By Andrew Ross and John King, members of the USACBI Organizing Collective
After the University of California chancellors posted an anti-BDS statement in December, Daily Californian editors solicited an op-ed response from Sacramento Regional Coalition for Palestinian Rights. The request was passed on to USACBI, an organization with more expertise on the academic boycott, and the two of us volunteered to draft the article. At first, the editors were receptive to our draft, and planned an early publication date. Shortly thereafter, the editors reported to us that the “upper management team” had informed them that the article was potentially libelous, and they asked for radical alterations. Our dialogue with the editors dragged on over several weeks in the course of which a new claim emerged: the editors believed that the chancellors’ statement did not directly condemn the right to boycott. This bizarre proposition led to an impasse. Thereafter the editors did not respond to our repeated requests to provide factual rationales for the suggested alterations. We ended the editorial dialogue by pointing out the irony of soliciting, and then shutting down, a BDS perspective on the suppression of the right to boycott. Mondoweiss later published the op-ed article the Daily Californian would not run.
With the federal government closed for business in January 2019, and with the country in a state of political and economic instability, Republicans in the U.S. Senate decided that the first order of priority of the 116th Congress should be to pass an anti-Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) bill. The bill would have forced states and local governments to “divest” from companies that boycott Israel or “Israeli-controlled territories.” Fortunately, there were dissenting voices, like Bernie Sanders, who pointed out on Twitter that it was “absolutely absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity.”
A few weeks earlier, University of California leaders took a swipe at that same constitutional right when the chancellors of all the system’s campuses issued a statement that publicly reaffirmed their common opposition to BDS “as a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty.” They said nothing new in their joint statement; their disapproval of BDS, as the statement itself acknowledged, was a “long-standing” position of the UC administration, and it was in lockstep with every university president in the country.
Just as the Senate bill was zealously promoted by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and other pro-Israel lobbyists, the chancellors’ statement appeared to be a direct response to external pressure from the AMCHA Initiative’s coalition of like-minded groups, dedicated to crushing the BDS movement. Like the legislative effort on Capitol Hill, the coalition’s efforts are part of an ill-considered, but well-organized, crackdown on American freedoms of expression (boycotts have long been regarded as free speech) in this case masquerading as a protection of academic freedom.
For those of us who view Israeli policies as akin to South African apartheid, this anti-BDS stance is reminiscent of the UC leadership’s response to the student divestment movement of the 1980s. Just as it took sustained student and faculty activism to make UC withdraw from its South African-related investments, the movement for justice in Palestine needs to be resilient to achieve the same outcome in this case. It will take a strong coalition of students, faculty and alumni to cleave the university administration away from its complicity with Israel’s brutal military occupation, racist policies enshrined in law, ongoing theft of Palestinian land, and record of torture, extrajudicial killings, and other flagrant human rights violations.
The biggest impetus behind the external pressure on the chancellors was the recent decision of professors of conscience, at the University of Michigan and Pitzer College, to boycott their institutions’ study-abroad programs in Israel. Yet it is clear to us that you do not need to be pro-BDS to recognize that the operation of such study-abroad programs violates basic campus principles of non-discrimination and equal opportunity. Students of Palestinian ancestry and Muslim heritage are often denied entry to Israel, and recent amendments to that state’s Law of Entry now restrict members of groups like Jewish Voice of Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. Significant portions of the student body are effectively barred from access to a university program because of racial and religious profiling, or because of their political views.
No one should defend such a violation of institutional principle, and yet the chancellors’ condemnation of the right to boycott implicitly sanctions it. Rather than see their university operate in the shadow of discrimination, students and faculty should choose noncooperation and to voice their First Amendment rights. In doing so, they are protecting the name and reputation of their institution from being tarnished.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu admonished those who wanted to remain impartial during the anti-apartheid struggle: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Student governments at U.C. campuses and elsewhere have heeded Tutu’s words and passed resolutions calling for divestment from companies that profit from the violence of the Occupation and Israel’s human rights violations. Their counterparts here at NYU, and at other universities, are challenging the establishment of study-abroad programs in Israel
On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, the UC Berkeley chancellor saluted the role played by students in ending apartheid as “one of Berkeley’s proudest moments.” Yet to achieve that goal, they had to fight hard against the UC administration’s strenuous efforts to squash their efforts with arrests, fines, and threats of suspension and expulsion. Seen in this light, today’s campus struggles for Palestinian rights are all too familiar. In throwing their bullish weight behind the campaign to eradicate the BDS movement, university administrators are demonstrating that they have learned very little from history.
Ridding South Africa of apartheid did not destroy the country itself, it transformed South Africa into a country of equal rights and justice for all its citizens. We look forward to the day when a UC chancellor praises the contribution made by students and faculty to ending the Occupation, and establishing full civil and political rights for Palestinians in the lands of historic Palestine that stretch from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
Andrew Ross and John King are NYU professors and members of the organizing collective of USACBI—the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel