American studies will not take up Israel boycott

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the stance of the UNC American studies department on the American Studies Association’s recommended boycott of Israel. The department affirmed the right of faculty and students to their own political and ethical decisions, but declined to take a stance on the boycott. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

UNC’s Department of American Studies voted last week to affirm the right of students and faculty to academic freedom, following the American Studies Association’s recommendation that scholars boycott Israeli higher education institutions.

Chancellor Carol Folt and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jim Dean released a joint statement in December rejecting the national organization’s resolution. The letter said they support academic freedom and international collaboration.

American studies rejects Israel boycott

The boycott of Israeli higher education institutions has been met with controversy on campus:

  • Dec. 16: The American Studies Association votes to boycott Israeli higher education institutions.
  • Dec. 20: The Association of American Universities releases a statement condemning the boycott. The statement says the boycott violates academic freedom.
  • Dec. 31: Chancellor Carol Folt and Executive Vice Chancellor Jim Dean release a statement announcing UNC’s rejection of the boycott.
  • Jan. 8: UNC’s American studies department votes to support Folt and Dean’s position on the boycott.

The American studies department’s meeting to discuss the boycott was limited to faculty of the department, but chairman Bernie Herman said there will be a forum in the future that will involve students as well as the community as a whole.

Herman said 12 out of the full 15 faculty members attended the discussion, while the rest expressed their views by other means.

“Everyone had the opportunity to express their opinion, and at the end we crafted the statement,” he said.

Herman said the department would not take a stand on the substance of boycotting Israeli higher education because that remains up to each person to decide.

“We have an unwavering commitment to academic freedom in matters of freedom of expression, assembly and dissent,” he said.

But Neel Ahuja, an English and comparative literature professor, wrote an editorial questioning UNC’s rejection of the boycott in the online academic journal Ethos.

In the letter, he said Folt and Dean’s notion of academic freedom is largely confined to institutional access rather than complete academic freedom.

“Arab students in Israeli schools face systematic barriers to access deriving from compromised citizenship status,” he said.

Ari Gauss, executive director of North Carolina Hillel, a foundation for Jewish campus life in North Carolina, said he and his organization stand with the chancellor’s decision to reject the boycott.

“We stand behind the principle of academic freedom,” he said. “It seems to me fundamentally confused that the ASA is singling out Israel for its lack of academic freedom and punishing it by limiting its academic freedom.”

Gauss said he does not believe that Israel is a flawless country, but he does does think that there are many other countries with far more limits than Israel.

“Certainly I understand that people look at Israel and take issue with some of its policies — it’s not perfect, but I don’t know a country that is,” he said.

Junior Layla Quran is a member of the on-campus group Students for Justice in Palestine and emigrated from Palestine at the age of four.

Quran said it is important to note how deeply what she considers human rights violations on the part of the Israeli government affect Palestinian residents.

“If I were to go back to Palestine now as a U.S. citizen, I wouldn’t even be able to go to a university in Jerusalem because of my ethnicity,” she said. “Academic freedom is not a pick-and-choose thing — it should be open to everyone.”

Gauss said he does not believe that the boycott is in line with Jewish tradition by any means.

“The Jewish people value intellectual discourse and disagreements, but we also value discussion and broadening our respective horizons by encountering the other and hearing the other and respecting the other, even though we may in the end disagree.”

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