The Academic Engagement Network is a national organization dedicated to academic freedom and, specifically, opposed to the BDS movement. A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at their national conference in Chicago on the subject of challenges the AEN would face in the coming year.
My remarks were straightforward: the main challenge we would face would be to tackle right-wing threats to academic freedom and academic exchange with the same vigor that we address left-wing variants. A principled campaign in favor of academic freedom and academic exchange cannot be a fair-weather friend of free speech. And my keynote example of an issue that we had to speak out on was the Israeli law barring entry to persons who have endorsed -- in whole or in part -- the BDS campaign. Such a law purports to fight BDS, but by foreclosing academics and others from entering Israel on basis of their political ideology it in reality is BDS.
Unfortunately, from laws like this to metastasizing partnership guidelines at Hillel to right-wing calls for divestment from Hebrew University to canceling the concerts of liberal Israeli singers, these forms of "self-BDS" are becoming more common. And they're every bit as offensive to liberal norms as their left-wing counterparts.
That's why I'm pleased to report two bits of news with respect to the AEN:
First, the AEN released a statement commending the City University of New York for not bowing to right-wing pressure to cancel the scheduled commencement speech by Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour. While the AEN made it quite clear that they sharply opposed Sarsour's stance on BDS specifically, they correctly noted that such disagreement could not form the basis for cancelling her speech -- a principled stand that defended academic freedom in the hard case, not just the easy one.
Second, while it has not to my knowledge been posted online, the AEN also just sent a letter to Israeli colleagues decrying the Israeli law prohibiting entry to BDS supporters as a threat to academic freedom and academic exchange, as well as counterproductive to the anti-BDS cause. Indeed, it is quite explicit in drawing the same link I did whereby this law is for all intents and purposes a form of BDS: "[H]ow can we oppose BDS’ divisive and corrosive tactics if Israel is, in effect, openly adopting a similar strategy?"
Both of these positions are correct, and I'm pleased to see the AEN take them. But more than pleased, I'm also proud. Free speech and academic freedom have a great many fair-weather friends -- it's the sort of thing that is often good for me, but not for thee. I associated with the AEN because I believed it had the capacity to resist that temptation and demand that liberal values be protected via liberal means. I'm happy to see my confidence was justified. Kudos.