Debating the Academic Boycott of Israel in a Climate of Fear

[this piece was written in the context of the 2014-2016 campaign]

by Lori Allen and Ajantha Subramanian

On October 1, a group published a petition calling on anthropologists to boycott Israeli academic institutions that are complicit in the state of Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights. Within three weeks, over 900 anthropologists signed the petition in their capacity as individual scholars, although many also identify as members of the AAA. Of these, more than 126 have elected to sign anonymously. These include at least 59 untenured faculty, 12 post-doctoral fellows, and 39 graduate students. The anonymous signatures have elicited interesting reactions. While some have expressed surprise at this resort to anonymity, others find the choice self-evident. In this essay, we offer some explanations and context for these anonymous signatures (if you have signed the petition and experienced pressure or intimidation of any kind, please contact us at

Those who chose to sign the petition anonymously gave various reasons for doing so. Among the most common was fear of how public criticism of Israel’s occupation would affect the chances of getting a job or tenure. Wrote one student, “I am on the job market this year, and concerned about possible reprisals. I look forward to being able to add my name openly in the future.” Other students mentioned being advised to withhold their names: “As a doctoral candidate, and not knowing yet whether or not I will be seeking employment in the [United] States in the future, I’ve been advised to sign anonymously.” One assistant professor cited administrative censure of colleagues as a reason: “I’m an untenured faculty member at an institution that has already pulled professors into the president’s office over signing pro-Palestine petitions.” A scholar of Israel/Palestine referred to concerns about the scholarly review process: “I sincerely wish that I could, at this stage, present my name publicly, and I realize that more public signatures would strengthen the letter. However, as a scholar working on Israel/Palestine, everything I send out for review goes through the hands of scholars who in many cases react very negatively to the support of boycott. I have seen enough of these reactions to know that this does impact the review process.”

While those deliberating over whether to support the boycott often cite the sensitivities of colleagues who feel that devotion to Israel is tied to their Jewish identity, experiences of Muslim or Arab scholars are often ignored. But many feel the dual insecurity of being untenured and from such marginalized groups, as expressed by this scholar: “Please make me anonymous. I am…on the tenure-track and of Arab background. Feeling incredibly vulnerable! Hoping for change.”

Several supporters expressed feelings of regret, dismay, and shame for not being able to stand openly on principle because of the repressive climate. One wrote poignantly, “I’ve been mulling over this for days and I feel very small and selfish about it, but I’d like to sign anonymously… I’m not yet tenured. I’m hugely in debt, the job search was devastating, and my income supports my family.”

These fears are justified; they are anxieties reflecting the current climate of repression in U.S. universities around the Israel-Palestine issue. The hostility that signatories have encountered shows clearly that, for many, even the idea of a boycott is beyond debate. In a move reminiscent of the McCarthy era, the AMCHA Initiative has posted a list of anthropologist signatories on their website as part of what they characterize as “combating anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America.” In an effort to delegitimize and demonize forms of non-violent political action and debate, this initiative equates any and all criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Such backlash is a common pattern in the U.S. when it comes to criticism of the state of Israel. Most readers will by now be familiar with the controversy around the de-hiring of Palestinian American professor Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Salaita accepted a tenured offer at UIUC only to be informed shortly before he was to take up his post that the offer had been revoked. According to UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise, she expected the Board of Regents to turn down Salaita’s hire because of his “uncivil” twitter posts against the Israeli assault on Gaza last summer. Subsequently, it was revealed that the intervention of powerful Zionist donors was directly linked to UIUC’s decision to revoke their offer. UIUC’s actions have resulted in the mobilization of faculty and students across the country demanding Salaita’s rehiring and for more robust protections for faculty self-governance.

The Salaita case has clearly had a chilling effect for boycott supporters. One anonymous supporter of the boycott wrote: “I believe in the cause behind this boycott and petition, but as an untenured faculty member, following on the heels of University of Illinois withdrawing Salaita’s job offer because of his tweets about Israel, I’m ashamed to say that I do not feel safe signing the boycott publicly with my name.”

Salaita is by no means a lone victim of the politics of fear around debating Israel/Palestine on university campuses. There are a few high-profile incidents of similar forms of discrimination against Palestinian scholars and academics who work on Palestine. The best known are Nadia Abu El-Haj, Joseph Massad, andNorman Finklestein, while renowned and prolific historian of the Middle East,Rashid Khalidi, faces a continuous stream of verbal abuse.

Significantly, discrimination against pro-Palestinian scholars and students works through a liberal investment in “objectivity,” “civility,” and ironically, “free speech.” As in the Salaita case, civility in particular has become a key instrument of surveillance and disciplining. But as many eminent scholars pointed out in calling for the reinstatement of Salaita, civility has never been an academic norm, and its use in undermining critique of Israel is a violation of both constitutional and academic principles. The “civility” pretext is a way of singling out support for Palestine as an exception to the norm of academic freedom.

More often than not, however, the sidelining of Palestinian scholars and scholarship happens quietly, behind closed doors. Often, these less public instances of censorship happen through everyday forms of intimidation. Iymen Chehade, a lecturer in Middle Eastern history at Chicago’s Columbia College and adviser to Columbia’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), was told by his chair that his decision in October 2013 to screen the Academy Award-nominated film “Five Broken Cameras” in a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was evidence of “bias” and required more “balance.” The chair said that he had “to make sure that professors were teaching what they are supposed to be teaching.” Following this meeting, one of the sections of the course was cancelled and only reinstated after an independent investigation by the American Association of University Professors found that Columbia had violated Chehade’s academic freedom.

In addition to scapegoating faculty for their work or political stances on Israel/Palestine, there is systematic targeting of student activism. In 2011, UC Irvine put 11 students who had disrupted a speech by Michael Oren, then Israeli ambassador to the United States, on informal probation and forced them to perform community service. At Florida Atlantic University, students were stripped of leadership positions after walking out of a talk by Colonel Bentzi Gruber who had helped devise the rules of engagement for Operation Cast Lead, the horrific attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. They were ordered to attend the Anti-Defamation League’s “diversity training” course or risk either suspension or expulsion. In Spring 2011, the Columbia University chapter of SJP was placed on suspension and barred from hosting events on campus, and the suspension only lifted after a protest led by attorneys for the group. Most recently, in March 2014, Northeastern University’s chapter of SJP was suspended. University authorities cited the group’s awareness-raising tactics as cause, and called out the university police to investigate students involved in leafleting. The harassment started with targeting Arabs and Muslims.

This pressure against faculty and student activism on Israel/Palestine comes from the very top. Numerous university presidents denounced the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions. There is also an ongoing effort to pass bills at the federal and state levels to punish universities if they or their faculty support the academic boycott of Israel movement. Michael Oren has also called on Congress to blacklist supporters of the boycott movement. It is unclear whether U.S. legislators will heed the warning of a group of distinguished scholars: “it is important to recognize that boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression.”

Ironically, the systematic silencing of critical voices is producing a backlash from the very group in whose name groups like the AMCHA Initiative operate: Jewish students. Open Hillel, launched in 2012, is “a student-run campaign to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels.” It seeks to “change the ‘standards for partnership’” and opposes the guidelines of Hillel International that exclude certain groups “based on their political views on Israel.” It is increasingly apparent that growing numbers of American Jews are openly questioning and criticizing Israel’s occupation, and rejecting efforts to manufacture consensus.

There are many more instances of how orchestrated support for Israel undermines academic freedom and scholarly merit in both American and Israeli societies. These parallel efforts to silence critics threaten the careers of young and untenured scholars as well as the very principles that are fundamental to the academy. Unless this campaign of intimidation is stopped, there are many who will have no choice but to opt for anonymity in voicing their opposition to Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights.

Ajantha Subramanian is professor of anthropology at Harvard U. Her first book,Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India, narrates the use of space as an instrument of power and rights politics on India’s southwestern coast. Her current research considers the relationship between meritocracy and democracy in India.

Lori Allen is lecturer in the deptartment of anthropology and sociology at SOAS. Her first book, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine (Stanford U Press) examines the role of human rights in Palestinian politics and society, from 1979 through the present.