by Stanley Fish

Part I.

I hate it when I have a book in press and people keep writing about the subject anyway. You would think that they would have the courtesy to hold their fire until I have had my say. I raise the issue because my book on academic freedom ("Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution") will be out in about a year and the online Journal of Academic Freedom (published by the American Association of University Professors) has just posted its fourth volume consisting of essays on a topic that figures prominently in my analysis — the boycott of Israeli universities by academic institutions and scholars housed in other countries.

For those of you who haven't heard about this movement, let me briefly rehearse its history. Since the early 2000's a number of academics have been arguing that because Israel is a rogue state engaged in acts of oppression and apartheid, and because Israeli universities are by and large supported and administered by the state, it must be assumed that those universities further the ends of a repressive regime, either by actively supporting its policies or by remaining silent in the face of atrocities committed against the Palestinians. Accordingly, it is appropriate, and indeed a matter of urgency, for right-thinking (meaning left-thinking) academics to refuse to engage in intellectual discourse with the Israeli academy. If you have an exchange program with an Israeli university, suspend it; if you are the editor of a scholarly journal and an Israeli researcher is a member of your board, remove him.

In response to the objection that such actions violate the academic freedom of Israeli academics by singling them out for exclusion from the scholarly conversation for which they were trained (thereby making them into second-class academic citizens), boycott supporters make two points that are somewhat in tension. They say, first, that the academic freedom of Palestinian professors and students is violated daily when they are denied access, funding, materials and mobility by the state of Israel; no academic freedom for you if you don't accord it to them. This argument, you will note, assumes that academic freedom is a primary value. The second argument doesn't. It says that while academic freedom is usually a good thing, when basic questions of justice are in play, it must give way. Here is the Palestinian researcher Omar Barghouti making that point in the current issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom: "[W]hen a prevailing and consistent denial of basic human rights is recognized, the ethical responsibility of every free person and every association of free persons, academic institutions included, to resist injustice supersedes other considerations about whether such acts of resistance [like a boycott] may directly or indirectly injure academic freedom."

Or, in other words, adhering strictly to academic freedom standards is O.K. in the conduct of academic business as usual, but when something truly horrible is happening in the world, the niceties of academic freedom become a luxury we can't (and shouldn't) afford: "[I]n contexts of dire oppression, the obligation to save human lives and to protect the inalienable rights of the oppressed to live as free, equal humans acquires an overriding urgency and an immediate priority."

The repetition of the word "free" in Barghouti's statements alerts us to something peculiar in this line of reasoning: academic freedom, traditionally understood as the freedom to engage in teaching and research free from the influences or pressures of politics, is being declared an obstacle to — even the enemy of — genuine freedom, which is defined politically. You can be true to academic freedom, at least in this logic, only if you are willing to jettison its precepts when, in your view, political considerations outweigh them. David Lloyd and Malini Johar Scheuller (writing in the same volume) say as much when they describe a boycott as "a specific tactic, deployed in relation to a wider campaign against injustice." Wider than what? The answer is, wider than an academic freedom conceived as a professional — not moral or political — concept. That professional conception of academic freedom, characterized by boycotters as impoverished, desiccated, and an alibi for neoliberal hegemony, must be left behind so that actions in violation of academic freedom narrowly defined may be taken in the name of an academic freedom suitably enlarged.

The formula and the rationale for this vision of academic freedom undoing itself in the service of academic freedom are concisely given in a Howard Zinn quotation Lloyd and Scheuller ask us to remember: "To me, academic freedom has always meant the right to insist that academic freedom be more than academic." This declaration has the virtue of illustrating just how the transformation of academic freedom from a doctrine insulating the academy from politics into a doctrine that demands of academics blatantly political actions is managed. What you do is diminish (finally to nothing) the limiting force of the adjective "academic" and at the same time put all the emphasis on freedom (which should be re-written FREEDOM) until the academy loses its distinctive status and becomes just one more location of a universal moral/political struggle. Balakrishnan Rajagopal, cited by Rima Najjar Kapitan in her essay, says it forthrightly: "[A]cademic freedom is not only an end.... It is also the means for realizing other important ends, including individual freedoms , that go beyond expressive freedoms to encompass all freedoms such as nondiscrimination." When the means, strictly adhered to, seem to block the realization of the end, sacrifice them. (Oh, Kant, thou shouldst be living at this hour!)

As you can tell from my citations, nearly all of the essays in the new issue of J.A.F. support the boycott although the A.A.U.P. itself is against it, at least so far. Only one commissioned essay (out of nine, plus a polemical and biased introduction) and two published responses to the volume take the opposite position. Ernst Benjamin, an old A.A.U.P. hand, makes the key point when he observes that "The A.A.U.P. is not itself a human rights organization." Cary Nelson, until recently the president of the A.A.U.P., elaborates, explaining that "The focus of the A.A.U.P.'s mission is higher education." It follows, he continues, that academic freedom is to be understood within the context of that focus: "[A]cademic freedom is a specialized right that is not legally implicated in the full spectrum of human rights that nations should honor." (That's perfect.)

This does not mean, of course, that academics are bent on violating human rights or that they display an unconcern with them. It means, rather, that watching out for human rights violations and taking steps to stop them is not the charge either of the A.A.U.P. or the academy or the doctrine of academic freedom. Watching out for academic freedom violations — instances in which a scholar's right to pursue his or her research freely has been compromised by an overweening administration — is the charge, and it includes taking steps to stop him or her by exerting pressure or threatening legal action. As Nelson's vocabulary reminds us, this is a specialized monitoring of behavior in circumscribed educational contexts, not a monitoring of bad behavior wherever on earth it might be found. We should not, says Benjamin "compromise this principle [of academic freedom] in the name of others which, though they may be larger and even more important, are not the principles specific to our association." If we do so, and extend academic freedom only to those "found worthy" by a political measure, we shall have lost our grip on academic freedom altogether, for "[p]olitically qualified academic freedom is not really academic freedom at all." (Amen!)

Distinctions like the ones invoked by Benjamin and Nelson are likely to be waved away by those they argue against, because, as Marjorie Heins, the third dissenter, observes, in the eyes of academics "incensed at Israeli policies ...delicate questions about the unjust targeting of innocent professors, or of imposing political tests, are minor concerns compared to the moral exigency of the issue." "The issue" is of course the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and while it is easy to understand how academics, among others, might find that treatment objectionable and reprehensible (and I take no position on the question here), it is not so easy to understand how moral outrage at a political action can be so quickly translated into an obligation to deny professional courtesies to people whose responsibility for that action is at best attenuated and in many instances non-existent. And it absolutely defies understanding — except by the convoluted and loose arguments rehearsed above — that the concept of academic freedom could be used to defend a policy, the policy of boycott, that so cavalierly throws academic freedom under the bus.

A final question. What animates the boycotters? They would, I am sure, answer, we are animated by a commitment to the securing of social/political justice, a commitment that overrides lesser commitments we might have as professionals. I'll grant that as a part of their motivation, but another, perhaps larger, part is the opportunity to shed the label "ivory-tower intellectual" — a label that announces their real-world ineffectuality — and march under a more flattering banner, the banner of "freedom fighter." But the idea that an academic becomes some kind of hero by the cost-free act of denying other academics the right to play in the communal sandbox (yes, this is third-grade stuff) is as pathetic as it is laughable. Heroism doesn't come that cheaply. Better, I think, to wear the "ivory-tower intellectual" label proudly. At least, it's honest.

Part II.

The responses to my column on the call by some academics to boycott Israeli universities in the name of academic freedom were impassioned and polarized. I was pleased to find more readers than usual on my side, but one argument favored by those who agreed with my negative view of the boycott is, I think, beside the point. That is the argument that the boycott is wrong because it is selective, because it singles out Israel when there are so many other countries in the world whose policies and actions are just as bad or worse. Actually, this is not an argument; it is a debating point (as some who offer it know): it is a form of reductio ad absurdum, the rhetorical trick of extending an opponent's claim until it yields an absurd result, in this case the absurd result that follows if we are required to break off relations with universities housed in nations whose human rights record we find questionable: on this reasoning, we would have to break off relationships with everyone and there would be no academic exchange at all.

The problem with this debating point is that it puts the emphasis on the wrong question — whether Israel is a good or bad country, and thereby implies that if it were clearly one or the other, the boycott would be clearly bad or good. But Israel's moral status is irrelevant to the right question, which is whether academic institutions boycotting other academic institutions can ever be an expression of, rather than an undermining of, academic freedom. Ian Maitland is exactly on target when he says that "[t]he point isn't whether the policy of boycotting universities in countries whose policies we deplore is applied consistently. It is whether it is good policy in any circumstances." Even if it were true that "Israel has no recognized moral standing in the world" (Tom Paine), that would not be a reason for engaging in an academic boycott against it, and the anointing of Israel as the beacon of freedom would not be a reason for exempting it from a boycott, should one be academically justified (as I think it could not be).

For many posters, playing the "consistency" card is merely preliminary to the accusation they really want to make, the accusation that the boycotters are anti-Semites. They are saying, if you won't follow the logic of your argument to its absurd conclusion and boycott everyone, it must be because you harbor a special animus toward Jews. But again this is a red herring, indeed the same red herring. No doubt some boycotters are anti-Semitic, while others (a vast majority, I would think) are not. But the rightness or wrongness of an action has nothing to do with the moral status of the actor who performs it. If academics boycotting other academics is wrong, it is wrong whether the boycotter is a virulent anti-Semite or someone whose heart is discrimination- free.

It follows that the determination of the rightness or wrongness of the boycott should begin not with a moral calculus of either nations or persons, but with a specification of what business universities are in, which will also be a specification of what activities are appropriate to university professors and a specification of the proper scope of academic freedom. Poster Nana's understanding of what professors are supposed to do is expansive: "Part of academics' responsibility is the advancement of Justice, equality, human rights preservation." That would come as a surprise to the committee that approved my dissertation, to the departments that hired me, and to the presses that have published my work. They didn't ask me how I planned to advance justice and equality; they were concerned with the quality of my scholarship and with the contribution my analyses might make to the discipline's continuing conversations. They were concerned, that is, with my professional, not my political, performance. Of course, Nana's capacious definition of academic responsibility makes no distinction between the professional and the political. Indeed, in her account the professional is an extension of the political, and, if that is so, it makes perfect sense to regard boycotting — described by Robert Jennings as a "definitive political instrument" -- as a legitimate professional act and as an expression of academic freedom, no longer understood to be "academic" in any serious sense.

Jennings derides my "narrow" and "simplistic categorical reasoning," which, he says, is not "up to the task of addressing so complex a question." By that he means that by insisting on a limited, guild notion of academic freedom -- it is the freedom to pursue scholarly inquiry, not the freedom to advance justice and equality on university time — I fall short of addressing the "multilayered social milieu" in which the academy inevitably resides. I would reply that while the "multilayered social milieu" is properly the object of academic attention — it can be described, analyzed and mapped — it is not the proper object of academic intervention. "Narrow" is an adjective the academy should not shun but embrace, for if academic activity cannot be narrowly defined, it loses its shape and becomes indistinguishable from political rallies and partisan exhortation. This of course is what the boycotters want. Definitions like Nana's do not enhance the academic enterprise or add a heroic gloss to the concept of academic freedom; rather they destroy both by emptying them of any specific content.

Chris does the same thing when he declares that "it is entirely appropriate for any [academic] institution to indicate its disapproval of a political regime by refusing to establish ... arrangements with institutions that collaborate with that regime." But nothing in the charge given to a university by the state or by a board of trustees authorizes, much less demands, the awarding of points to a political regime. It is only if universities are thought to be in the business of giving seals of approval or disapproval to sovereign states (a job reserved for organizations like the State Department and the United Nations) that arrangements with other universities can "appropriately" be conditioned on a determination of political correctness. A university is free, just as Chris asserts, not to enter into arrangements with another institution for all kinds of reasons: the curriculums may not fit, the finances may not work, the prestige of the would-be-partner may be insufficient. These and other professional reasons are the appropriate ingredients of a negative decision; disagreement with the policies of the state regime is not an appropriate ingredient because it is not a professional one.

Some posters say that by focusing on neatly cabined professional issues, I display an unconcern with the "right of Palestinians not to be bombed, and killed, imprisoned, have their olive trees burned and land stolen" (Christian Haesemeyer). But if I "take no position" on these matters it is because they are not my subject in the column, and not because I regard them as trivial or unworthy of a response. Jim R. gets it right: "Fish is writing about academic freedom. Not about boycotts, political messaging or anything else." Posing a limited question about the nature and scope of academic freedom does not mean that one is dismissing, or saying anything at all about, other questions that are not, at the moment, on the table. It means, simply, that one is keeping to the point, a cardinal intellectual virtue.

Another version of the demand that I declare a position on everything takes the form of a series of questions: "Where were you Stanley Fish when Noam Chomsky was refused admission to Israel...? Where were you when the University of Haifa drove the distinguished historian Ilan Pappe into exile?" (Rosa H.). "[W]here was [Fish] when Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul? When Shortell was pushed out of chairmanship at Brooklyn College? When the CUNY board of Trustees usurped faculty authority to institute a dumbed-down, general ed-lite curriculum ignoring the registered opposition of 92% of the faculty?"(David A.). "And what would Professor Fish say about the boycott used to deny South Africa access to ... academics when their policy of apartheid was in full cry?" (chickenlover). "I would also ask Mr. Fish if his interest in academic freedom extended to a support of the lecture by Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler at Brooklyn College last winter?" (Mary Ann).

The last two questions are easy. I am on record ("To Boycott or Not to Boycott") saying that university divestment from South African-related stocks for political rather than economic reasons was wrong. And I wrote two columns in this space supporting the Barghouti-Butler lecture and excoriating those who tried to stop it. As for the other questions, that's a lot of places where I should have been instead of where I probably was, in class teaching, or in my office writing. Moreover, the examples hurled at me are not always to the point of my column. Professor Finkelstein was denied tenure, not boycotted. (No consolation to him.) The CUNY trustees may have been unwise to ignore the views of 92 percent of the faculty, but they had the right and authority to do so. Maybe they were being stupid and arrogant, as trustees often are, but they weren't boycotting anything. And what I as an American citizen have to do with the decision of the state of Israel to admit or not admit someone, even Noam Chomsky, is beyond me. It would certainly help if the parties to conversations like this one would keep to the terms of the debate and not engage in scatter-gun hypotheticals. But my main objection to these questions/challenges is that by demanding that one (in this case I) take up every issue that could conceivably be related to the topic under discussion, they ensure that the topic will never come into focus and that the discussion itself will be hopelessly diffuse.

Finally, allow me to comment on two criticism of my prose style. N.S. Edwards says that he has "never read such a convoluted, poorly written article." Robert, on the other hand (or is it the other hand?), complains that the column is too well-written: "Am I the only one who feels exhausted after reading Fish's tight, manicured precise-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives sentences? They seem to form granite like paragraphs all precisely metered and placed 'so' — like the foundations of a pyramid." My goal is to be guilty of this charge every time out.

Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami. He is currently Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke University and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of 15 books, most recently "Versions of Antihumanism: Milton and Others"; "How to Write a Sentence"; "Save the World On Your Own Time"; and "The Fugitive in Flight," a study of the 1960s TV drama. "Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution" will be published in 2014. Part I appeared October 27, 2013 as a New York Times Op-Ed and is archived at Part II appeared November 12, 2013 and is archived at

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