Photo Credit: Ben Townsend
Virginia Tech campus, February 1, 2008.

Seventy-nine civil rights, religious, and education organizations today urged Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) President Tim Sands to unequivocally reject its graduate students’ demands for an academic boycott of Israel. Specifically, the groups called on Sands to make it abundantly clear that his graduate students are prohibited from using their classrooms to promote an academic boycott of Israel, and that the university commits to ensuring no student will be impeded from studying about or in Israel, or subject to unfair discrimination or harassment, because of a boycott.

“In the statement you issued last week, you noted the free speech rights of those who support the resolution,” wrote the groups in the letter organized by AMCHA Initiative. “What your statement failed to address is that you and the Virginia Tech administration have the same free speech rights, which include the right to reject and condemn the resolution. More importantly, your statement failed to recognize the possibility that Virginia Tech’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) members, many of whom serve as Graduate Teaching Assistants, may implement elements of the academic boycott on campus and in their own classrooms, in ways that would directly and substantively harm undergraduates on your campus, particularly those who are Jewish and pro-Israel. We urge you to take immediate steps to ensure that this does not happen at Virginia Tech.”

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Last month Virginia Tech’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate passed a resolution endorsing BDS. It calls for the boycott of “all Israeli academic institutions complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and the denial of basic Palestinian rights,” as well as to divest from “all institutional investments from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation and apartheid.”

The groups point out in today’s letter that although an academic boycott of Israel targets Israeli universities and scholars, its implementation on US campuses such as Virginia Tech can’t help but violate the academic and civil rights of undergraduate students. For example, the PACBI guidelines call for boycotters to work towards closing their own institution’s academic exchange programs in Israel; refuse to write letters of recommendation for their students who want to study in Israel; and disrupt or shut down educational activities about Israel or featuring Israeli scholars or leaders at their own schools. All of these actions directly subvert the educational opportunities and academic freedom of undergraduate students who want to study about or in Israel.

In addition, note the groups, the PACBI guidelines’ call to fight against “the normalization of Israel in the global academy” will undoubtedly influence what instructors who are committed to implementing the boycott guidelines choose to teach in their classrooms. Courses adhering to this anti-normalization principle would not only pervert Virginia Tech’s academic mission by substituting anti-Israel indoctrination for education but also foment hatred towards Israel and its supporters, a hatred that can easily translate into acts of aggression towards Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus. Indeed, recent studies not only corroborate the fact that instructors who support an academic boycott of Israel are far more likely to include anti-Israel content in their courses, but they also show a strong correlation between anti-Zionist instruction and acts targeting Jewish and pro-Israel students for harm, including assault, intimidation, destruction of property and suppression of speech.

The groups specifically urged Sands to (1) inform all Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTA) that they must strictly adhere to university policy prohibiting the use of their GTA positions for the purpose of political advocacy and activism, including the implementation of an academic boycott of Israel and (2) issue another public statement that unequivocally rejects the GPSS’s demands for the university to implement an academic boycott of Israel, specifically acknowledges the harms of an academic boycott for members of the Virginia Tech community and affirms Virginia Tech’s commitment to ensuring that no student will be impeded from studying about or in Israel, or will be subject to unfair discrimination or harassment, because of the implementation of such a boycott.

When members of the University of California (UC) graduate student instructors union voted to endorse the BDS movement, AMCHA organized a campaign raising similar concerns to UC. And the UC Office of the President sent a letter notifying every UC Chancellor of the need to inform graduate student instructors that they are obligated to adhere to several university policies which prohibit them from using their instructional positions to promote political propaganda or advocacy, including the promotion of a boycott of Israel. And in 2018, after several instructors on US campuses had stated that, consistent with PACBI guidelines, they would refuse to write letters of recommendation for students wanting to study in Israel, AMCHA and many of these groups launched into action again, and, in response, all ten UC Chancellors signed a statement confirming their “longstanding opposition” to an academic boycott of Israel, which provided: “We believe a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty, as well as the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on our campuses, including debate and discourse regarding conflicts in the Middle East.”

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