Professor Frederick Krantz
Isranet Editorial, December 24, 2013
Canadian Institute for Jewish Research
The American Studies Association’s embrace of “BDS” restrictions against democratic Jewish Israel has been condemned in many quarters. That it is based on ignorance, hypocrisy and implicit anti-Semitism goes almost without saying; that the motion was passed by a small voting minority of the 5,000- member association is less known. But what concerns me here are the implications of its action as a professional academic group, which raise questions about the appropriateness of professional associations and other corporate groups, and above all universities, taking overt political positions.
As a professional association, the ASA's primary purpose is to promote the professional concerns of its academic members, not to take highly ideological and politicized public positions (which--as in the case of this group--often do not in any case represent the majority of their members: only ca.40% of the ASA membership voted, and of that group, over a third, I gather, opposed the motion, meaning a minority of the overall membership determined its policy).
But the key issue, nevertheless, isn't whether a clear majority did, or didn't, support the ASA's action. It is about whether it is appropriate for academic entities--colleges and universities, and the Faculties and departments which compose them, as well as professional academic associations-to take public political positions binding on all their members.
In terms of these unique institutions, the key consideration, and principle, must be respect for academic freedom (as the American Association of University Professors, in opposing academic boycotts of any kind, has affirmed). Above all, care must be taken not to violate the rights of individual faculty members. As importantly, we are citizens before we are "faculty", and as such our primary political arena--within which political action is not only legitimate, but incumbent on us, and where rights and freedoms are guaranteed by constitutions, human rights charters and civil law--is not the university or professional association, but the state, or "society", generally.
Again, an academic unit or association is a pedagogical, not a political, entity; its primary duty is teaching and research, not politics. Politicizing it, even for what may at the moment seem an issue of over-riding importance, can in the longer run prove inimical to its fundamental purpose and ethos.
That academics do, or should, stand for key shared values, is evident and appropriate. And like them, the larger body of which they are part, the university, embodies (or should embody) shared liberal values of freedom, the quest for truth, and mutual respect.
This means, however, that it should not allow ideological-political values to determine University policy (or tenure and promotion decisions, or how we evaluate student performance, and so on). But the fact that the University is a "values-laden" corporate entity insofar as its function, and functioning, are concerned does not give it (which means those bodies and persons entrusted with directing it) the moral right to take specific and implicitly coercive political-ideological positions in the name of all its many, and different, members.
That happened in the great German universities in the '30s (and, less well-known, to Russian universities with the advent of Bolshevism after 1917, and Italian universities after fascism came to power in the 1920’s), to their eternal shame: the philosopher Martin Heidegger, “boycotting” Jewish academics and imposing Nazi values as installed Chancellor of Freiburg U., was a representative example, not an anomaly. A contemporary imagined analogue would be Quebec universities proclaiming--as universities, i.e., as corporate entities taking actions supposedly binding on their members—political support for separatism (not, I hasten to add, because Pequistes are Nazis, but because insofar as the coercive effect of such an act is concerned the result--stifling the very freedom on which the university is founded—would be similar: muffling, if not excluding, difference and opposition, and compelling consent.
The ASA case, like a number of other recent “BDS” examples, is simply a screen for a highly tendentious and politicized ideological position, a hypocritical act of bumbling, self-righteous mediocrities wishing to impose their views on others. That it singles out democratic Israel, the Jewish state, the (only) shining example of representative justice and the rule of law in its region, while ignoring the scores of con-temporary dictatorships truly oppressing, often murderously, their own people as well as subordinate religious and political groups, condemns the organization itself. And, clearly, the self-righteous and uninformed ASA leadership (again, not representing a clear majority of all its members), in its rush to single out Jewish Israel, is also, consciously or unconsciously, antisemitic. The ASA’s act exemplifies the dangers of allowing corporate, and above all academic, entities supposedly dedicated to individual liberty, free speech and objective research, to violate their specific purposes and values and, despite their “progressive” rationales, to act in an authoritarian manner by committing their members to highly politicized and prejudicial courses of action.
That there may well be “boundary” situations in which corporate academic political stances vis-à-vis external socio-political causes or crises in the larger polity are justified is a related, but different, issue. In the case of the ASA and its embrace of “BDS” sanctions against democratic Israel, however, the action is clearly, insofar as its professional mandate is concerned, ultra vires. And insofar as simple morality and justice are concerned, it is indefensible, and rightly to be condemned.
Dr. Krantz is Professor of History, Liberal Arts College, Concordia University, and Director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (Montreal).