David Palumbo-Liu on study abroad boycotts: A Critique of “Standing with Professional Ethics”

The following piece, by USACBI Organizing Collective member and Stanford professor David Palumbo-Liu, was originally published at Academe Blog. Read more about USACBI’s study abroad boycott campaign and the case of Prof. John Cheney-Lippold.


I appreciate the opportunity to respond to Professor Hank Reichman’s criticism of our statement in support of Professor John Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation for a student wishing to participate in a Study Abroad program in Israel. Cheney-Lippold cites as his reason his commitment to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a call for solidarity from Palestinian civil society.

I am a proud member of the AAUP, but like many others I disagree with its opposition to boycotts. Nevertheless, I accept that difference and Reichman’s detailed criticism was not surprising. Except in one respect.

Reichman writes:

As one comment on the post notes, we have yet to see specific examples where such discriminatory treatment has actually occurred. Where it may occur, that would, in my mind, certainly justify a college or university withdrawing from the program and faculty members would be entirely justified in demanding such withdrawal. But that is a quite different response from the individualist one taken by Professor Cheney-Lippold.

Since in his article Reichman refers to Kant, his seeming evocation of Kant’s distinction between private and public actions surely comes into play—Kant claims that individuals acting as functionaries of an institution are bound to constrain their expression of opinion because of the roles they have taken on as private individuals. But, he says, this should not deter them for speaking as public individuals. And yet we should remember that was Kant’s way of accommodating his monarch and appeasing the church, a very conservative move clearly. If one is a state functionary or member of the clergy, one cannot as a private individual criticize the state or church. But one may and indeed has to as a public individual. What academics who support BDS are doing is precisely speaking as public individuals and simultaneously challenging the absolute rightness of “professional ethics.”

Reichman requires that we “demand” that our university administrators withdraw from these Study Abroad programs, and he faults us for not providing evidence of discrimination (though he would have discovered precisely that evidence had he following the link to our documentation).

The problem, of course, is that our administrators are not objective and dispassionate judges. Far from it. If the Salaita case taught us anything, administrators are despairingly vulnerable to outside pressure groups. Cheney-Lippold’s case is no different in that respect. Administrators are skilled at looking past the evidence to accommodate powerful and politically advantageous points of view. This does not mean we do not try to convince them, it means that we cannot wait for them to perhaps make an ethical choice.

But to honor Reichman’s request, here is some evidence. The first comes from this very venue, Academe Blog. In it, Joan W. Scott describes the discriminatory practices Israel engages in with regard to foreign scholars:

Threats to academic freedom abound the world over and it is dismaying to confront one crisis situation after another. The latest news comes from Birzeit University, in the West Bank. Professors there, and at other Palestinian universities in the Occupied Territories, who hold foreign passports have been prevented by the Israeli government from entering the country and/or having their visas renewed. Their presence is vital to the system of higher education and there is no justification, apart from sheer harassment, for this policy.

Ghassan Khatibl, a lecturer in Contemporary Arab and International Studies at Birzeit, posted this report on the university website:

We have 15 foreign passport-holding faculty members whose requests for visa renewals have been refused or significantly delayed. These faculty members have full-time status, work in all the various faculties on our campus, and include senior faculty and department chairpersons. Our faculty who are currently under threat teach in the BA, MA, and Ph.D. programs at Birzeit University, are members of university committees, and serve the larger Palestinian community through public seminars and lectures. Already some professors have been forced to leave the country; including one from the Department of English and Literature, and a professor of European History at the Ibrahim Abu Lughod Institute for International Studies who has devoted his entire academic career to Palestine and the university for the past four decades.

He goes on to talk about the long term ramifications of losing “the international perspectives, diverse professional experiences, and high-level skills these faculty members crucially bring to Palestinian academic life.” Isolation from “the global academic environment” is a danger to be avoided, especially given the already isolated conditions in which Palestinians live. Khatibl appeals to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

To say that this evidence does not necessarily apply to Study Abroad programs is inaccurate–under the current regime all educational programs are organized around its ethno-nationalist agenda.

Consider this article by David Lloyd on the subject in Mondoweiss. I quote at length because of Reichman’s request:

Every Study Abroad program in Israel is discriminatory against significant numbers of our students and is therefore on its face in violation of our campus anti-discrimination and equal opportunity policies. Indeed, they violate the very civil rights that the Department of Education is charged with protecting….

Even before the passage of Israel’s draconian anti-BDS law, which singles people out on account of their political principles, numerous travelers faced various degrees of harassment, from denial of entry to intrusive interrogation.

In 2010, Donna Shalala, former US Secretary of Health and Human Services and formerly president of Miami University, was detained at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport and subjected to humiliating personal questions. Shalala faced this treatment because she has an Arab last name, having been born in the US to Lebanese immigrant parents. Not even the president of a university that sought to collaborate with Israeli institutions was safe from discrimination.

In 2013, Professor Kavita Khory, of Mount Holyoke College had signed up for a faculty study tour of Israel, sponsored by Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Such tours are the “cornerstone of the organization’s public diplomacy initiative and its program for Israel advocacy.” But Professor Khory was surprised that she alone of the group was asked to carry a separate identification document at all times—a “card” certifying that she had been “prescreened” by the Israeli Consulate in Boston. Professor Khory is a US citizen, but was born in Pakistan. In the end, she declined to go, rather than face such discrimination on the basis of her name and national origin.

Students might be aware of what happened to their peer, Abeer Afana, a 21-year-old Wayne State University student, when she tried to enter Israel in 2010 for a month-long program designed to examine conflict and cooperation among Israelis and Palestinians. Seven other students in her group were admitted, but this US citizen was denied, simply because of her Palestinian origins. Such incidents showcase Israel’s regular infringements on freedom of access to education and on the movement of Palestinians and others, including American students…

Recently … Israel has added to the categories of traveler subjected to discriminatory treatment persons who have engaged in what in the United States is constitutionally protected political expression. Persons recently banned from entry into Israel and subjected to extended interrogation on the grounds of their non-violent political activity have included members of Jewish Voice for Peace, a Columbia Professor of Law who works with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and a Professor Emeritus and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at UCSB.

Every one of these examples corroborates the US State Department’s advisory to travelers seeking entry into Israel. Under these circumstances, any Study Abroad program that sends students to Israel openly violates anti-discrimination and equal opportunity policies: some students can go freely and without fear, others have every reason for trepidation and hesitation about even applying for the program. Programs of Study Abroad in Israel do not and cannot guarantee equal access, nor can they protect a significant body of our students from discrimination and the disparate impact of Israeli policies. Certainly, as programs in which some students will not be able to participate because they belong to “protected categories” by religion, race or national origin, they violate the University of Michigan’s own Non-discrimination Policy, which prohibits discrimination “in employment, educational programs and activities, and admissions.”

From State Department advisories to the experiences of university administrators, professors, and graduate and undergraduate students, we have precisely the evidence that Reichman requires. Evidence that US university administrators refuse to acknowledge. The remedy Reichman suggests that would allow us to remain inside his notion of “professional ethics” fails, but not because there is not sufficient evidence to make the case.

I must address another point Reichman makes, which is clearly aimed at me. It cites an incident that occurred last academic year at Stanford. Reichman writes:

At Stanford University, where one of the signatories teaches, conservative historian Niall Ferguson encouraged right-wing students to dig up dirt on a left-wing student activist seeking election to the committee running a speaker program that Ferguson advised, writing that “slowly, we will continue to crush the Left’s will to resist, as they will crack under pressure.” In another note, Ferguson wrote, “now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee.” I am certain that, his public apology when this was disclosed notwithstanding, Ferguson believed he was standing by his political convictions, advancing his version of social justice, exposing falsehood and generally acting in a manner conforming to his stated positions. But I certainly hope that the signatories agree that Ferguson blatantly crossed an ethical line, and hopefully not just because they, like me, disagree with his politics.

It astounds me that Reichman can equate an aggressive, politically-motivated act intended by a powerful, well-connected professor to harm an undergraduate student with an act of passive, non-violent resistance in the name of human rights. The willed deafness to issues of position and power is entirely consistent with the rhetorical tactics of those who are opposed to the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. We are indeed weary of hearing such false equivalences each time we make our case before administrators.

Let me end by elaborating a bit on this incident, and show how Reichman’s treatment of it simply draws a brighter line between our points of view, and indeed between the official stance of the AAUP and those of us who support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

As became evident (but was well known on the Stanford campus), the addressee of Ferguson’s emails, his co-conspirator, was an undergraduate student who also invited both Islamophobe Robert Spencer and Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA (creator of the McCarthyite Professors Watchlist that the AAUP has rightly criticized) to speak at Stanford. He is also the author of a hit piece the Stanford Review did on me, which accused me of being the leader of a terrorist organization.

Undeterred by the fact that, of their own accord, six constitutional law professors from Stanford Law School (representing a wide range of political perspectives) wrote an open letter attesting to the fact that there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support such a claim, the news story was carried throughout the rightwing blogosphere and ended up being a featured story on Fox and Friends. My university administration refused to condemn the attack, despite the fact that the author of the hit piece, when interviewed, admitted that, as the reporter from Stanford Politics notes:

part of the goal of the article was intimidation of faculty, specifically to discourage them from associating with the violent Antifa movement. He says he hopes that “professors on other campuses or on this campus might think twice before endorsing or getting involved with an Antifa network because [they’ll think], ‘Hey, I don’t want to get the same negative publicity that Professor Palumbo-Liu got.”

It should also be noted that our administration has also refused to publicly condemn Niall Ferguson for his actions.

I went to the AAUP and asked it to investigate the matter. I was told that the AAUP only investigates actions a university has taken, not what it has not done–in this case, defend my free speech rights and condemn the libelous news article. This policy is puzzling to me, but here is the point: all organizations and institutions have their protocols, practices, and prejudices, even if it means in this case remaining silent when one of its members is subjected to what I was. This is simply a fact. Those wishing to change the status quo can and should try the normal routes. And yet after a time it may well become patently clear that to change the status quo you have to break it. This transgression, as seem from inside the institution, seems an affront to, as Reichman puts it, “professional ethics.” But, to take Kant’s point, that is precisely why we don’t rely on the AAUP to change its point of view—we do not take a “private” stance, within the bounds of what the AAUP has determined to be its proper position and indeed our position within the academy, but rather a public one. In so doing we challenge the AAUP and others to see beyond the “professional ethics” of the professoriate and honor the larger and superior ethics of education as a whole.

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