“Academic Freedom” at American Universities: The ASA Boycott and Bard College
By Amith Gupta
(Amith Gupta graduated from Bard College in 2012, and currently works as the Communications Officer for the Tadamon Council in Egypt.)
This is the second piece about the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israeli institutions which I have had the displeasure of writing. My previous piece, submitted as a rebuttal to American Interest in response to a Bard College professor’s fairly slipshod commentary about the boycott, has not yet been published anywhere official. You can find a copy of it here.
I feel compelled to write this second piece based on my experiences at Bard College, which I believe to be a fairly typical small liberal arts college. I found out earlier today that Bard College President Leon Botstein, closing ranks with other college presidents, has condemned the ASA boycott of Israeli institutions.
When I arrived as a student at Bard College in the fall of 2009, I had just finished a nearly month-long visit to occupied Palestine as an International Solidarity Movement volunteer. I remembered quite vividly that the ISM organizers in Palestine did not consider visiting Palestine briefly to be a successful form of solidarity activism. Hisham Jamjoum, the ISM trainer in Ramallah, commented, “this is only 20% of the work. 80% is when you go back to your home countries.” I interpreted this as a call to found an ISM chapter at Bard College, both to do Palestine solidarity-oriented student activism and as a means of training any locals who had any intention of going to Palestine to participate in non-violent activism.
The latter portion of this organizational mission was completed within a few months of my time at Bard College, when Bard ISM trained about fifteen locals who were headed to Palestine to take part in the Gaza Freedom March. For the following four years, ISM would exist on campus primarily as a traditional student activist group – bringing speakers, including former US ambassador Edward Peck, renowned journalist Glenn Greenwald, and author Max Blumenthal, among others; fund raising for initiatives like the US Boat to Gaza; informational campaigns; and attending demonstration summits like Occupy AIPAC! Last time I checked, the student activists involved in the ISM project believed the organization had successfully served its purposes and had either graduated like myself or decided to pursue other projects.
But to many people both on and off campus, Bard ISM’s significance came in late 2010, when a group of angry, right-wing misfits linked to the right-wing extremist and anti-intellectual David Horowitz elevated their campaign against the ISM into a campaign against Bard College. A fairly insignificant internet propagandist who had previously called for ISM activists in Gaza to be targeted and killed by the Israeli army contacted various Bard College officials (skipping over us entirely) and told them that Bard College was hosting an organization that was providing support for terrorists. Bard could be held liable for violating counter-terror laws, they falsely claimed. In addition to internet propagandists making these absurd claims, Israeli-government linked NGOs like the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre issued delusional reports about how international activist organizations like ISM were part of some sort of pro-terrorist campaign, and specifically listed me by name as some kind of serious contender in this international movement. I was, at this time, the leader of an organization of approximately six students that split my time between studying for finals, organizing speaking events for ISM, and drinking with my friends on the weekends.
In January of 2011, after completing an “investigation,” Bard College President Leon Botstein issued a fairly strong statement ridiculing the accusers and defending our rights as student organizers. He pointed out, correctly, that the International Solidarity Movement is a completely legal organization both in the United States and Israel. In the case of the latter, the Israeli government has simply engaged in extralegal killings of ISM volunteers without embarrassing itself and risking diplomatic issues by banning the leftist organization outright. This follows two decades of Israeli crackdowns on Palestinian civil society; as a means of releasing some pressure, Israel has granted some leniency on paper (if not in practice) to international organizations to observe its abuses and engage in nominal civil society activism without an outright ban.
Many, including I, saw President Botstein’s defense of the ISM’s right to exist as a student organization as a fairly important statement. In addition to a prominent college president – and Israeli government employee – making it clear that there is no case to suggest that ISM is illegal, it also set an important standard in a college environment that has become toxic for Palestine solidarity organizers. Furthermore, Cindy Corrie, the mother of slain ISM activist Rachel Corrie, told me personally during the Occupy AIPAC! Summit that she and her lawyers had considered using President Botstein’s letter in their failed* legal case against the State of Israel over her daughter’s death.
President Botstein’s personal views about ISM were not as clear as his statement suggested. At one point, school officials asked me to consider changing the ISM student chapter’s name from Bard ISM to “Hudson Valley ISM,” although to their credit, they did not force the change. Likewise, in private e-mails, President Botstein sometimes encouraged me tone down the nature of our organizing and engage in “dialog” with the myriad of racist and intolerant campus voices that believed Palestinian rights were negotiable. Again, to his credit, he did not force this change on us.
The Dark Side of Bard’s Conception of “Academic Freedom”
But there is a dark side to President Botstein’s ideas of academic freedom – which are in turn replicated at other universities like Bard College. Although President Botstein is ardently defensive of the right of his students to voice virtually any viewpoint without outside interference of attacks, this same power game results in skewing Bard College’s funding, faculty, and communal consciousness on Palestine in the direction that President Botstein and the college’s financiers demand.
Stifling Faculty Dissent. In 2008, before I had the opportunity to study with him, politics professor Joel Kovel, an outspoken critic of Zionism and Israel, was fired in a murky episode that was likely influenced by Kovel’s opinions on Zionism. The following year, radical politics professor Pierre Ostiguy was also fired despite significant student opposition in what began to look like a purge of leftists from Bard College’s politics department. Although a number of faculty in the politics department continue to provide the opportunity to study fairly critical and radical ideas of politics, the department was significantly re-shaped. After firing Ostiguy, President Botstein welcomed Walter Russell Mead, who brags of a lengthy career teaching and supporting American and British imperial expansion and is a fairly strong supporter of Israel and a critic of the ASA boycott.
Furthermore, the process through which tenure was granted to Bard faculty was and remains strongly controlled by a few senior faculty and President Botstein himself. Without naming names, it is clear that this level of authoritarianism has already scared away some of the campus’ most intelligent faculty members. Others told me informally that they simply could not engage in dissent on campus because they would risk losing tenure. This is not a slight against President Botstein as an individual; this same problem exists at virtually every American university, because campuses and their tenure processes do not exist outside the political matrix that professors study and teach about.
Institutional Support for Normalization with Israel: The Students. Among Bard’s strange mix of service initiatives (and circus initiative) was the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative. This Initiative, founded by Bard alumnus and career opportunist Mujahid Sarsur, from the West Bank village of Mas’Ha, received institutional aid and support from Bard College, Mujahid Sarsur’s family, the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government, British pro-Israel lobbyist Poju Zabludowicz (whose son Roy was another classmate of mine), and others. The Initiative sent Bard students to Palestine to build playgrounds, libraries, and community centers in Mas’Ha. In addition, the Initiative finangled Jerusalem day-passes for various Mas’Ha youths so long as they visit the Israeli government’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. That is, in order to visit their own city for one day, which Israel illegally prevents them from entering under normal circumstances, they were required to consume Eurocentric propaganda suggesting that Israel’s ongoing colonization of their land was justified due to historical atrocities committed against Jews in Europe.
In the United States, BPYI would introduce Bard students to pro-Israel lobbyists where they would receive a warm reception, being told that NGO aid and charity was the way forward rather than boycotts, Gaza flotillas, and other forms of political pressure. In addition, BPYI founder Mujahid Sarsur would approach various publications discussing what he views as the benefits of Israel’s settlement campaigns.
In private, Mujahid would often tell me about how he believed Palestinian refugees did not deserve the right to return to their homeland because the unelected Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas had reneged on this right. He would tell me how, despite everything, he believed Zionism made sense and that the Holocaust justified the expulsion of his own grandparents. Perhaps more worrying, he once suggested calling the Department of Homeland Security (where his now-deceased uncle worked) when a Palestinian-American student at Bard made an innocent comment about supporting Ghana in the 2010 world cup out of Third World solidarity. Finally, before graduating, Mujahid authored a seventy-page screed suggesting that Israel could remain both a Jewish ethnocracy and democratic country. This thesis essay is not available in Bard College’s library (where all other Bard college graduates’ senior theses sit) because it was so treasonous that his academic advisors (including Mead) believed it could ruin his future chances in Palestinian politics or even provoke violence against him. Bizarrely enough, this same Mujahid told me he was happy to see Hamas rockets terrorizing Israelis during Israel’s 2012 bombardment of Gaza, and that he is supporter of both Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Like so many others being groomed to represent the betrayal of Palestine, he seemed to espouse conflicting views depending on whom he was addressing. I am not sure if he was trying to get on my good side, mistakenly believing that I support Hamas’ rocket attacks, or if he was trying to prompt me to say something incriminating that he could hand over to the DHS.
Mujahid’s co-founder, Aaron Dean, made similar nasty comments, trying to purge Bard’s activist scene of what he viewed as “anti-Semitism” (namely, opposition to Israel which he didn’t understand); maligning Palestinian resistance icon Leila Khaled while cheering for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit’s release; and telling me that he wanted to see Palestinian women on the ground in front of Israeli soldiers rather than strong Palestinian women bearing arms (like Leila Khaled). He also believes that problematic videos like this one suggest a positive trend among Muslims, which he explicitly contrasts with Muslim theocracy and violence – as though Muslims are threatening unless they culturally integrate.
BPYI is funded and supported by pro-Israel lobbyists for an obvious reason. Extensive studies have already established that donor projects, charity, and development aid have been an effective means of not only pacifying Palestinian opposition to Israeli encroachment, but have been effective in re-orienting western and civil society criticism to Israel**. While many Palestinian villages engage in domestic, grassroots dissent against the State of Israel’s ongoing land encroachment, channeling attention and volunteers toward smaller and smaller Palestinian Bantustans is an effective means of pulling the carpet out from under the feet of Palestinian civil society. It could also accomplish the feel-good task of settling potential guilt among some of Bard’s conflicted students, some of whom have familial, political, or corporate ties to Israel, such as the Zabludowicz family and this descendent of the founders of Egged.
While it is not worthwhile to condemn the concept of charity as a whole, it is important to recognize that the charity provided by BPYI and other NGOs is not free; it is performed in exchange for political submission to Israel’s destructive colonization efforts. This is made explicit through the BPYI leadership’s statements, the trips to the Holocaust museum, and the press releases that BPYI has sent out to its list-serv establishing itself as an alternative to dissent.
The level of support this Initiative received from Bard College was astonishing. Not only did BPYI receive public endorsements from the College President, it also received the institution’s label and active support of one of its scholarship departments. Students involved in the Initiative, including Mujahid, were given privileged campus opportunities by faculty – which the administration once invoked against him when he objected to a botched student body election – and fairly significant campus internship opportunities by Bard’s financial manager Dimitri Papadimitriou.
If this sort of pampering was not enough, BPYI volunteers once approached me, asking that I shut down or curtail Bard ISM because it might hurt BPYI’s relations with Israel. Not only did this confirm the legitimacy of the ISM in my eyes, it also showed one of the blatant pitfalls of collaboration. On a similar note, BPYI students expressed significant confusion to me when they volunteered for an ISM training in 2010. They did not understand the point of civil disobedience, and constantly asked why it was necessary to dissent against the government that is colonizing Palestine.
Institutional Support for Normalization with Israel: Dual Degree Programs. Bard College has maintained an extensive dual-degree and sister-school program with Al Quds University in Abu Dis in the West Bank. Al Quds University President and Palestinian Authority figure Sari Nusseibeh ran into hot water recently after he made an offensive and conspiratorial remark about Jewish influence and power. Following an admittedly vulgar Islamic Jihad protest on his campus, Mr. Nusseibeh attempted to allay concern from US universities with whom Al Quds University has ties by condemning the demonstration. Ironically, his condemnation was even more offensive to these US universities, which responded by breaking off institutional ties. As usual, Palestinian Authority careerists are often unable to address Palestinian dissenters with national legitimacy while pandering to pro-Israel influences at the same time. The same problem was provoked by the recent ASA boycott. While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned they boycott, the PLO bewilderingly alleged that an Israeli conspiracy had mistranslated the remarks and that the PLO does in fact support the boycott.
Though Bard College did not respond like other universities by cutting ties with Al Quds University, it is worth noting that the College’s institutional ties are yet another token of its institutional position on Palestine. Collaboration and support for Palestine and Palestinians is only acceptable when it is depoliticized or traded as a cover for ongoing Israeli oppression by going through collaborators like Sari Nusseibeh.
Al Quds University has been subject to land confiscation by the Israeli government, and Israeli forces have recently raided the college and fired indiscriminately at students, amidst other attacks on Palestinian students historically. Nonetheless, Bard College has refused to voice any condemnation and has undermined attempts to do so, such as the ASA boycott. This is the contradiction of pretending to be apolitical in relations with those under occupation. While Bard officially maintains its ties with the corrupt Al Quds University administration, it is unable to condemn violence against its own students when those students are Palestinians in the West Bank.
“We Don’t Divest.” In 2012, during my final semester at Bard College, I joined a meeting of the Student Responsible Investing Committee (SRIC) with Bard College’s financial head Dimitri Papadimitriou. Joining me were environmental activists and others. We had combed through Bard College’s stock investments and chose to approach Bard College officials about divestment over human rights concerns. While it is expected that Bard’s financiers would never consent to divestment outright, it was still fairly strange to hear it from them directly. Divestment was simply off the table. “We don’t divest,” remarked Papadimitriou.
In addition to investing much of its endowment in irresponsible corporations that had manufactured and sold weaponry to states that have used that weaponry illegally, including Israel, many of the companies on the biannual list published by the College were environmentally irresponsible and had horrible records on workers’ rights. Furthermore, Bard College uses TIAA-CREF to provide pensions for faculty. TIAA-CREF is a financial services company that in turn invests in a number of corporations engaged in abuses of human rights, such as Caterpillar, Motorola, Northrop Grumman, G4S and others.
Bard College also previously contracted much of its custodial work out to Aramark, which paid the campus’ custodial workers remarkably low wages. A successful student and union campaign by Bard’s Student Labor Dialog forced the College to reluctantly bring these workers in-house, although problems persist. A similar campaign by the student group – one of few remarkably successful student activist groups on campus – forced Bard to end its contract with Coca-Cola in 2006.
The refusal to boycott Israel and/or institutions and corporations that enable its crimes against Palestinians is an established Bard College policy, accompanying a myriad of irresponsible investments. As such, it is unsurprising that President Botstein would condemn the ASA boycott while citing the influence of “Jewish” [sic] (read: pro-Israel) donors.
Bard’s Conundrum is the University System’s Conundrum.
I do not regret my time at Bard College. As far as educational environments go, the education I received at Bard College was truly top-notch; I know this first-hand as a transfer student who misguidedly declined his initial Bard College acceptance and attended a terrible school for two years. Furthermore, despite my disagreements with President Botstein and other Bard College faculty, I consider him and the rest to be likeable individuals.
But the College’s conundrum on Israel and academic freedom is typical. While the college has taken admirable stands on academic freedom, the basic principle is the same as it is at any university. Outside attacks on student organizing are to be resisted, but the will of the college’s administration and the donors and financial ties that embellish its endowment are ultimately supreme.
Through this system of undemocratic and authoritarian university administration, even the most “liberal” and avant-garde institutions can undermine academic freedom by systematically imbalancing the orientation of the campus through moves like the ones described above. Pro-normalization initiatives, anti-boycott statements and policies, and subservient faculty can dominate campus life while the same iron-clad authority of the administration can allow nominal dissent among accepted students.
So while Bard College is definitely more accepting of dissent than other colleges (which may have simply banned ISM at the first sign of controversy), the same adamant refusal of the College to pander to the right-wing mob also enabled the College to undercut dissent more generally.
Perhaps this explains the delusional comments that some, both inside and outside the university system, have made about the ASA boycott. They believe, misguidedly, that the ASA’s boycott of Israeli institutions – as opposed to Israeli students and faculty – is an attack on “academic freedom”. In their view, then, academic freedom is measured by the independence of the administration to do what it pleases without any sort of outside pressure – as opposed to the ability of students and faculty to do what they please without pressure from the outside or the administrators who hire faculty and select students.
In a way, this is a reminder of a more general contradiction of capitalism. Many right-wing propagandists (and misguided others) believe that freedom in general is measured by the inability of of the public or the state to infringe upon the supreme property rights of an individual, even when those “property rights” include the creation of completely tyrannical social spheres – like privately run factories in which workers have no rights at all, much less the right to dissent. In their view, a “free society” means the right of a business-owner to dominate his workers, rather than the right of his workers to act and work without compulsion, including the threat of being fired.
This bizarre and capitalistic notion of freedom is implied both in the content of these criticisms of the ASA boycott and the financial incentives (i.e. donors) that are pushing the criticisms. So long as universities remain spaces without any sort of democratic control, dissent will be an uphill battle. Consequently, it is even more admirable that the ASA boycott, despite the vicious backlash to their decision, was able to mobilize support for the boycott nonetheless.
*Because the State of Israel has sanctified its own military policies in Gaza, where Rachel was killed during an Israeli home demolition in 2003, the Corrie family was not able to argue that Israel’s deadly house demolition operation and occupation of Gaza were illegal as the international community claims, and the court simply blamed Rachel for her own death when the bulldozer ran her over. Other lawsuits have had rare successes; the courts jailed an Israeli soldier when he shot ISM activist Tom Hurndall in the head as the latter escorted kindergarten children to school. Regarding killings, slayings, and torture of Palestinians, the successes are nearly non-existent barring extenuating circumstances.
**See also this extensive report on how billionaire Poju Zabludowicz, one of BPYI’s funders, used the “peace process” as a means of undercutting international pressure that had undermined some Israeli business sectors in which he has invested. Initiatives like BPYI essentially function as part of the “peace process” infrastructure of normalization with Israel even while its abuses and occupation continue.