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US counterproductive over cultural boycott of Israel

US Congress moves against the academic boycott of Israel. What now for freedom of expression?

Saskia Goldman
10 March 2014
A poster in Belgium against academic cooperation with Israel

A poster in Belgium against academic cooperation with Israel. Demotix/Kevin Van den Panhuyzen. All rights reserved.A Democrat and a Republican congressman have united in putting forward a bill that would cut the funding of any US educational institution that pursues an academic boycott of Israel. The Protect Academic Freedom Act is not completely unique, similar acts exist in New York and Maryland, but it would be a strong statement if ever passed at a Federal level. John Kerry, as part of the ongoing peace talks which he is mediating, has called on Israel to heed the soft power initiatives that boycotting groups are starting to take around the world. Culture has never got to be such headline news in this way; Kerry’s statement shows that culture is considered to be a dangerous area for sanctions and that the US acknowledges that soft power losses can have hard consequences.

Recently, the American Studies Association (ASA) joined the move to boycott Israel’s academic exports. They are taking their cue from the BDS movement – Boycott Divestment and Sanctions – who have put pressure on artists and academics alike to culturally cut Israel off. One of their targets for a united political statement has been the Rolling Stones, who are due to tour Israel this summer. Other members of the BDS movement are numerous and significant; the Federation of French-Speaking Belgian Students are 10,000 strong and have agreed not to acknowledge Israel. Closer to home, the Teachers Union of Ireland have decided to join the BDS campaign as well. The exchange of academic writing and research is not the only thing at stake. No Israeli academic, if the act were passed, could be denied freedom of speech on an American university campus without a serious threat to that institution’s budget.

In the US, the bill has been backed by various religious figureheads including Rabbis, of course, but also Christian ministers. But as reported by Al Jazeera, there are doubts that this is the best course to take. Al Jazeera quotes the director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, who cautions against such an explicit and threatening move on behalf of federal government. He is surely not alone in this. To pass a bill denying the freedom to deny the freedom of speech seems bizarre. Free speech is a fundamental right of our society, and that of the US, and we prize it highly. I like the use of culture as a weapon, if this is their motivation, no more that the United States government. But to threaten financial sanctions against universities representing hundreds of informed voices seems like an affront to freedom of expression itself.

In order to protect the free exchange of knowledge and to preserve culture from the grimy paws of politics, this bill is threatening the freedom of expression of America’s most educated. This is a catch 22, and if the proposing pair can’t see the irony, I hope Mr. Obama can. I’d hate to have my government tell me two wrongs made a right.

The freedoms of expression enjoyed in the west should be preserved and promoted as exemplary and unique to our culture. The very essence of soft power is to co-opt, not to coerce; to encourage and educate. To my mind, this bill is preserving cultural exchange in the wrong way, and threatens to look a lot like hypocrisy.

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