In response to a statement issued by President Barry Mills on December 24 in which he expressed his rejection of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has written a petition lambasting Mills’ position and voicing support for the boycott. The petition has 52 signatures at the time of publication, including those of two Bowdoin professors.
“Many people say ‘we can’t mix academia with politics. We can’t blur these lines. We can’t use the classroom to discuss political issues,’ but the problem is these classrooms in Israel are built on political issues. They’re the consequence of political ideas,” said Zohran Mamdani ’14, a founder of SJP. “We can’t separate the two. We can’t privilege Israeli academic freedom over Palestinian human rights.”
Members of the American Studies Association (ASA)—an academic group with more than 4,000 individual members—announced the boycott on December 16 to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
The movement is a significant victory for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a global campaign that seeks to increase economic and political pressure on Israel in defense of Palestine.
Since the announcement, however, dozens of American colleges and universities have issued statements similar to Mills’, denouncing the boycott for impeding free academic discourse. Several institutions, including Penn State University at Harrisburg, Brandeis University, Bard College and Kenyon College, have withdrawn their memberships from the ASA. Bowdoin is not a member.
“The free exchange of knowledge, ideas and research, and open discourse among scholars are all essential elements of education and progress,” Mills wrote in his statement, published on the Bowdoin Daily Sun. “I disagree with and reject the [ASA]’s recently announced boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Rather than stifling discussion and the free exchange of ideas, Bowdoin seeks to serve the common good through direct and open engagement with and collaboration between researchers, scientists, teachers. and artists across the globe.”
SJP’s response, published online as an op-ed in the Orient on January 10, criticizes the president’s statement for making no mention of Palestine and asserts that “it ignores the plurality of viewpoints at Bowdoin.”
“Mills’ statement fundamentally misrepresents the essence of the boycott. He falsely categorizes the boycott as ‘stifling discussion and the free exchange of ideas,’ ignoring how the boycott has instead served as the catalyst for greater discussion of Israel’s human rights abuses,” the op-ed states. “His categorization also overlooks that it is Israel that has ‘stifled discussion,’ having passed a law in 2011 that bans Israelis from even proposing a boycott of anything Israeli, be it a consumer, academic or cultural boycott.”
Mamdani also questions Mills’ reference to the common good in refusing to support a movement that is “trying to obtain some piece of the common good for a people who have been robbed of it for decades.”
Students who signed the petition emphasized that the boycott is more symbolically punitive, since it does not target individuals in Israeli academia but rather promotes severing ties with institutions “complicit in the Israeli occupation.”
“I do agree with Mills in that there should be an open discussion between academic institutions, but I think of this boycott as more of a symbolic gesture,” explained Jesse Ortiz ’16, who has signed the petition and is not a member of SJP. “They’re more boycotting the stance that [Israeli institutions] take against Palestine.”
Not all Palestinians are in support of the ASA’s boycott. In a recent article, the New York Times reported that some Palestinian institutions have maintained ties with colleagues in Israel, and that more than 50 Palestinian professors at the College of Pharmacy at Al-Quds involved in joint research projects with Israeli universities would lose funding without the support of international organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“You will never have something that speaks for every single person,” Mamdani acknowledged. “The problems and views of the Palestinian professors who feel that their funding will be jeopardized are legitimate questions to deal with, but at the same time, we’re looking at how much of the Palestinian community and society has been rallied by this growing movement.”
The petition notes that “some Bowdoin professors did sign the ASA resolution.” So far, Professor of English Peter Coviello and Associate Professor of History Patrick Rael have publicly endorsed SJP’s campaign on campus.
“It is, among other things, a public gesture of institutional solidarity with a colonized people, whose freedoms—academic and otherwise—have been spectacularly and unjustly curtailed,” wrote Coviello in an email to the Orient. “Boycotts like this tend to be one part, one small part, of larger social movements. I’m old enough to remember that apartheid policies in South Africa were not made the object of international opprobrium without very significant pushback and contention.”
Rael could not be reached in time for comment before publication.
Despite 52 signatures, it is unclear how visible SJP’s campaign has been so far within the Bowdoin community. Several students declined to comment for this story, citing their unfamiliarity with ASA’s boycott, Mills’ statement, and SJP’s petition.
“I haven’t heard people really talking about it,” noted Julie O’Donnell ’17, who has signed the petition and is not a member of SJP. “Bowdoin’s kind of particular…I wouldn’t say that people don’t care, but I think people tend to be more mild-mannered, on political issues especially. It doesn’t strike me as an activist school.”
However, Mamdani is pleased with the number of signatories so far, noting that all outreach up to this point has been conducted via the Internet. O’Donnell noted that she was first directed to the petition on Facebook.
With students back on campus, SJP intends to reach out more actively—potentially via tabling, contacting professors, and approaching student groups—in the coming weeks in order to increase awareness and debate around the issue.
“I’m really excited because more than half of the people that have signed on to this petition are not SJP members. There are people whose names I have never even seen nor heard before but are Bowdoin students,” said Mamdani. “They’re signing on because they see that this is something worth supporting.”
-Joe Seibert contributed to this report.