Legislating academic (un)freedom

Dov Hikind (Azi Paybarah/Flickr)

Opposition to academic boycott has taken a serious turn, one as predictable as it is ghastly.

Those who have debated whether or not boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) have had visible material effects received a clear answer the moment that government got involved in its suppression.

The state always steps in to smash dangerous ideas when they cannot be regulated by the machinery of popular opinion.

The loudest salvo arose in New York State, where state assemblyman Dov Hikind and state senator Jeffrey Klein, both Democrats, proposed legislation that would defund departments with American Studies Association (ASA) members and prohibit faculty from attending meetings of organizations that endorse academic boycott. Bill S6438, with minor modifications, easily passed the senate, but now faces considerable obstacles.

Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick, chair of the Higher Education Committee, squashed the bill, though she noted that a revised version might reappear. If so, it faces a hostile reception.

The New York Times, a Zionist and Democratic stalwart, has criticized Hikind and Klein’s effort; activists across the political spectrum have mobilized against the bill.

Indeed, it appears that Hikind and Klein have initiated a backlash that not only keeps BDS in the news, but also compels liberal Zionists to stand down from their typical defend-Israel-at-all-costs attitude.

Sodastream’s settlement factory produced a comparable backlash.

These days Israel’s best friends – Dov Hikind, Scarlett Johannson, Jeffrey Klein – are doing the state more damage than anybody else. 

Why legislation?

Law stands in where obeisance cannot be cultivated voluntarily. As individuals, companies, and scholarly associations exercise their right to divest from a country with significant human rights violations, Zionist fanatics seek to ban boycott as a form of speech rather than debating its merits and downsides in public arenas.

For some, commitment to Israel overrides the maintenance of traditional American legal protections. Let me more precisely define “commitment to Israel.”

A commitment to Israel, as a discursive proposition, is not the same as a commitment to the well-being of Israel’s inhabitants. It expresses a devotion to the politicians, arms industries, and economic elite of a country whose defining feature is military occupation.

This is the fundamental problem with Bill S6438 and comparable efforts: they undermine any attempt at cultivating the common good in order to strengthen the position of a subcultural icon.

Thus it fits so readily into American electoral politics. Zionism is a wonderful advertisement for anarchism.

If we operate from an ethical desire for legislation that benefits as many citizens as possible, if not all citizens, then it’s easy to reject Bill S6438 out of hand. Matters aren’t so simple, though. Notions of social probity are refracted through the commonsense wisdom of the powerful.

Zionists, for instance, have appropriated vocabularies of humanism to make Israel sound like the embodiment of virtue. Contesting legislation that seeks to outlaw criticism of Israel, then, is crucial to everybody, even to those who erroneously believe that Palestinian dispossession has nothing to do with them.

The strategy of punishing the collective in order to serve the interests of a particular demographic is central to American democracy.

In this instance, though, the attempt is so brazen that even the traditional guardians of plutocracy and jingoism can identify it—or are repulsed enough to actually offer criticism instead of consent. 

Freedom as repression

The language Klein and Hikind use to rationalize Bill S6438 is rooted in the traditional conceits of liberal democracy. They speak of ending discrimination, of promoting tolerance, of protecting educational integrity. According to their PR strategy, Klein and Hikind are selfless crusaders of high-minded ideals.

The greatest term in their arsenal is “academic freedom,” a locution so overused by the anti-BDS crowd that the adjective “academic” now assumes its less-utilized connotation, as in perfunctory or pointless.

“Academic freedom” transmits a distinct, albeit tacit, message in the boycott debate: “How dare you criticize Israel!”

It is important to continue analyzing the repercussions of anxious Zionists turning to legislative action as a remedy to BDS. We can shift our focus from the typical sites of liberal debate, such as the arenas of academic freedom and individual rights, to the more pivotal context of social justice and decolonial analysis.

Academic boycott, like BDS more generally, is a tactic that serves a larger purpose, the liberation of Palestine.

It doesn’t exist to facilitate academic freedom or free speech rights. These are the vehicles through which BDS is practiced, but not its primary concern.

I follow a simple rule: bring it back to Palestine. And bring Palestine back from its historical erasure.

Maryland plays copycat

The latest legal challenge to BDS comes from Maryland, where Democratic state senator Joan Carter Conway has introduced Senate Bill 647, which is comparable to the failed New York State legislation.

The bill is unlikely to gain traction. Even the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which is now better described as a Zionist lobbying organization than an academic advocacy group, has condemned the legislation.

However, we should take these legislative moves seriously. They inform a broader pattern in which legal authority validates profound forms of repression, a phenomenon with which Palestinians are remarkably familiar.

BDS has always been concerned with moral legitimacy, not with the mandate of lawmakers and the political elite. It needs to remain that way. 

Matters of concern

Let’s take a look at what the New York and Maryland legislation teaches us about anti-BDS strategy.

First of all, Zionist fanatics and their lackeys in governing bodies clearly do not care about either academe or “academic freedom.” They care about Israel’s ability to colonize and pillage without repercussion. This includes, remarkably, many university presidents.

The New York and Maryland legislation threatens to withhold funding, so we must remain careful not to recreate the norms of capitalist governance in activist communities.

Palestine will never be fully decolonized—nor will the Americas or the Southern Hemisphere—if liberation results in a neocolonial structure that responds only to the presence of money or influence.

BDS’s greatest moral asset is its refusal to align with governments, lobbyists, and corporations. In remaining adamantly grassroots, BDS activists perform an ethics of democratic organizing that foregrounds their vision of an inclusive and equitable Palestine.

Finally, all the sponsors of the anti-boycott legislation are Democrats. When it comes to Israel, most liberal politicians are happy to trade in their precious ideals for the comforts of fascism.

Does anybody really still adhere to the fully-indemonstrable notion that, when it comes to Palestine, Democrats are preferable to Republicans?




Were Democrats ever better than Republicans on Palestine? I remember a time before 9/11 when the Republican Party could count on the Arab-American vote bc of this single issue. It took 9/11 for Republicans to shift their anti-semitism towards Arabs instead of Jews, finally finding common ground with the Dems