ELLISON: For Israeli academic freedom

Yale professors and students, like those at all universities, ideally engage openly and freely with the most difficult and charged issues — including the geopolitics of the Middle East.

In the past few weeks, two scholarly organizations engaged the frustrating quagmire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions due to Israeli policies including alleged restrictions on West Bank Palestinians’ academic freedom, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) censured Israel for allegedly denying academics entry to West Bank universities. The actions of the ASA and MLA reflect the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

At Yale, we are taught that problem solving and progress come from the free exchange of ideas and opinions. By supporting a boycott, academic leaders ironically are sacrificing the fundamental principle of academic freedom that enables intellectual debate and the exchange of diverse views without censorship or sanction. One would expect academic leaders to be at the forefront of defending this principle and championing the possibility that discourse can help resolve the world’s most intractable issues. As students we look towards our teachers to lead by example.

Instead, in the actions of the ASA and MLA, we see attempts to divide thinkers and educators based on location and nationality. We see efforts to single out and personally penalize professors and academic institutions for the policies of the nation in which they are based. Neither Israeli academics nor Israeli universities are the perpetrators of “the conflict” or “the occupation.” Indeed, the Israeli academic community is pivotal in assessing and critiquing its government’s policies. Why forbid scholarly interaction with the very academics who could foster critical discussions to promote Israeli-Palestinian compromise?

Both the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued statements opposing boycotts as irreconcilable with academic freedom. Yale University President Peter Salovey’s statement opposing the boycott as contrary to academic freedom made clear that he does not agree with the ASA’s move. He also articulated that individual academics have the right to express their views.

There are other methods by which we can criticize Israeli policies and alleged practices. Boycotts isolate and delegitimize Israel and violate the academic freedom that their supporters claim to value. Boycotts are counterproductive and have been rejected by many prominent leaders, including President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas. Moreover, whatever criticisms are made of Israel — which, as any nation, is not perfect — it is a democracy that does not discriminate based on race, religion, sex or sexual preference. It has free elections, a free press and the academic freedom forbidden in many Middle East nations. It is also in an increasingly chaotic, violent and dangerous region where all would benefit from stability and peace.

Instead of condemning and polarizing, let’s be constructive and cooperative — those who are vehemently opposed to “the occupation” of the West Bank, those who are passionate defenders of the policies of the current Israeli administration and everyone in between. Ultimately it is respectful discussion and open debate that can produce policy solutions and finally lead to resolution of the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Danielle Bella Ellison is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at danielle.ellison@yale.edu.

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