Representative Alan Grayson, a Democrat from Florida’s 9th District has introduced H.R. 4776, “to prohibit an institution of higher education that participates in a boycott of the Israeli government, economy, or academia from receiving funds from the U.S. federal government.” The text of the bill is not yet available, but it is not
too early to say that Grayson’s is a well-intentioned but bad idea.
Grayson’s is the latest in a series of state and federal bills to limit anti-Israel activity on our college campuses. The first of these bills were introduced in the wake of last December’s decision by the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities. The ASA followed the smaller Association for Asian American Studies in lending its scholarly credentials to a boycott movement whose explicit purpose is to turn Israel into a pariah state. Grayson’s bill also comes in the context of moves this year, at the level of student government, to persuade colleges and universities to divest from companies alleged to support Israel’s activities in the West Bank.
What Grayson’s bill, like a related but somewhat narrower bill introduced in February by Peter Roksam (R-IL) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL), says is this: if you boycott Israel, it won’t be on the people’s dime.”
That sounds great, but it’s a bad response from which opponents of the boycott should distance themselves.
True, the boycott campaign in academia has asked for it. Academic freedom depends on a bargain. Societies that honor it think, to quote the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Declaration
on academic freedom, that the “common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”
However, to quote an earlier AAUP statement, higher education must uphold its end of the bargain by preventing “the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter . . . for uncritical and intemperate partisanship.” Societies have no good reason to honor academic freedom if scholars devote themselves to propaganda. Scholars in the boycott movement indulge in
uncritical and intemperate partisanship when they try to turn our universities and academic associations into tools in their campaign to delegitimize Israel.
But the proposed legislation is a strategic blunder. Without legislative intervention, the academy has done a fine job of
policing itself. Over 250 college and university presidents have rejected the ASA boycott, and not one board of trustees has answered the call of the few student governments that have passed divestment resolutions.
The boycotters are deeply unpopular, rendered so, by a coalition of academics, left, right, and center, who usually don’t get along. Even very staunch, progressive critics of Israel understand that the boycott movement demonizes Israel and undermines efforts to achieve a just peace.
About the only thing that can peel these people off the mat is turning them into academic freedom martyrs. The proposed legislation upends not only boycotts but also the sound principle that
governments should, for the sake of the free search for truth and its free exposition, resist the urge to use its power over universities to defeat bad ideas, not least because that power can also be used to defeat merely unpopular ideas.
We who have been writing against the boycott movement within academia will do best, as Yair Rosenberg has said very well, to keep our distance from efforts to legislate a win, and maintain our focus on
the character of the movement. Although it would be foolish to consider this state of affairs permanent, we are winning right now. Let’s not give our gains away.