The Dean of BDS?

Ilana Feldman cannot pledge to refuse to collaborate with Israeli universities and also function as a college dean.
June 29, 2020
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A Palestinian protester waves a Palestinian flag during a demonstration in the village of Ras Karkar west of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on September 4, 2018. (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI / AFP) (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images)

There is something about the BDS movement against Israel (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) that causes smart people to stake out unreasonable positions. The most recent example comes in the form of a post from John K. Wilson on the AAUP’s Academe Blog, titled “In Defense of Ilana Feldman and BDS Supporters.”

For those who are unaware, Prof. Ilana Feldman is a well-known BDS supporter who generated controversy when she was appointed interim dean of the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. In the face of protests, the university provost eventually announced that “Dr. Feldman will not be a candidate for the permanent position.”

According to Wilson, “there was only one reason: Feldman supports the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli government.”

Wilson is wrong.

While “support” for the BDS movement should indeed be protected under academic freedom, Feldman had gone further, signing and co-sponsoring this pledge:

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.

Such a commitment, is much more than an expression of an academic view. It is a stated intention to violate the academic freedom of others—which is absolutely inconsistent with holding an administrative position at an American university.

A dean—even an interim dean—cannot perform her job if she has announced in advance that she will not collaborate with other academic institutions on the basis of nationality.

Feldman’s pledge cannot be waved away by characterizing it as merely a “personal” commitment that she would not have imposed on the university. If Feldman were to have been made a dean and then to have refused to “collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions,” she would have necessarily violated her obligations as dean—which include impartially facilitating the work of her students and colleagues. Including those who do not share her aversion to Israel.

What would Feldman have done if an Elliot School professor proposed co-sponsoring a conference with Hebrew University? Or if a graduate student proposed a joint project with a department at Tel Aviv University?

Facilitating such participation would have violated her pledge, which included a “call” for other professors to join the academic boycott, but withholding the dean’s resources would have betrayed her professional obligations. At the very least, Feldman’s pledge would have had a chilling effect on students and faculty even suggesting cooperation with an Israeli institution.

In the legal ethics world, this is called an unresolvable conflict of interest. The dean of a school of international affairs must help build bridges to other universities, not create categorical barriers. That is a requirement of leadership irrespective of a candidate’s personal beliefs or political positions.

A physician who pledged “never to facilitate the termination of a pregnancy,” for example, could continue to practice at a non-sectarian hospital, consistent with their personal beliefs. But she could not serve as the head of the gynecology department, because the pledge would be inconsistent with the demands of the position. Likewise, a religious person who pledged never to “collaborate” with non-believers could certainly not hold an administrative position at a secular university. (And possibly not even at a religiously-affiliated university, depending on the interpretation of anti-discrimination law.)

Thus, the dean of a school of international affairs cannot take a blanket pledge to exclude cooperation with academic institutions on the basis of nationality—as that could deprive students and faculty of meaningful educational opportunities.

The obvious truth is that professors have options that administrators do not. If Prof. Feldman chooses on principle to refrain from publishing in Israeli journals, or to abstain from attending certain conferences, that is her own business. But a dean’s refusal to collaborate with Israeli universities potentially affects everyone in the Elliot School, and is therefore disqualifying.

There have evidently been overheated attacks on Feldman, claiming that her support for BDS amounts to anti-Semitism and that it indicates a disregard for Jewish students.

That is plainly wrong.

Feldman has a right to her personal and political beliefs, including support for BDS. A pledge, however, is not merely an expression of belief. Feldman herself has reportedly said that the BDS “boycott is a political act and not just a statement of position.”

Professor Feldman is a highly accomplished anthropologist, specializing in the Middle East, who surely knew what she was doing when she signed the BDS pledge. It would be patronizing to suggest that she does not intend to honor it now. Feldman herself has not publicly disavowed her anti-collaboration pledge. I emailed her asking if she still stands by it; she did not respond.

I believe in defending the academic freedom of BDS supporters. But that does not include a right to impose their beliefs on others. The AAUP, of which I am a life member, admirably opposes all academic boycotts, but that will become meaningless if the boycotters are placed in positions of administrative authority and given the power to enforce their objectives.

Professor Feldman has not been banned or punished for her views. Rather, George Washington University has belatedly realized that her pledge was inconsistent with the obligations of a deanship.

Steven Lubet

Steven Lubet is the Edna B. and Ednyfed H. Williams Memorial professor of law at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.