Monday, August 2, 2010

Should Universities Discipline Faculty Members for Calling for an Academic Boycott of Their Own Institution?

Recently, Gideon, Sa'ar, the Israeli Minister of Education, Moshe Kaveh, the President of Bar Ilan University, and Amnon Rubinstein, the emeritus Tel-Aviv law professor, have held that university faculty members who endorse the academic boycott of Israeli universitities should be disciplined. According to Prof. Kaveh, they should even be fired. Opposing this position, Tel Aviv law professor Chaim Gans argues in today's Haaretz that endorsements of the boycott should be protected under academic freedom and freedom of speech. His arguments are familiar and should convince any person whose moral compass hasn't been thrown out of kilter by the current climate of jingoism. But there is one argument that he does not address, the "employee-damage" argument. It goes like this: When an employee calls for a boycott of his place of employment, his disloyalty causes real damage; hence, an employer should be able to discipline the employee, or even fire him.

The employee-damage argument should not be confused with the argument that it is unethical to criticize one's place of employment, "to spit in the well from which you drink." Faculty members are sometimes disciplined for ethical breaches, but what faculty member doesn't criticize his institution? When the president of Bar Ilan university says, "Someone who criticizes the place where he works is ethically obliged to resign," he dooms his own university into oblivion. Trust me, I was a tenured professor at Bar Ilan, and I know.

Still, even the employee-damage argument is very weak. A hundred Israeli faculty members calling for an academic boycott of their institutions do less damage than the thousands of Israeli academics who regularly strike for better pay. The latter causes real suffering to students and often harm their institutions. The right to strike, indeed, the unionization of faculty members, is recognized in Israel, but in most universities in the United States it is not. There is nothing sacrosanct about it, or, for that matter, about academic tenure. Many, especially in non-democratic countries, argue that faculty members who don't like their pay should shut up or look for a different job. But in Israel that argument is rejected. So it cannot be the mere fact of damage, or intended damage, that gets you in trouble; that could be used as a blanket argument to suppress any criticism, much less, job actions.

If you think that the analogy to striking faculty is far-fetched, consider a different scenario: A conservative government wishes to cut government spending and targets subsidies to its public universities. At a sensitive juncture in the public debate, a French professor who is philosophically a laissez-faire capitalist, publishes an op-ed endorsing the government proposals, arguing that the universities are already bloated by public funding, and that this is bad for society at large. The university administration and many of her colleagues are appalled by this disloyalty; indeed, one of them makes the argument that she is not protected by academic freedom because she teaches French and not economics. And to make matters worth, the Finance Minister appeals to the professor's op-ed in his speech before the Parliament, which approves the cuts. Now the professor is certainly being critical of and disloyal to her institution, with detrimental effect. Should she be disciplined?

Well, of course not. Faculty, like other employees, may be disciplined for being derelict in their duties. But it is a very big stretch to say that writing an op-ed, or signing a petition, makes one derelict. Employees should be protected from that sort of retaliation from the employer, and academic faculty, even when not speaking in their field of specialization, should feel free to speak without fear of retaliation.

The real damage to Israeli universities when their faculty members of a given university endorse the academic boycott against Israel is not from the boycotters but from the angry Jewish donors, who threaten to terminate their gifts. Such was the case with Neve Gordon at Ben Gurion University, and with Anat Matar at Tel Aviv University, one of whose donors, I am told, promptly announced that he was transferring his gift from Tel-Aviv University to Bar Ilan University. In this context one should understand the remarks of the Bar Ilan president. The proper response of the Bar Ilan faculty to Prof. Kaveh's interference in their free speech and their rights as employees is to sign a statement against him, and to do it as quickly as possible.



Anonymous said...

oh please

if you and the rest of the so called academics truly had the courage of your convictions, you would do as they did in south africa

resign your positions and leave the country

Yossi Gurvitz said...

I think there's an issue which wasn't addressed, which is moral cowardice. To call for the boycotting of a university since it is a collaborator of the occupation and still draw a salary from it is morally indefensible. If the crimes of the university are so great you are morally obliged to call for its boycott, do the essential thing and resign.

For the record, I support a boycott on the universities. I just think it hypocritical in the extreme for a faculty member to do so.

Anonymous said...


what you are saying is really a wishful thinking on your part - the crowd you dealing with will never sacrifice their comfort for their convictions. even the author of this blog while preaching the "magnes" kind of zionism (never mind that magnes was never considered to be a zionist in his lifetime) did not mind to have a tenure at bar-ilan (or so he claims). the same goes for the rest of this crowd - only once they secure more cushy jobs overseas will they leave (and then will continue to besmirch their former employers at every opportunity). and i agree with you yossi gurvitz the key element here is moral cowardice.

willyrobinson said...

@Yossi Gurvitz

I think a university ought to be bigger than the narrow views of its administrators. As long as Neve Gordon is within Ben Gurion University, then his (brilliant) minority voice is part of that university. It's not hypocracy, it's teaching. Conflicts exist within the broad church that is a university.

Jerry Haber said...


You are wrong about South Africa; there were academics that supported boycott and sanctions and stayed at their institutions.

"The ethical and other issues surrounding the academic boycott deeply divided the academic community, both within and outside South Africa. Boycott proponents argued that academics should not be treated as an elite detached from the political and social environment in which it functions, especially since some of the South African universities seemed to be tools of the Nationalist government."

from The Academic Boycott of South Africa: Symbolic Gesture or Effective Agent of Change?
by F. W. Lancaster (University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign) and Lorraine Haricombe (Northern Illinois University)

Many academics did not support it, and many resented it.

Jerry Haber said...


I don't agree with you at all on this one.

It would be hypocritical for a professor to get grants from the government to work in tandem with IDF researchers, and then endorse a boycott against his university because it works with IDF.

But it is not hypocritical to draw a salary from an institution and then call for a boycott of the institution because parts of it enable the Occupation, or to endorse academic boycott in order to end the Occupation. Neither are you directly benefiting from the unethical behavior, nor are you trying to destroy your university.

Even in South Africa, where there were various levels of boycotts and sanctions against universities, most faculty members saw them as symbolic and as irritants; the universities themselves did not suffer greatly.

On the contrary, when somebody like Neve Gordon calls for qn academic boycott the dramatic, symbolic impact is greater, because of the is willing to pay the academic price, both in his institution, and in his profession, of being at that institution.

The "hypocritical" argument is often misused. I remember when opponents of the Vietnam War were told that they were hypocritical to live in America and pay taxes, which went to the war effort, and criticize the war. I am accused of being hypocritical because I live in Israel and criticize it. If I really was serious in my criticism, I am told, I would leave.

Those calling for an academic boycott are not hypocritical, nor are they cowards; the cowards are the ones who agree with them but shut up for fear of reprisals, and there are many of them in all universities.

I still have not said that I endorse the academic boycott, though. That is a much more complex question. But I don't consider those academics who do worthy of sanction or hypocritical.

Jerry Haber said...

The anonymous who said that "Magnes was never considered a Zionist in his lifetime" doesn't know his elbow from his derriere. "Magnes was the secretary of the Federation of American Zionists, its CEO and its most influential spokesman." (Dissenter in Zion, A. Goren)

Anonymous said...


some stayed...many left

those that stayed were indeed cowards

fine...dont leave the country

and dont leave the university

but stop taking what you perceive as blood money

work for free

not that it matters anyway...the bds movement is an epic failure

it is just an extension of the arab boycott which has been in existence since 67....and what has it accomplished?

well, elvis costello wont play israel (that wouldve been a big deal 10-20 years ago)

but israel is one of the few countries that has weathered the global depression

the bds movement has been slapped down on all major college campuses across the united states

and recent polling shows that a majority of americans still stand with israel

but go ahead and neve should keep banging your heads against that proverbial wall

Anonymous said...


"CEO and its most influential spokesman" - really?

And last time I checked Elvis was still alive – send him my regards next time you speak with him.

Yossi Gurvitz said...

That was a very well made argument. Consider me convinced.

Anonymous said...

What academic price is Gordon willing to pay? He is tenured. You have tenure. Your job is protected, your speech is protected, your income is protected. Yet you think nothing of damaging your colleagues incomes and careers or your institution's ability to function. All of this while your institution educated Arab Israelis and probably Palestinian Arabs as well. You should be deeply, deeply ashamed.