In Defense of Ilana Feldman and BDS Supporters

| John K. Wilson in Academe Blog |

When Ilana Feldman was appointed interim dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University (GWU) last month, it was an obvious choice. Feldman is a highly respected scholar who was already serving as vice-dean with no complaints about her work. But quickly this became what is probably the most widely attacked appointment of an interim dean in the history of higher education, and there was only one reason : Feldman supports the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli government.

A petition from GW for Israel signed by nearly 3,000 people called upon GWU to remove Feldman. Pro-Israel student groups and national organizations mobilized to denounce Feldman’s appointment, and conservative thinkers well known for decrying the loss of free thought on campus were doing intellectual somersaults trying to explain why Feldman should go. Ultimately, GWU felt forced to issue a denunciation of its interim dean’s political opinions.

The GW for Israel petition concluded with a demand for GWU to “select a better-suited candidate for the permanent dean of ESIA.” That was the true goal of this campaign, to prevent Feldman from being considered for the position of dean. And it succeeded.

M. Brian Blake, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, announced in an email to the campus community in May that “Dr. Feldman will not be a candidate for the permanent position.” This prompted opponents of Feldman to celebrate their success in blacklisting her.

The right-wing Middle East Forum declared that the decision was “thanks to pressure from outraged donors and, perhaps, fear of repercussions from possible violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act….”

This was not an idle threat. The Trump Administration in December 2019 announced via an executive order that harsh criticism of Israel was officially a form of anti-Semitism that colleges must censor in order to avoid violating Title VI.

This shows the great danger in defining political views as discriminatory harassment.

This was the argument of conservative students who demanded Feldman’s ouster. The President of GW’s Young Americans for Liberty, Zev Siegfeld, said that hiring a BDS supporter as the dean shows “how little GW cares about Jewish students.” According to Siegfeld, “To elevate someone who champions a movement vilifying the Jewish homeland and boycotting academic institutions shows GW’s apathy toward its Jewish population.”

But if you must show you “care” about Jewish students by banning critics of the Israeli government, does that mean colleges must show they “care” about Black students by banning critics of Barack Obama’s administration ? Or by banning anyone who supports the white supremacist Donald Trump ? It’s a strange world when the firing of a Jewish person is demanded as a sign of support for Jewish students.

Feldman’s appointment even had conservatives who normally decry the campus “thought police” practicing intellectual gymnastics to justify attacking a dean for her political views.

David Bernstein, Executive Director of George Mason University’s right-wing Liberty and Law Center called for Feldman’s removal in Reason, making a really shocking attack on academic freedom. Bernstein asked, “is being a supporter of academic boycotts of Israel consistent with holding an administrative position such as being a dean ?”

Does that mean Bernstein should be fired from his administrative position ? By his logic, yes, since his support for repression of academic freedom in this case is incompatible with being a top administrator of a program devoted to intellectual freedom.

Fortunately, his logic is completely wrong. According to Bernstein, “almost all universities oppose academic boycotts of Israel. I am pretty sure that GW is among the institutions that have publicly taken that official position. If so, it should not be hiring faculty for administrative positions who have publicly dedicated themselves to the opposite position.”

According to William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection, “There is no way Feldman could be expected to abide by GWU’s anti-BDS policies. It would be asking Feldman to deny who she is, to be a fake in the position. For Feldman to accept such restrictions would be for her to admit her life work was a fraud, that she didn’t really mean all the things she said about the necessity of boycotting.”

Oh, what nonsense. By that logic, anyone who believes in anything controversial cannot be allowed to be an administrator. It’s plainly false and morally indefensible.

Jacobson wrote, “There’s a lesson GWU and other universities need to take away from this episode. You can have academic freedom, or you can have a pro-BDS Dean, but you can’t have both.” This Orwellian attack on academic freedom in the name of academic freedom is a sign of how far the attack on BDS has gone.

Ironically, Jacobson himself faced calls for Cornell University to punish him for his views. When Cornell defended his academic freedom but its dean criticized Jacobson’s views, Bernstein was quick to denounce this opinion because “A non-religiously-affiliated law school is not supposed to have a ‘point of view’ on any matter of public concern not directly related to the operation of the law school.”

In Bernstein’s view, colleges should have no political point of view, but BDS supporters should be banned because they violate the college’s political point of view.

When I commented on Bernstein’s article, he responded with this : “Which part of the pledge that she not only signed, but co-sponsored, did you miss : ‘We pledge not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.’”

That’s a very disturbing argument, since Bernstein is assuming that anyone who makes a personal pledge or commitment will therefore impose that pledge on the institution they work for. If a religious person made a pledge to promote their religious values, should they be banned from all administrative positions on the assumption that a dean would use their role to impose their religion on everyone ?

What’s also disturbing is the assumption that only faculty should have academic freedom, and administrative positions should be accompanied by an ideological straitjacket that prevents anyone with controversial views from being hired. Sometimes this is justified on the “power” that administrators have to impose their views. But administrators rarely have unilateral power to impose their ideas, and faculty have a lot of power, too–power over students in the classroom, power to influence faculty hiring and promotion, and in many other ways. Once you assume that having power makes you too dangerous to hold controversial ideas, all academic freedom is endangered.

Do conservatives really want this to be the standard for hiring administrators, where any personal deviation from campus orthodoxy is justification for being banned from any administrative position ? After all, colleges often have policies supporting diversity, affirmative action, DACA students, studies programs, and many other positions contrary to the beliefs of many conservatives. Do conservatives support having conservatives banned from administrative positions on the same grounds they call for BDS supporters to be banished ?

Jonathan Marks in Commentary joined in the efforts to banish Feldman, but he admitted to the worrisome logical conclusion of his position : “I would not like to see it become a general principle that individuals whose published views contradict a college’s mission must formally disavow those views before assuming an administrative position. Nor would I like to see supporters of BDS formally excluded from academic leadership positions.” Of course, that’s exactly what has happened at GWU, and what the critics of Feldman demanded. According to Marks, “Especially in light of recent worries about anti-Semitism at George Washington University, that’s just not good enough. To the Jewish students who have stepped forward to identify the problem, it is a slap in the face.”

If hiring someone who criticizes Israel is a “slap in the face” to Jewish students, then how exactly would merely denouncing BDS yet again unslap that face ?

Marks knows that requiring administrators to agree with all the policies of their institutions is a terrible idea that would be antithetical to both academic freedom and the future of conservative administrators. But because he hates BDS, he thinks that a little hypocrisy can’t hurt in just this one instance.

I’m reminded of Sidney Hook’s defense of McCarthyism, Heresy Yes, Conspiracy No, which called for firing all Communists on the grounds of academic freedom–that Communists could not think for themselves and had to obey the Communist Party, and therefore had sacrificed their own academic freedom that was essential to being a scholar. The critics of BDS imagine the same of all BDS supporters, that by endorsing an idea they are obligated to impose some kind of BDS dogma on their campus.

The attacks on BDS are the new McCarthyism on campus. University of Southern California student Gabi Golenberg even wrote a column for the Jewish News Syndicate about Feldman titled, “The need to boot BDS off college campuses.”

I completely disagree with the BDS movement, but I defend the right of people to think for themselves. The proper response when you disagree with someone is to argue with them, not to ban them. I agree with the AAUP in opposing all academic boycotts but defending the rights of BDS supporters.

What happened to Feldman is part of a worrisome trend that spans all of academia, from the blacklist against top administrators who support BDS to the powerful efforts to use government action to ban dissenting ideas.