In 2002, a group of Harvard students and faculty circulated a petition calling for the university to divest from corporations that do business with Israel. Lawrence Summers, then Harvard’s president, rejected the petition. In response to today’s renewed calls to boycott Israel on college campuses, including Harvard, and the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli universities, Summers addresses the issue once more:
The response of most academic leaders to [the BDS movement] has . . . been of a generic nature, going to issues of avoiding the politicization of universities and not to the highly questionable nature of the specific acts. . . .
There are two problems with this line of argument. First, it is too broad. It is far from clear that academic boycotts are always inappropriate. Should American universities have cooperated fully with Nazi universities and loyal Nazi scholars in the late 1930s? . . .
Second, it misses the point. For the same reason that those proposing divestiture [in 2002] were advocating something that was anti-Semitic in effect if not intent, the academic boycott of Israel and universities and scholars from no other country is also anti-Semitic in effect and quite likely in intent. It [seeks] to demonize only the Jewish state. It [is] unrelated to the expertise of the American Studies Association.
What should university presidents have said? I would have said something like this: “The decision of the American Studies Association supported by a majority of its membership to single out Israeli institutions and Israeli scholars for selective boycott is abhorrent. The university believes it is very dangerous for scholarly associations to insert themselves into political issues outside of their range of competence. While individual members of the faculty are free to do as they wish, the university is withdrawing its institutional membership in the ASA. We will withdraw from any scholarly association that engages in similar boycotts with respect to Israel or any other country.”
Such statements would in my view bring moral clarity where it is currently missing. . . . In the same vein, I believe that universities should make clear that their names cannot be invoked as the purported sponsor of conferences or dialogues in which the primary thrust is demonization of Israel.