A Question of Academic Freedom

Nick Riemer

This article first appeared in Jacobin Magazine and is reproduced by permission of the author

BDS opponents are wrong — boycotts are well within the bounds of academic conduct.

Many academics have objected to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel on the grounds that it violates academic freedom — an accusation that has been remarkably successful in gaining traction.

Zionists denounce those who would disrespect the “free flow of ideas within the international scholarly community,” as Russell A. Berman puts it, but refuse to recognize that, in Palestine, ideas (not to mention people) face severe restrictions. The apparatuses of settler-colonial violence — which BDS’s opponents typically show little interest in dismantling — brutally contain thought in Palestine. This self-evident truth hasn’t yet exposed the academic-freedom argument for the hypocrisy it is.
The claim gets much of its force from the false notion that boycotts represent an exception to the academy’s normal functioning. Opponents don’t just want liberals to see BDS as an attack on a fundamental principle of scholarly exchange — they also want to shock them with the scandalous breach of academic politesse that BDS supposedly represents.But this vision of academic life is a chimera: a closer examination reveals that restricting the flow of ideas constitutes much of the daily conduct of research and teaching, and indeed, of the working life of universities in general. Academic exchange is not intrinsically bound up with the free exchange of ideas, but rather, with their regulation. That’s perhaps why many of the boycott’s fiercest opponents themselves regularly try — illegitimately — to restrict ideas they disagree with.
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