Boycotts are usually controversial, and the one directed at Israel’s academic institutions is no exception. But they are a legitimate form of political speech and protest, and governments, whether federal or state, shouldn’t be using their power to punish those who would undertake them.
This is what the New York State Legislature was close to doing last week, with a bill in the Assembly that would have cut state funding to schools which give money to academic organizations supporting the boycott, such as the American Studies Association. The Senate had already passed the same bill overwhelmingly, and it had the support of powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. But it was abruptly pulled from the agenda after receiving strong criticism from a major Silver ally, the New York State United Teachers Union, and other academic and civil liberties groups.
The critics were right. And Israel’s friends do it no good when they stifle free speech and academic freedom in its name. Not only does that give the boycott more fuel, it keeps Israel from getting the message that its policies with the Palestinians are hurting it as well as them, and that the status quo can’t continue forever.
Ironically, the call for better treatment of the Palestinians and a two-state solution is heard often in the Israeli academy. In that respect, the boycott seems unfair and disingenuous. The boycotters cry academic freedom even though they would deny it to their Israeli counterparts.
Which still doesn’t mean government should be basing university funding on what kind of speech it likes or doesn’t. That’s a dangerous road.