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Israel and Academic Freedom: An Exchange

Kenneth Waltzer and Mark G. Yudof, reply by Katherine Franke
Kenneth Waltzer and Mark G. Yudolf: The primary opponents of democratic engagement and dialogue on these difficult issues belong to the BDS movement. Katherine Franke: BDS figures only marginally in my essay, and a defense of BDS is not in any way what the essay was about.

Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

US student Lara Alqasem at a court hearing in Tel Aviv after her detention on arrival in Israel by the authorities on the grounds that she supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, October 17, 2018

In response to:

The Pro-Israel Push to Purge US Campus Critics,” NYR Daily, December 15, 2018

To the Editor:

In her essay, Katherine Franke of Columbia University shows a remarkably selective myopia. She seeks to persuade readers we have reached a significant turning point on public recognition of Israel’s suppression of Palestinian human rights—citing rising divestment efforts on American campuses, the election of a few pro-Palestinian voices to Congress, some actions by celebrities, even the behavior of global companies.

Consider events in the last few weeks. All ten chancellors of the University of California rejected the boycott of Israel (BDS) as antithetical to academic freedom. Ohio State students voted down a BDS resolution. NYU, ground zero for anti-Israel sentiment, passed another BDS resolution, but President Hamilton and his administration steadfastly rejected it. No president or board of regents anywhere in America has embraced the boycott of Israel. 

Anything opposed to her selective vision Franke omits—the uniformly negative response by university leaders to BDS, the election of many two-state supporters to Congress, the appearance of celebrities capable of distinguishing between righteous criticism of Israel’s behavior and wrong-headed efforts to free Palestine “from the river to the sea.” On the behavior of global companies, check out the gold rush of high-tech companies to set up in Israel, the innovation nation.

The fact is that the pace of the anti-Israel BDS movement has notably slowed in the past two years, and BDS is active today on a limited number of campuses. 

The most ludicrous claim by Franke is that anti-Israel advocates on campuses are being disrupted and “purged.” There is virtually no example of an anti-Israel speaker being silenced by protesters. Criticized, yes, but not silenced. From UCLA to Texas to Minnesota to NYU and many other universities, censorship has occurred by those opposed to Israel, including the repeated disruption of speakers and meetings, as well as accompanying efforts to isolate Jewish students and groups. Silencing and shunning are entries in the BDS playbook. Not so for those opposed to the boycott.

For example, UCLA responded to controversy about hosting the national SJP meeting in the last month by affirming its commitment to robust speech on campus. Professor Marc Lamont Hill made an incendiary anti-Israel speech at the United Nations and many thought he should be dismissed as a Temple University professor. How did Temple respond? The president and the board of regents condemned his remarks while affirming that the First Amendment shielded him from university action.  

Beyond wrong and entering the realm of sheer fantasy is Franke’s support for Professor Cheney-Lippold at the University of Michigan, who would not write a letter of recommendation for a Jewish student who sought to study in Israel. Professor Franke reasons that professors should not write for students who want to study where other students are barred. But as we have seen in the case of Lara Alqasem, Palestinian and Arab students are not barred from studying in Israel, and universities with substantial study abroad programs in Israel have never had Palestinian or Muslim students barred. Indeed, during the Arab Spring, students studying Arabic in Cairo were evacuated to continue studying at Hebrew University in Israel.

Franke sees a concerted campaign “to shut down any discussion of Israel or Palestine that casts a critical light on the state of Israel.” She sees a purposeful effort “to undermine the university’s civic role as a crucial forum of democratic engagement.” But the primary opponents of democratic engagement and dialogue on these difficult issues belong to the BDS movement, whose members have used their prerogatives and power to shut down discussion, demonize Israel and American Jewish supporters of Israel, and politicize university classrooms.

Kenneth Waltzer
Professor Emeritus of History, Michigan State University

Mark G. Yudof
President Emeritus of the University of California

Kenneth Waltzer is the executive director, and Mark G. Yudof is the chair of the advisory board, of the Academic Engagement Network, a national faculty organization “devoted to countering BDS, helping to defend free speech and academic freedom, and sponsoring robust conversation about Israel.”


Katherine Franke replies:

Kenneth Waltzer and Mark Yudof’s letter unfortunately misses the point of my essay, which was to illustrate how powerful government and educational institutions have been mobilized to take sides in a robust public debate over the human rights record of the US’s closest ally, Israel. Curiously, they reduce my observation that “we’ve reached a tipping point in US public recognition of Israel’s suppression of the rights of Palestinians as a legitimate human rights concern” to a defense of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). In fact, BDS figures only marginally in my essay, and a defense of BDS is not in any way what the essay was about. But since they’ve raised the issue, it is worth noting that even pro-Zionist advocacy organizations affiliated with the Israeli government have expressed great concern at the increasing effectiveness of BDS as a tactic used to draw attention to Israel’s human rights record, and federal courts have struck down laws that ban states from doing business with BDS supporters who are placed on state-created blacklists, finding them to be unconstitutional violations of free speech.


Waltzer and Yudof assert that the “most ludicrous claim by Franke is that anti-Israel advocates on campuses are being disrupted and ‘purged.’ There is virtually no example of a… speaker being silenced by [pro-Israeli] protesters. Criticized, yes, but not silenced.” I imagine that Swarthmore Professor of Peace Studies Sa’ed Atshan would disagree. A speech he was invited to give at a Quaker school in Philadelphia was cancelled after some parents objected to his views on Israel. Not only that, the teachers who invited him were fired. So would Angela Davis, a distinguished professor at UC Santa Cruz, disagree—after she was disinvited last week from receiving a human rights award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute when the institute was pressured to rescind its invitation by critics of Davis’s work connecting civil rights struggles in the US to Palestinians’ right to self-determination.  

To name only a few others, Tony Kushner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev. Graylan Hagler, and Nora Carmi have also had honorary degrees or invitations to speak on campuses withdrawn thanks to pressure from right-wing, pro-Israel protesters. Professor N. Bruce Duthu, a Native American studies scholar at Dartmouth College, was forced to step down as dean of the faculty for arts and sciences in response to criticism of his public support for Palestinian rights; Brooklyn College rescinded the appointment of doctoral candidate Kristofer Petersen-Overton after being pressured by a right-wing Zionist member of New York legislature to do so; UC Santa Barbara officials charged Professor William Robinson with faculty misconduct after two students in his global affairs class complained about materials he assigned that were critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Operation Cast Lead; and Barnard College took down a banner made by Students for Justice in Palestine that the administration had previously approved after the college received complaints from Jewish students that it made them feel “uncomfortable.”

Even at my own institution, a former dean’s chief of staff tried to cancel a lunch talk I planned to give on “Feminist Lawyering in Palestine,” claiming: “How can we have Palestine in the title? I didn’t think there is a legal entity called ‘Palestine’?” The current dean’s chief of staff distanced himself from my own deportation from Israel last spring because “I think it would be inappropriate for the Law School, which also houses pro-Israel scholars and programs, to be seen as taking a position on this issue.” Hundreds of other incidents are documented in two reports evidencing what has come to be termed “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech.”

Lastly, Waltzer and Yudof take issue with my claim that Israel treats US students of Palestinian or Arab origin differently than other US students. Yet we need look no further than the State Department to corroborate my concern about protecting the rights of my Palestinian and Palestinian-American students. The department issued an advisory to US citizens considering travel to Israel, warning them that citizens of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin were likely to be profiled by Israeli immigration authorities, and may be denied entry to Israel. And an official statement from State Department noted that “The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints.

In essence, Israel is being allowed to determine, on its own, that Arab Americans are second-class US citizens, in violation of the “1951 US–Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation,” in which Israel pledged to permit US citizens to “travel therein freely, and to reside at places of their choice… to enjoy liberty of conscience” and to guarantee them “the most constant protection and security.” Arab and Palestinian-American students seeking to study abroad are fully aware of the treatment they’re likely to receive if they seek to enter Israel. (Indeed, official Israeli policy bars US citizens with Palestinian nationality from entering the country through the Tel Aviv airport, requiring them instead to enter through the back door, via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan.)

Finally, I don’t deny that there have been incidents in which critics of Israel have shouted down Zionist speakers, and I condemn any effort to censor robust discussion of matters of public concern in academic settings. Unfortunately, both the tone and partiality of Professor Waltzer and President Yudof’s letter reveals the very hostility to reasoned debate and learning that my essay sought to illuminate.


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