd inviting dissenting members to go public. Almost five years later, I’m still waiting. Not one scholar in the field has published a word against the vote.

And that’s remarkable: even on the organized left you won’t find anything like unanimity on the proposition that Israel deserves to be shunned. Nor will you find anything like unanimity on the proposition that academic boycotts in general are justified, or would do any good even if justified. Yet for five years the AAAS, a stalwart of the far left, has managed to adhere to its call for a boycott of Israel without provoking so much as a publicly raised eyebrow.

So the AAAS endorsement of BDS may not have been the shot heard ’round the world, but it was definitely a warning—not only to all those who care about Israel but also and perhaps mainly to professors, whose continued ability to do their work relies on the claim that their expertise and devotion to free inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge requires that legislatures and trustees leave them alone. That claim is undermined when professors, brandishing their academic credentials, march in ideological lockstep to shut down, precisely, the free pursuit of knowledge and ideas.


To be sure, this sort of behavior didn’t start with BDS; in that respect BDS is a symptom—albeit an especially poisonous one—of a more comprehensive rot. In the field of ethnic studies, of which Asian American studies is one component, the rot, which may be defined abstractly as the tethering of scholarship to politics, is prevalent, and by now is a feature, not a bug—and so, via BDS, is the open demonization of Israel.

As long ago as 2006, in a special issue of the Journal of Asian American Studies, the intellectual and ideological groundwork was being laid for the emergence of an actual vote to boycott the Jewish state. The issue, guest-edited by Sunaina Maira, a professor at the University of California, Davis and a leader in what was already known as the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, featured four articles advocating, along redundant lines, the linking of Asian American studies with, specifically, Arab American studies.

How come? In one of the four articles, the historian Vijay Prashad, then at Trinity College, explains that the model for the proposed linkage was the earlier linking of Asian American studies with black studies, a move that, he writes, came about “less with a methodological objective in mind than with a political one.” That political objective stood in need of refreshment, a need that could be met by the entry of another politically inspired choise—namely, Arab American studies—into the fold.

Prashad, echoed by the others in the issue, recounts the relevant history. The field of ethnic studies took shape in the 1960s and 70s as a manifestation of the same political objective that its founders held in common with the radical student and faculty activists of the time. That objective, dating back to the early days of the New Left, was perhaps best expressed in the 1962 Port Huron statement of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) with its call for the creation—within, specifically, universities—of “a base for [the] assault upon the loci of [American] power.” Thus, according to the sociologist Robert Allen, quoted at length by Prashad, the academic discipline of black studies was not intended to be “modeled after other departments [or to] accept the constraints imposed upon them, because one function of these departments is to socialize students into a racist and oppressive society.” Instead, black studies had to be “consciously disruptive, always seeking to expose and cut away those aspects of American society that oppress black people.”

Unfortunately, however—the recitation goes on—this consciously disruptive movement was then coopted and watered down. Under the banner of “diversity” and “multiculturalism,” required readings in the humanities did begin to include their share of non-white, non-Western authors; but this concession arose out of the institutional need to accommodate and appease student protesters and was fashioned in such a way as to conform, more or less, with the traditional educational aims of universities. Properly understood, Prashad writes, it was a sellout and a betrayal. The “diversity” mantra wielded by liberal faculty and administrators was merely a ploy, tossing curricular crumbs to the oppressed while aiming to preserve “white supremacy.”

Strange as it may seem, then, the study of ethnicity is itself only incidental to the ethnic-studies project as conceived by Prashad and the others. It matters only to the extent that certain ethnicities find themselves or can be characterized by others as victimized by, in the words of Sunaina Maira in the same issue, “U.S. policies of repression, co-optation, and domination at home and abroad” and as therefore especially attuned to the fatal defects of the American order. Furthermore, as Ibrahim Aoude, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii, asserts in his own essay, America post-9/11 has fallen into the grip of a “fascistic, nativistic” politics—and that is another reason why Asian American studies and Arab American studies need to be linked under the same political objective if there is to be any hope of overcoming the “fascist ideology and public policy” that has been insidiously fed by the sinister forces of “global capitalist development.”

It may be an exaggeration to refer to ethnic studies as “oppression studies,” but this more or less sums up what these professors want it to be. Only after the revolution, if then, will they consider dismantling the barricades. Meanwhile there is much work to be done, under the banner of “intersectionality,” in uniting blacks, women, Palestinians, queer people, and the transgendered in the fight against the malevolent forces of oppression that are themselves all of a piece and all, in spirit, “Zionist.”


Is it necessary to spell out how antithetical all this is to the view that underlies the case for academic freedom—and for the independence of universities?

The 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, issued by the then-newly founded Association of American University Professors (AAUP), offered the public a bargain. Professors, the statement read, “deal at first hand, after prolonged and specialized technical training, with the sources of knowledge,” and they then proceed to “impart the results . . . to students and to the general public, without fear or favor.” In return for these invaluable services, the AAUP proposed the adoption and enforcement of a new norm. Boards of trustees and state legislatures, though they controlled the finances and ultimately the governance of colleges and universities, must think of professors as akin to federal judges, who, though nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, operate independently of both.

This stipulation, which would entail freeing professors from the pressures faced by employees in most lines of work, made sense—because if professors were to be trusted as seekers after and transmitters of knowledge, then “the disinterestedness and impartiality of their inquiries and their conclusions” must be, “so far as is humanly possible, beyond the reach of suspicion.” Academic freedom was the means to this end, and also formed the basis for the fiercely-defended institution known as academic tenure.

It is hard to see what kind of comparable deal could be offered by scholar-activists today: “You leave us alone, and we, for our part, will use the universities to launch assaults on the loci of power”? Why should the public, once informed, not demand that trustees and legislators do their duty and act to curtail such rank abuse of academic freedom?

But such demands rarely gain traction. Meanwhile, to judge by their success at pushing universities into deep-seated changes both to the curriculum and to the accepted definition of legitimate scholarship, scholar-activists continue to muster capabilities well in excess of their small numbers. Nor are universities, for their part, doing much to reassure anyone that the old research-and-teaching mission remains in any active sense their guiding light. To the contrary: the influence wielded by the scholar-activists depends almost entirely on the failure of colleagues and administrators to defend the vision of the university embodied in the 1915 Declaration.

To the authors of that statement, the freedom granted to the academic teacher and scholar entailed “certain correlative obligations.” In particular, the “liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit.” Driving the message home, the statement warned that if faculties failed to act when colleagues used hard-won academic freedom as a shelter for “uncritical and intemperate partisanship,” they should be aware that the task of keeping professors in line would be performed by less sympathetic others.


As an academic organization “founded in 1979 for the purpose of advancing the highest professional standard of excellence in teaching and research in the field of Asian American Studies,” the Asian American Studies Association, by supporting BDS, has doubled down on the effort to turn colleges and universities into the propaganda wing of a radical political movement. BDS, as an arm and an instrument of that same movement, offers a clear test of the willingness of professors and administrators to act in defense of the university.

For the most part, to repeat, that willingness is nowhere to be seen. True, the AAUP, faithful to its founding principles, has opposed academic boycotts, as have some leading associations like the American Council on Education. But when it comes to the radicalization and mobilization of scholarship for political ends—of which, again, BDS is a prime example—the injury being done to the health of higher education itself hardly enters the picture. About that health, few seem to care.

Of course, a professor or dean or president might be reluctant to join a debate about which he or she knows little. But one need not know much about the Israel-Palestinian conflict to oppose BDS. One need not even defend Israel to oppose BDS. To anyone who appreciates the value of academic freedom and appreciates the need to defend it, it should be clear that an academic boycott of any single country is an idea predicated on undermining the difference between scholarship and politics.

A professor myself, I often imagine a scene in which the public knocks on our gates to demand our keys and badges. “You promised,” the irate protesters will remind us, “to pursue knowledge and educate your students in a spirit that supports that pursuit. Instead you train them in activism.” Those, constituting a small minority of faculty who really do consider it their duty to train activists, will no doubt feel vindicated. As for the majority, who stand by silently while others subvert the university’s mission, they will have no reply at all.

More about: Academia, BDS, Israel & Zionism, Politics & Current Affairs